Nicholas Carson

Publication Date

Spring 2015


Conservation easements, a valuable tool in the conservationist’s toolbox, have grown increasingly popular since the 1980s, when Congress introduced changes to the federal tax code making easement donations more financially attractive. And with deductions reaching hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars, conservation easement deductions are big business. However, expanded incentives and loosened regulations invite abuse, especially when the tax implications are large and donated easements are hard to value. Valuation of real estate remains an inexact science, dependent on inconsistent appraisal methods and subjectivity. Conservation easements can be even more difficult to value than other easements because, by their very nature, they are often placed on a parcel of land with high idiosyncratic value. Thus, easement valuations can vary wildly and justifying a high valuation is not difficult. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has examined conservation easement valuations more closely in recent years. Taxpayers risk large fines while the IRS struggles to effectively identify and curb abuse. Both sides would benefit from greater predictability, and as the IRS continues its aggressive litigation, a solution is sorely needed. This Note examines in Part I conservation easements and valuation methods for federal conservation easement deductions. Part II explores recent challenges to taxpayer application of these methods and the problems with the current valuation system revealed by those cases. Finally, Part III first reviews recent proposed reforms to conservation easement deduction valuation as well as their shortfalls, and then introduces a recommendation that would simplify the valuation process as well as promote greater use of conservation easements.