Building Better Conservation Easements for America the Beautiful

13 Pages Posted: 20 Sep 2021 Last revised: 2 Nov 2021

See all articles by K. King Burnett

K. King Burnett


John D. Leshy

UC Law, San Francisco

Nancy A. McLaughlin

University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law

Date Written: September 15, 2021


In January 2021, the Biden Administration endorsed the goal of protecting 30% of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030 to conserve biodiversity and help curb greenhouse gas emissions. The Administration’s initial report on this “America the Beautiful” initiative, issued in May, indicates that federally-deductible conservation easements are likely to play an important role in its implementation. This essay addresses whether and how such easements should be counted in this process.

This matter is of great importance. Donations of conservation easements, by which landowners receive generous federal tax deductions if they restrict the use of their properties in perpetuity in the interest of conservation, cost American taxpayers billions of dollars annually in foregone revenue. In addition, growing reports of abuse and other developments raise serious questions about the effectiveness of deductible easements in achieving durable conservation outcomes.

This essay outlines the fundamental problems plaguing the deductible conservation easement program. It compares practices regarding deductible conservation easements with the protocols employed in various government conservation easement purchase programs. It concludes with specific suggestions for making deductible easements an effective tool for achieving the America the Beautiful goal. Simply accelerating the pace of conservation easement donations is not enough—"to achiev[e] durable outcomes that meaningfully improve the lives of Americans,” better conservation easements need to be built.

Keywords: America the Beautiful, conservation easements

Suggested Citation

Burnett, K. King and Leshy, John D. and McLaughlin, Nancy A., Building Better Conservation Easements for America the Beautiful (September 15, 2021). Harvard Environmental Law Review Online (2021), University of Utah College of Law Research Paper No. 469, UC Hastings Research Paper Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

K. King Burnett

Independent ( email )

John D. Leshy

UC Law, San Francisco ( email )

200 McAllister Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
United States
202-744-5809 (Phone)


Nancy A. McLaughlin (Contact Author)

University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law ( email )

332 South 1400 East, Rm 101
Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0730
United States
801-581-5944 (Phone)
801-581-6897 (Fax)

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