SC conservation deals must last forever to protect land

Perpetuity is a cornerstone principle of conservation in South Carolina and must remain that way.

The nonprofit organizations affiliated with the S.C. Land Trust Network only accept easements that permanently protect important ecological, scenic, agricultural and historic properties in our state. Recipients of funding from the S.C. Conservation Bank must agree to do the same via an executed grant agreement that they record on the deed to the property.

Similarly, the federal and state tax incentives that often drive the financial considerations for conservation transactions require the legal restrictions on the property to remain intact indefinitely. In light of the permanence of the decision, the true heroes of the conservation movement have been, and will remain, the landowners who voluntarily agree to protect the integrity of their land in perpetuity, all the while knowing that their decision to do so will impact them, their children and subsequent owners of the property.

Why, one may ask, would a property owner agree to such long-lasting terms? The answer is they do it because they love the land and want to ensure that it survives in its relatively undisturbed state beyond the term of their ownership.

In that light, perpetuity transmutes from a seemingly burdensome contract provision to the driving motivation of the entire transaction, and serves as the focal point around which the interests of a landowner, a land trust and public policies that incentivize conservation fall into place.

That is not to suggest that the decision to permanently protect a property should be entered into haphazardly.

Rather, owners who choose to place their land in a conservation easement typically spend months — more often years — considering what they want their land legacy to be and what rights they are willing to relinquish. They then work with their land trust of choice to ensure that the legal documents properly reflect their stewardship ethic and comply with myriad federal and state regulations.

The land trusts that agree to accept these conservation easements also must carefully consider their own obligations with an eye toward perpetuity. More specifically, they must ensure that the legal documents set forth in clear language what may and may not occur on the property so that the trust’s staff can understand, monitor and enforce the granting landowner’s intended vision both today and 100 years from now.

All members of the South Carolina Land Trust Network have attained, or are in the process of securing, accreditation by the national Land Trust Alliance.

The accreditation process is rigorous and thorough, and validates the organization’s ability to defend the conservation easements they accept in perpetuity.

The alliance has also created the Terrafirma insurance program to provide financial resources to land trusts to pay for the legal defense of an easement when, in the rare event, a term is violated. (Typically, landowners who donate conservation easements manage their properties to a degree that exceeds the stewardship ethic reflected therein; violations usually arise only after the property is sold to unrelated owners.) In sum, the main thrust of our collective conservation efforts is ensuring that we achieve perpetual land protection results.

Perpetuity is forever. With that in mind, we pledge to our state leaders, our donors and the public at large that the work carried out by the S.C. Land Trust Network and the properties funded by the S.C. Conservation Bank will indeed remain protected.

Raleigh West is executive director of the S.C. Conservation Bank. Jennifer Howard, executive director of the S.C. Land Trust Network, contributed.