A conservation easement is a restriction placed on a piece of property to protect the resources (natural or man-made) associated with the parcel. The easement is either voluntarily sold or donated by the landowner, and constitutes a legally binding agreement that prohibits certain types of development (residential or commercial) from taking place on the land.
Conservation easements can be used to protect areas for wildlife, fisheries, prevent subdivision of land, preserve ranch and farm properties, or create opportunities for recreation. Private lands remain in private ownership. The terms of the conservation easement may have requirements, such as keeping riparian areas intact or when and how to harvest timber.
A conservation easement is a voluntary permanent legal agreement between a landowner and a qualified organization or agency that limits the use of property in order to protect its conservation values while keeping it in private ownership. Conservation easements remain in effect when the property is sold or passed to the next generation.
In Lewis and Clark County, some landowners have chosen to use conservation easements to conserve their lands. The State of Montana Legislative Audit Division report published in early 2007 found that 86,801 acres in Lewis and Clark County were protected under conservation easements.
As conservation easements usually have a value attached to them, they can be donated and/or purchased. Donating conservation easements may provide income tax benefits and potentially estate tax benefits. However, the land remains in private hands and landowners must continue to pay Montana property taxes.