Conservation easements are generally used to protect land from development. They can be placed on land to keep it in a natural state, with trees and wildlife habitat, or to keep it as farmland. Agricultural conservation easements are frequently placed on properties that are close to an urban area to prevent the land from eventually becoming built up and part of the sprawl, or on farms where the owner has a desire to ensure that it continues to be used as farmland. They tend to include clauses stating that the land has to be farmed in a sustainable or organic manner.
Putting an easement on a piece of land signifies that the owner has a commitment to maintaining it for agricultural purposes. The landowner continues to own the land, but by creating the easement, which is then held by another group, such as a trust or a bank, it creates accountability for the landowner to the holder of the easement. By accepting the easement, the holder is responsible for enforcing that the land is being used in the intended way.
There are financial aspects to easements as well. Placing an easement on a piece of land can either increase or decrease the property value and ability for it to be resold. The easement itself has some value, though this is generally private information. Tax advantages exist for having sold or donated a conservation easement, and these may last for many years beyond initially giving the rights to the easement up.
Easements can either be sold or donated or funded through a grant. Federally programs can be highly competitive for those seeking to sell an easement, but if successful, the financial benefits can compensate for the challenges. The federal Conservation Programs have rolling deadlines for applications into most of their programs. The next deadline to apply to the Conservation Stewardship Program, which gives benefits to farmers who either already have or are implementing conservation practices on their land, is January 17, 2014.
For more information about land trusts and conservation programs, here are some resources: