Tony Caligiuri was ready for it to fall apart.
Instead, the pandemic gave conservation in Colorado a boost. Soaring land values, spiking prices for water, legislation boosting incentives for landowners who protect their land and growing pressure to develop open land has fueled a record year for conservation easements in Colorado.
“We were bracing ourselves for the whole business to collapse, but it’s done the exact opposite,” said Caligiuri, the head of Colorado Open Lands, which has protected 637,000 acres in 668 easements since 1981.
The past year has been the busiest ever for the nonprofit Colorado Open Lands. And the coming year looks even busier.
“The incentives have never been better and we have never seen this much demand in 40 years,” said Caligiuri, whose group has merged with five other land trusts in the past five years. “It’s just been exponential growth. We have a waiting list of 100 projects. Demand is growing faster than we can keep up.”
Only a few years ago, Colorado Open Lands was handling about six easements a year. Now they are doing 25 deals with landowners who are earning more to forever protect their land from development.
Last year, Colorado Open Lands launched a campaign to raise $3 million to support landowners pursuing easements. The trust has recently hired five new employees for both conservation work and stewarding land that is set aside for conservation.
“This place needs to stay in agriculture.”
Bob Warner’s parents started farming and ranching near Fort Lupton more than a century ago. He was born on the farm 85 years ago. The Colorado State University graduate and Air Force pilot who flew for Continental Airlines for 38 years grows hay, alfalfa and corn on about 1,500 acres. He raises cattle there, too. From his home he can see the farmhouse where he was born and the one-room schoolhouse where he learned to read and write.
Now he’s locking up his land in a conservation easement that will keep his family’s fields forever filled with cattle, grasses and corn. He spent 46 years serving on boards for three conservation districts that overlap his property, including the Platte Valley Conservation District, the West Adams Conservation District and the Southeast Weld Conservation District.
“I’ve spent a lot of years working to keep land in conservation and in agriculture in perpetuity,” he said. “I guess now it’s my turn.”
Warner, who is working with both the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Colorado Open Lands to protect his family’s property from development, said he’s practiced conservation on his land “for all my life.”
He’s planted thousands of trees to protect his fields from wind. His father, J.C. Warner, participated in the federal government’s Soil Bank Program in the 1950s and 1960s, which saw farmers fallow acreage in exchange for rental payments from the government as a way to protect soil and better control the flow of crops to market.
“This place needs to stay in agriculture,” said Warner, who sees grazing as a way to help land managers better control grasses on open plains. “We can’t have these places developed. We can’t turn everything into homes. We need land to remain as farms and ranches as a way to manage our land.”
Last year Colorado lawmakers passed House Bill 1233, which removes bureaucratic barriers in the conservation easement process and increases the tax credit a landowner can claim when they place their land in an easement. The law allows landowners to obtain tax credits up to 90% of value of the conservation easement on their property, up from 50%.
That value is based on the development potential of a property, so landowners can get a big tax break.
“This makes the playing field much more level in terms of producers and farmers thinking about selling their property but not selling to a developer,” said Carmen Farmer, a project manager with Colorado Open Lands. “They can get close to the whole value of their property and remain on their property and keep it protected.”
Farmer is quick to point out that the benefits of conservation easements reach beyond the farmers, ranchers and longtime owners of wide open spaces.
“Private land conservation is a public benefit,” she said, pointing to the protections of wildlife habitat, views and agriculture that supports rural economies.
Last year Colorado lawmakers rejected a proposal to set aside $149 million to pay reparations to landowners whose eligibility for the pre-2013 tax breaks was denied by the state Department of Revenue. Many families and farmers said they had followed the rules when placing their land under conservation easements, but investigations more than a decade ago found some valuations were inflated or even fraudulent.
Agricultural families in Colorado have been feeling increased pressure in recent years as the state’s population grows and communities seek more space to grow.
“From decreasing prices and increasing regulatory pressures, figuring out how to make a living while keeping land open for wildlife and continuing the legacy of ag in Colorado can feel impossible,” said Colorado Sen. Kerry Donovan, an Eagle County rancher and Democrat who sponsored last year’s legislation that increased the incentives for landowners who protect their land. “Conservation easements are a tool for Colorado to protect what defines this state: the hardworking Western spirit tied to the rivers and the mountains.”
Donovan has spent several years working with agricultural communities to find ways to protect their heritage. She said the legislation last year was a culmination of years of work trying to build up conservation easements to create financial stability for the state’s ranchers and farmers. The work is not over, she said.
“Colorado will have to continue to find ways to support ag if decades from now we still want mountain valleys and wide open plains to be free of vacation home development,” she said.
The increased incentive for landowners has pushed many of them into action, said Rob Bleiberg, the director of the Colorado West Land Trust, which holds about 500 conservation easements protecting 126,000 acres in Delta, Gunnison, Mesa, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties. He’s seeing about twice the number of landowners ready to protect their land.
“The increased incentive is making these projects pencil out better for landowners,” he said. “It takes a project that was maybe not viable and made them a win-win for the landowner and the people of Colorado, who value wildlife habitat, open vistas and open space conservation.”
It’s not just the incentives that are driving interest in easements. Land prices, along with all real estate prices in Colorado, are exploding. Same for the prices Front Range municipalities will pay for water that comes with large properties. Some farmers have water rights that are more valuable than their land, Caligiuri said.
“Water rights are definitely driving values right now,” he said.
In addition to farmers with water rights, more ranchers are coming around to easements as a way to stabilize their operations in a market where cattle prices plummeted during the pandemic after restaurants closed, Caligiuri said.
And it’s not just the land-rich, cash-poor farmers and ranchers who are pursuing conservation easements. New buyers are joining the easement movement as well. Buyers who line up conservation easements for new properties “are seeing their dollars go further,” Caligiuri said.
“I think a lot of landowners are realizing this is the right window for a conservation easement,” he said. “It’s hard to think of a better time.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 10:39 a.m. on Feb. 3, 2022, to clarify the value of a conservation easement that may be claimed as a tax credit.