What is a Land Trust?

Land trusts are local, state, or regional nonprofit organizations directly involved in protecting land for its natural, recreational, scenic, historical, or productive value. Most land trusts are private nonprofit corporations. There are also a few governmental or quasi-governmental bodies called land trusts that operate with the freedom and flexibility of a private trust, some of which have a private board or the ability to use private funds. Land trusts are not "trusts" in the legal sense, and may also be called "conservancies," "foundations," or any number of other names descriptive of their purpose.

Land trusts are distinguished by their first-hand involvement in land transactions or management. This involvement can take many forms. Some land trusts purchase or accept donations of land or of conservation easements (permanent, binding agreements that restrict the uses of a piece of land to protect its conservation resources). Some manage land owned by others or advise landowners on how to preserve their land. Some land trusts help negotiate conservation transactions in which they play no other role. Land trusts often work cooperatively with government agencies by acquiring or managing land, researching open space needs and priorities, and assisting in the development of open space plans. They may also work with other non-profit organizations and sometimes with developers. A land trust may do one, several, or all of these things.

Resources protected by land trusts include forests, prairie grasslands, islands, urban gardens, river corridors, farmland, watersheds, parklands, marshes, ranch land, scenic vistas, cultural landscapes, Civil War battlefields, and hiking trails.

Most land trusts depend on volunteer leadership and support even if they also have a professional staff. They have the potential to bring together a wide range of people in a community, such as naturalists, planners, farmers, hunters, landowners, community leaders, sometimes developers, and others who care about special lands in their communities.

Advantages of Land Trusts

Land trusts have many advantages as a vehicle for protecting land. They can hold and manage land and other assets as a corporation, rather than through individuals. As private organizations, land trusts can be more flexible and creative and can generally act more quickly than government agencies, since they are not restrained by politics and procedures. They are able to negotiate with landowners discretely, confidentially and quickly.

Their nonprofit status brings them a variety of tax benefits. Donations to land trusts may qualify donors of land, conservation easements, or money for income, estate, or gift tax savings. Properly structured land trusts are exempt from federal and state income taxes, and sometimes from local property and real estate transfer taxes as well. Nonprofit status is also an advantage in raising funds from a variety of sources.

As community-based organizations, land trusts draw on community resources, including volunteer time and skills. Their community orientation is also helpful in selecting and negotiating transactions. They are familiar with the land in the area and often have the trust and confidence of local landowners who may not want to work with government agencies or entities from outside the community.