Agriculture and forestry are at the heart of both the economic and cultural lifeblood of Wisconsin. The state’s farms and agricultural businesses generate more than $50 billion in economic activity while forestry contributes another $20 billion. In addition, the industries employ hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who make 650 different varieties of cheese, boast more than 100 brewing establishments and churn out scores of different sausages that are marketed across the country.
But many of the state’s farms and forests are under threat. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this nation is losing farm, ranch and forest land at an alarming rate, with more than 2 million acres of land lost every year.
Fortunately there is a method of land conservation that is entirely voluntary and cost effective per acre, while at the same time allowing the conserved land to remain private and useful for purposes of farming, pasture, hunting, fishing or forestland. This method of conservation, known as a conservation easement, preserves vital farmland or woodland at of cost of roughly $400 per acre while allowing the land to still be worked, contributing to the local economy and generating jobs.
By donating a conservation easement, landowners are able to protect their most prized asset — their land — to ensure economic use and enjoyment for future generations. In return for the development rights to their properties, donors are given a limited tax deduction. Unlike national and state parks, these lands can be worked, privately owned and sold, but they can’t be turned into a strip mall or a convenience store.
In Wisconsin, this method of conservation has resulted in more than 70,000 acres enrolled in easements, which are monitored by the state’s 58 private or volunteer-based land trusts or other qualified entity.
In 2006, Congress decided to further incentivize this cost-effective and business-friendly form of land conservation and enacted an enhanced tax credit program to enable modest-income landowners to benefit. The enhanced incentive was a boon to land conservation in Wisconsin, adding valuable working farms and forests to the state’s easements.
One example comes from Waukesha County where Maple Acres is a 233-acre sixth- generation 70-cow dairy farm founded in 1856 by the Zwieg Family. It is located within the Ashippun/Oconomowoc Agricultural Enterprise Area—a state designated and locally supported area in which agricultural preservation and activity is promoted. The farm is currently operated by Joe and Lisa Zwieg together with their sons Kyle and Kevin. The Zwiegs mission is “to create a successful, community friendly agricultural business for future generations while being good stewards of the land, water and air of which farming is completely dependent upon.”
The Zwiegs placed an easement on their property for two reasons: 1) to protect their farm for future generations and to preserve their family’s legacy; and to 2) invest in additional land which is needed to keep their working farm viable for the long term. They could not have accomplished these goals without the enhanced tax incentive and their local land trust, the Tall Pines Conservancy.
Despite the fact that since the passage of the enhanced incentive law in 2006, easement donations have increased by 35 percent nationally, the law is set to expire at the end of the year. When this has happened in the past, land donations have fallen precipitously.
Thankfully, there is broad and growing support on both sides of the aisle to make the enhanced easement incentive permanent. H.R. 2807, which boasts support from more than one-third of the House, and S. 526, which would make that goal a reality. Those of us concerned about saving our farms and forests should rally around those bills and urge our members of Congress to sign on.
Wisconsin’s agricultural and forestry heritage helps define us as a state and represents some of the best things Wisconsin has to offer. In order to ensure that the Wisconsin that we know and love is here for the next generation, we need to ensure that the enhanced incentive be made permanent.
Eric Schumann of Racine is a board member of Gathering Waters Conservancy, the state association representing Wisconsin’s local land trusts.