Frequently Asked Questions

California Rangeland Trust provides answers to commonly asked questions about conservation easements for California ranchers.

Conservation Easement FAQs

It’s important to us to provide clear information and helpful resources to our supporters as well as our landowner partners. On this page, read answers to some of the questions we most often receive regarding conservation easements. If you would like to know anything else, please don’t hesitate to contact California Rangeland Trust’s office by phone or email. A member of our team will be happy to tell you more!

What exactly is a conservation easement?

A conservation easement is an agreement between a landowner and a qualified land trust, conservation group or government agency regarding the future uses of private property.

Click here to read a thorough explanation of conservation easements.

What does a conservation easement do to the value of my land?

In signing a conservation easement, a landowner voluntarily gives up some of the rights that normally come with ownership of land. Those rights have value, and that value determined by an official appraisal. In theory, the value of the easement is the diminution in the current market price of the property caused by the restrictions contained in the easement. Interestingly, however, we are seeing a strong market in some regions for conservation properties (i.e., properties with an easement) selling at prices that approximate those of similar lands not encumbered by easements. While we cannot provide any general advice or estimations, this trend is worth noting.

How is the value of an easement determined?

An appraiser will perform an analysis of the market value of the property based on the “highest and best use” of the land and what similar properties in the area are selling for without the encumbrance of an easement. The appraiser compiles recent comparable sales of lands in the area to determine the approximate market price of the property. This is known as the “Before” value—i.e., the value before an easement is placed on the property. 

The appraiser will then determine the value of the property with the easement restrictions in place. Most of the time this means that the appraiser will look at properties that do not have the potential to be developed beyond what the easement allows on the property he/she is appraising for the easement. This is referred to as the “After” value—the market price after the easement is placed on the property. The difference between these “Before” and “After” prices is the value of the easement.

What amount can I expect to receive from a conservation easement?

The value of a conservation easement is based on both the extent of the restrictions a rancher spells out in the easement and the market for land in a given region. The more development rights a landowner gives up, the more the easement is worth.

The market for properties with development potential as well as conservation properties varies greatly from region to region. Typically, most ranchers who give or sell easements only reserve the right to build a limited number of new residences to accommodate family members so that they can live on the ranch and help with its operation. As a general rule in these cases, the easement value will run from 35% to 65% of the market value of the property without the easement. However, there are many variables. We have seen the range of easement values span from 20% all the way to 90% in some rare cases.

Does a conservation easement mean that the government will have more oversight over my land?

No. A conservation easement is an agreement between the rancher and the Rangeland Trust or other qualified land trust. The Rangeland Trust, in cooperation with the landowner, monitors compliance with the easement conditions and does not share that information with government agencies or the public. Occasionally, funds for easement purchases are made available by government programs that require reports from the land trust regarding easement compliance and may even have conditions where an easement would revert to a government agency should the land trust cease to exist as an entity or be unable to carry out its easement monitoring responsibilities. However, the landowner always has the option to decide whether or not to accept these funds with their conditions. The Rangeland Trust will always discuss the pros and cons of any funding program with the rancher prior to accepting any money for an easement purchase.

I’ve heard horror stories about radical environmental groups being able to sue ranchers and land trusts over environmental issues because there is an easement on the property. Is this true?

In fact, a lawsuit over endangered species violations or habitat destruction can be filed whether or not a property has a conservation easement. Because an easement is a recorded document, it is true that any member of the public can have access to the easement document and find out what restrictions are placed on the property. Lawsuits are uncommon and generally can occur only if the easement holder fails to monitor and enforce compliance with the easement conditions.

The Rangeland Trust works hard with ranchers to make sure that each easement anticipates their long-term needs for the future and that they are comfortable with all terms and conditions of the easement. In addition, the Rangeland Trust has a process in place to ensure that if a ranch is ever sold, the new owners are made aware of the easement and the Rangeland Trust’s role as an easement holder. All these steps help minimize the potential of a legal action from a third party.

It has been the experience of land trusts in California and other states that, rather than making a property more vulnerable to outside attacks over restrictions, ranches with easements are generally the last to be scrutinized for violations. This is because outside groups and government agencies tend to realize that ranchers who have easements are supportive of conservation and are good stewards of the land, and that having a land trust as a “conservation partner” ensures sound management of all environmental resources on the land.