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Development pressures and rising taxes and land values are among the growing challenges facing forestland owners. Increasingly, it is financially difficult to keep large parcels of land intact.

According to the National Resources Inventory, the rate of development between 1997 and 2001 averaged 2.2 million acres per year. During that time period, 46% of the developed acres came from forestland and the rate of forest land development continued on an upward trend.

Under this development pressure, forested properties are being divided into smaller parcels, with some sold for development. Parcelization can lead to major change in how land is managed and can limit forestry activities as smaller properties become inefficient to manage economically. Additionally, this parcelization often leads to the fragmentation of forest cover and the resulting loss of wildlife habitats.

In recent years, one tool – the conservation easement – has come to the forefront of the race to protect land from development. A conservation easement is a tool that restricts land use conversion yet allows landowners to retain ownership and continue activities that fit their ownership objectives. 

According to the National Land Trust Census, there were more than 1,500 land trusts in the United States by mid-2003, many of which managed conservation easements. The total acreage protected by conservation easements in the United States increased 266% from 1998 to 2003, from 1.4 million to more than 5 million acres. The total number of conservation easements in 2003 was 17,847, up from 7,392 in 1998. 

In many ways, conservation easements are considered a win-win for landowners, who are able to keep their land, and for public interests that want to see natural resources and resource assets that support industries such as farming and forestry protected for future generations. Nonetheless, even conservation easements have their critics. This report provides an introduction to easements and their potential benefits, and examines some of the debate around the use of easements as a conservation tool for working forests.

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