A new survey of 631 landowners who granted conservation easements to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) since 2000 reveals that landowners are primarily managing those lands for agricultural production and/or forestry, and that they are reinvesting many of the tax credits they receive from the state back into their operations.
Virginia established Land Preservation Tax Credits in 2000 to encourage private landowners to limit development of rural open spaces and keep the land available for farming, forestry, recreation, and other traditional rural uses.
About 83% of all the land that VOF has protected since it was established in 1966 has been protected since 2000.
The telephone survey, conducted by Responsive Management of Harrisonburg, Va., asked a number of questions pertaining to the use of the land under easement, as well as the importance of the tax credit in their decision to donate a conservation easement that limits development. The survey participants were randomly selected from a list of all landowners who donated easements to VOF between 2000 and 2014. The sampling error is at most plus or minus 3.25 percentage points.
Key findings include:
- The overwhelming majority of landowners (90%) are managing the protected lands for agricultural production or for forestry.
- Those 90% managing the land for agricultural production or forestry were specifically asked if they conduct any of six potential economic activities on the land. The top tier includes raising livestock (51% of landowners report that land use) and growing commercial agricultural crops (41%). Lower on the list, but still with a substantial percentage, is commercial timbering (29%).
- 73% said the protected land is important to their livelihood, with 31% saying it’s “essential.”
- 87% said the tax credits were important in their decision to donate an easement, with 34% saying the credits were “essential.”
- 16% lease the land to hunters/anglers for hunting or fishing access.
The survey also revealed that landowners are reinvesting tax credits back into their businesses. For instance, of those who applied for tax credits:
- 61% used the credits to sustain, expand, or start a new agricultural or forestry operation.
- 19% used the tax credits to sustain, expand, or start a new business unrelated to agriculture or forestry.
- 51% used the tax credits to implement land management practices that specifically improved farm or forest productivity.
- 36% used the tax credits to pay down or reduce business-related debt.
The tax credits also appear to be fueling additional conservation benefits beyond the easement. About 3 out of 4 landowners (70%) said they used the tax credits to implement land management practices that benefit water, soil, wildlife, or forest quality or that provide other conservation benefits.
Finally, 96% of the respondents said they have recommended or would recommend to another landowner donating a conservation easement to VOF.
Says VOF Executive Director Brett Glymph, “VOF strives to protect land that is livable and workable for people, especially farmers and foresters who represent Virginia’s number one industry. This survey shows that VOF easements are not just a tool for protecting the natural resources that make our Commonwealth a wonderful place to live, but also for protecting the resource base that fuels a significant portion of our economy.”
Formed by the Virginia legislature in 1966, VOF protects more than 735,000 acres (1,100 square miles) of open space in Virginia—an area nearly the size of Rhode Island. It holds easements in all but two counties, and in 13 independent cities. These lands help to protect more than 3,500 miles of streams, 325,000 acres of designated prime farmland, 290,000 acres of designated high-quality forests, and 200,000 acres of “ecologically significant landscape cores” as defined by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. Over the last decade, VOF has protected farms and forests at a rate of about 5 acres every hour. Roughly 95% of all Virginians live within 10 miles of a VOF easement.