Forever-wild is the highest available protection for land in the United States. To be forever-wild, a piece of land is legally and permanently protected, often through a conservation easement. While all conservation easements are slightly different, the common attribute of forever-wild easements are that they limit human activity and allow nature to direct the ebb and flow of life. They afford land the opportunity to be self-willed and free. Management is kept to a bare minimum. Motorized and mechanized recreation is prohibited, as is all resource extraction including timber.
Several groups including Northeast Wilderness Trust, Harvard Forest, and Highstead are currently conducting research to answer this question. Based on best available data, it is assumed that less 3% of the Northeast is forever-wild, including public land.
Any land trust can do forever-wild conservation. While there are several conservation organizations in the Northeast that include forever-wild work among their broader conservation goals, only Northeast Wilderness Trust is completely focused on forever-wild conservation.
Forever-wild conservation is often underrepresented because the primary focus of the work is on nature, not humans. Many funders, and thus land trusts, focus on motorized and mechanized recreation, agriculture, and timber.
Wild earth has intrinsic value and deserves the right to exist, for itself. While conserving land for its own sake is paramount, we also celebrate the many ways that forever-wild forests benefit people: carbon storage, providing a living laboratory for scientific inquiry, and the incredible ability to clean air and water for human communities. Wild forests also provide high quality and specialized habitats that are absent from most of the landscape.
How does forever-wild conservation work?
A conservation easement is a legally binding agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land to protect its conservation values. A conservation easement allows landowners to continue to own and use their land and to sell it or pass it on to heirs, while preserving it. It is the most widely-used way to permanently protect private land.
A conservation easement is a great option for landowners who want to preserve wildlife habitat and the wild character of their property, but don’t want to sell it. All future owners will also be bound by the easement’s terms. The land trust is responsible for making sure the easement’s terms are followed in perpetuity.
When a landowner donates any kind of conservation easement to a land trust, s/he gives up some of the rights associated with the land. In a forever-wild easement, the landowner generally gives up the rights to build structures and roads, subdivide, conduct commercial or industrial activities, farm, and cut timber. Landowners generally retain the rights to use the land for non-motorized, non-mechanized recreation and to post the land against public use, including hunting. Conservation easements offer flexibility, however, and the Northeast Wilderness Trust works closely with landowners to craft an easement that best suits the land and the landowner’s goals.
Forever. Northeast Wilderness Trust only uses perpetual conservation easement.
In the Northeast, the value of rural, forested property is often related to its marketable timber value. A forever-wild conservation easement removes the ability to harvest timber on a property and thus generally reduces the financial value of a property.
A conservation easement does not require public access.
No. It's common to conserve a portion of a property only.
The landowner stills own the land, but has donated or sold the specific rights through the conservation easement, such as development and timber rights, to Northeast Wilderness Trust.
Landowners of conserved forever-wild land retain the right to hike, enjoy nature, hunt, fish, and use the land for other non-extractive purposes like education and research.
Chances are, yes! There is no minimum acreage to protect a property as forever-wild. The Wilderness Trust has protected forever-wild properties in suburban areas all the way to the most remote corners of New England.
The process begins with a phone call or email letting us know about your property and conservation goals. We will set up a site visit and see if your goals and the conservation values of the property meet our criteria. Northeast Wilderness Trust’s Board of Directors will then vote on whether to proceed with your project. When the Board decides to move forward, we will begin due diligence which includes title work, survey work, fundraising, and other steps. A conservation transaction can take anywhere from six months to more than three years.
A conservation transaction is expensive. Generally, it costs at least $30,000. This fee includes a contribution to our Stewardship Endowment, appraisal, survey, legal fees, title, closing, baseline report, environmental site assessment, and project fee. In some cases, we can fundraise to cover these land protection costs.
It’s critical that you have that discussion with your financial advisor. Generally, a qualified conservation easement transaction will qualify you for a federal tax deduction. There may be state benefits, too. And in some cases, the Wilderness Trust will purchase the easement from you through a bargain sale, offering a cash incentive.
A mortgage will have to be subordinated to the conservation easement.
- Donating land to be preserved as wilderness is one of the finest legacies a person can leave to future generations. Donating property releases landowners from the responsibility of managing the land and can sometimes provide substantial tax deductions and tax benefits. Most importantly, if the land will be protected as forever wild.
For landowners who need to realize some income from their land, yet would like their property to be protected by the Northeast Wilderness Trust as forever wild, a bargain sale might be the answer. In a bargain sale, the landowner sells the conservation easement to the Trust for less than its fair market value. This not only makes it more affordable for the land trust, but offers several benefits to the landowner: it provides cash, avoids some capital gains tax, and may entitle the landowner to a charitable income tax deduction based on the difference between the land or easement’s fair market value and its sale price. Note that because funds for wildland acquisition are very limited, the process is highly competitive.
Northeast Wilderness Trust accepts donations of land, and purchases just as much land as we conserve with easements. An outright gift or sale of wild land may be the best conservation strategy for landowners who want to preserve their land but do not wish to pass it on to heirs. Also, wildland owners who no longer use their property would be relieved of the responsibility of managing, paying taxes on, and caring for the land. Those who have highly appreciated property or substantial real estate holdings and wish to reduce estate tax burdens might also consider a gift of land.
Northeast Wilderness Trust uses the “belt and suspender” method of conservation. That means we will identify a permanent means of conservation above and beyond our ownership. In many cases another land trust will hold an easement on land we own and in other cases, we record a legal document called a Declaration of Trust with the town. The Declaration of Trust runs with the deed, just like a conservation easement, and gives the general public the right to take legal action should any terms of the Trust (such as cutting trees or having vehicles on the land) are violated.
How does Northeast Wilderness Trust steward forever-wild lands?
The Northeast Wilderness Trust takes its stewardship responsibilities very seriously. For each property protected by the Trust, a baseline report is prepared to document the condition of the property at the time of conservation. At least once a year, the Trust sends staff and/or trained volunteers to inspect the property and document any changes or concerns. The Trust strives to maintain good relationships with easement landowners and neighbors. And for those very rare situations where easement terms or wilderness restrictions are violated, the Trust pursues all remedies available, including legal action.
We will visit your property at least once per year. On lands we own, we visit multiple times a year and in some cases, every week!
To help support these costly but essential obligations, the Trust has established a Stewardship Fund. For each easement or property the Trust acquires, a contribution to the Fund is requested from donors and/or other supporters of the project. This fund ensures annual support for a portion of our stewardship costs. In addition, this fund helps to cover the costs of our membership in Terrafirma, a conservation defense insurance program formed by the Land Trust Alliance. In the rare instance of legal action needed to defend a wilderness property, Terrafirma insures the costs of upholding conservation easements and fee lands held for conservation purposes.