Congress sent good news to Lake County and the rest of the nation last month when it renewed a powerful tax incentive for landowners who preserve wildlife habitat, farmland and other open space. Incentives that had expired Jan. 1 are now available until the end of 2009 through the recently passed Farm Bill.
Nearly 1 million acres were preserved nationwide when these incentives first went into effect from 2006 through 2007. This includes over 200 acres right here in Lake County, protected by landowners who partnered with the Liberty Prairie Conservancy, a non-profit that preserves open space countywide.
The incentives are attached to conservation easements--agreements between landowners and qualifying organizations that restrict activities on the land in order to preserve its conservation values. The landowner still owns the property and can continue to farm it if that's what he or she wants. And he can place just a portion of his property under easement, leaving the remainder unrestricted.
The beauty of conservation easements is that they stay with the land even as it passes on to heirs or is sold, and the organization's job is to regularly inspect the property and ensure that its terms are upheld. Meanwhile, the public reaps the benefits of protected open space: clean water, wildlife habitat, scenic beauty, heritage landscapes and an overall protected quality of life.
This is good for residents as well as business, and in an area like Lake County, where the economy relies on companies' ability to attract and retain good talent, offering a high quality of life is no small thing.
It's unfortunate these incentives weren't made permanent, but the silver lining may be that property owners will be encouraged to act sooner rather than later on their intentions to preserve the lands they love. It can't happen soon enough, with Lake County's population growing at the rate of over 10,000 people per year, and open space disappearing at the rate of four acres per day. Balancing this growth with preservation of our natural resources is an important, exciting challenge, and the residents of Lake County are demonstrating they're up to the task.
Lake County is fortunate to have a forest preserve district that continues to acquire land with the same passion it exhibited at the time of its inception 50 years ago. I'm confident the public will continue to support our forest preserves and they will continue to grow.
It's essential, however, for residents to understand that the rising cost of land in the Chicago area severely limits the extent to which public agencies can acquire additional acreage. It's also essential to know that open space does not have to be publicly owned in order for a community to benefit from it.
Conservation easements have a solid track record of providing public benefits through private ownership. They provide another model for land conservation, one our nation is embracing.
Liberty Prairie Conservancy