State land trusts making 'progress', Washington State receives praise for its more than 20 'trusts' from national land trust president

By Elizabeth M. Gillespie
The Associated Press
The Seattle Times


Despite an economic downturn that's made it tougher to secure money from private foundations, land trusts in Washington state have been making significant strides in preserving open space, the national Land Trust Alliance president said.

"This state and your work is important not just for your land trust, not just for the state of Washington. It is one of the great landscapes of our country," Rand Wentworth told a Seattle gathering of land trusts from across the state on Saturday.

Once a commercial real-estate developer, Wentworth heads the nonprofit Land Trust Alliance, based in Washington, D.C., which gives money, training and other help to land trusts nationwide.

"America's land trusts now number 1,263 organizations that are local, gritty, operating with very few resources and saving special places," Wentworth said. "I'm proud of that."

Washington state has more than 20 land trusts, many of them small groups with just a few hundred members.

As one of the largest in the state, the 3,000-member Cascade Land Conservancy has drawn up a plan to preserve more than 100,000 acres of forest east of Seattle through a deal awaiting congressional approval. By allowing logging on 80 percent of the land, it would set up a source of revenue to pay off tax-free bonds used to buy the land from timber giant Weyerhaeuser. The rest would be set aside as permanent open space.

Wentworth praised the pending deal as creative and audacious.

"There are some land trusts that are doing a lot of really big deals, but there are also land trusts that are working on one farm, one trout stream, that place that's special to that community, and I celebrate those," he said.

About 8.6 square miles of land are paved over every day across the country, adding up to some 2 million acres a year, according to Land Trust Alliance estimates.

"Those 2 million acres are not spread evenly over the 50 states," Wentworth said. "Guess who gets a lot of that sprawl? The two coasts ... wherever there's mountains, elevation and water. And guess what you have here in Washington state? A lot of water and a lot of elevation."

"Two million acres is disproportionately loaded on your back door," Wentworth continued. "I believe that the land that we protect in the next two decades is going to form and shape the character of the American landscape for all time."

Most open-space deals involve conservation easements, a legal tool that limits development on a piece of land.

A growing number of groups are voicing concerns that they don't have pockets deep enough to defend themselves if such an easement is challenged in court, Wentworth said.

Wentworth said the Land Trust Alliance is considering creating a legal-defense fund for costs of defending easements.

"The key," Wentworth said, "is that we'll be able to stand with our brothers and sisters and say if this easement falls and creates bad case law in the state of Washington. ... It's in our collective interest to be there ... to make sure we defend it, so we don't have some developer who's got a lot of money and hires a smart attorney to intimidate a land trust without a lot of money to just cave."

The Land Trust Alliance also is pushing legislation that would boost tax incentives for donating land.

One bill would boost the tax deductions landowners could take for donating conservation easements to 50 percent of their annual income for up to 16 years up from the current limit of 30 percent over a maximum six years.

Under current law, someone who makes $50,000 a year and donates $1 million worth of land can take a maximum $90,000 in tax deductions over six years.

President Bush has proposed deductions for a land donor of up to $400,000.

Farmers and ranchers would get an even better deal. They'd be able to deduct 100 percent of their income over 15 years.


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