The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The value of land

The Smiley-Woodfin Native Prairie Grassland in Brookston, Tex., in March. (Cooper Neill for The Washington Post)

Regarding the May 10 Health & Science article “Private lands: The next step in conservation”:

When you consider that two-thirds of the land in the continental United States, 85 percent of grasslands and more than half of forest lands are privately owned, the importance of preserving private lands is clear. In Maryland, Virginia and most of the Northeast, the numbers are even higher. We can’t pretend the relatively small amount of land that makes up public parks will be enough to prevent the habitat and biodiversity loss that is being accelerated by climate change; in that scenario, our parks would become habitat museums.

For those who argue that conservation easements are unfair or too restrictive, when an easement is put into place, the landowner usually can negotiate terms, for instance, to allow for building or to subdivide the property within agreed-on parameters. In return for the development rights they give up, owners get meaningful tax breaks that pass to each subsequent owner of the land — to another buyer or heirs. The goal is to protect the land, and the way to do that is to protect landowners such as farmers and ranchers from being forced out by high taxes. But, yes, you’re going to give up something to get those significant tax savings. That seems fair, doesn’t it?

Does a conservation easement decrease the value of the land? If you’re a developer, sure. That’s part of the point. But for private individuals who aren’t looking to develop, the land has value precisely because it has been preserved.

Paula Whyman, Bethesda