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Their View: Save land: Views on how to do it

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Land conservation groups have expanded on their criticism of two state reports that, in their turn, criticized Virginia’s methods of land conservation.

At issue are both the outright grants given to some landowners as well as the land-use conservation easements that provide tax breaks for owners who keep their land free from development, preserving agricultural, forest and open spaces.

Findings by the Office of Inspector General argue that some of the protected land doesn’t meet conservation standards. On at least one site, inspectors found trash, old tires, old vehicles, scrap metal piles and cattle remains.

But working farms “are not Norman Rockwell pretty,” Ebonie Alexander, executive director of the Black Family Land Trust and a member of the Virginia’s United Land Trusts board, told The Virginia Mercury. An old farm may well have old machinery and dead animal carcasses; it goes with the territory.

Conservation advocates also fault the IG report for its limited scope. The survey sampled fewer than 30 sites; that’s not enough to warrant “sweeping generalizations” about the program’s roughly 4,400 properties, said Heather Richards, Mid-Atlantic regional director of the Conservation Fund.

Meanwhile, saving family farms and the landscapes and habitats they preserve has traditionally been part of the state’s conservation ethos. That should continue to be the case.

While Virginia should monitor easements to make sure they are not pits of pollution, officials also must take into fair consideration the realities of running a farm: It’s not all pristine purity — and can’t be, if the work of the farm is to get done.

A second report, this one from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, found that over 95% of Virginia’s conservation spending has gone to the tax credit program and more than 30% of that has been spent in Loudoun, Albemarle, Fauquier, Culpeper and Orange counties.

In a presentation to Gov. Ralph Northam’s Commission to Examine Racial and Economic Inequality in Virginia Law, Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew Strickler described this as evidence of conservation programs benefitting wealthy (and primarily white) landowners.

To which conservationists reply that these are the very counties most at risk of development, so of course more money is funneled there to keep properties in open space or agricultural use.

Where in-migration is strong, creating a high demand for housing, pressure increases for owners to convert their land into development that would provide them a nice profit. If the state’s goal is to help keep that land open — as for decades it has been — then tax breaks for conservation easements will be provided reflecting the higher land prices in these places.

Strickler’s presentation to the commission had a social justice goal more than a land conservation goal.

However, the two are inextricably mixed: Because wealthy whites are more likely to have amassed large tracts, they have more land to place in conservation easements, taking the tax breaks over the option of development.

Blacks, meanwhile, have lost opportunities to hold property because of discriminatory laws and practices — such as obstacles making it difficult for them to hand land down to heirs.

These and other injustices must be corrected.

But activists such as Alexander of the Black Family Land Trust argue that it’s counterproductive of the state to cast aspersions on the easement program just when organizations such as hers are achieving success in protecting Black-owned land through precisely this mechanism — thus meeting the state’s goals of both social justice and conservation.

Virginia’s conservation policies may well need some adjustments. One possibility may be to increase the use of outright grants to help owners protect smaller properties, such as those more likely to be owned by Blacks.

But both grants and easements are needed to achieve comprehensive protection.

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