The Advent and Future of Tax-Deductible Conservation Easement Policy in the United States

If you have protected farmland, forests, or open space in your community, there’s a good chance you have Steve Small to thank. A legal pioneer who paved the way to make conservation easements tax-deductible in the U.S., Small wrote federal tax regulations credited with facilitating the conservation of millions of acres of private land. He has devoted significant energy and creativity to the use of easements and land conservation in America.

Small joined Jim Levitt of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Harvard Forest for an online dialogue regarding the history of tax-deductible conservation easements over the past four decades and the future of private open-space protection in the United States. The two also reflected on the extensive collection of conservation-related books that Small has amassed over the course of his career, a collection that he recently donated to Texas Tech University.


Stephen J. Small was the 2015–2016 Kingsbury Browne Fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the winner of the Kingsbury Browne Conservation Leadership Award from the Land Trust Alliance. He is recognized as one of the nation’s leading authority on private land protection options and strategies. Before authoring the Federal Tax Law of Conservation Easements and Preserving Family Lands: Book I, Book II, and Book III, and his latest book, The Business of Open Space: What’s Next?, Small wrote the Federal Income Tax Regulations on Conservation Easements as attorney-advisor in the Office of Chief Counsel of the Internal Revenue Service. Small represents and advises numerous corporate, individual, and family landowners on tax and land use planning. He also directs project teams on extensive and complex planning for maximum income tax benefits in connection with the donation of conservation easements. Small advises government agencies and nonprofits on leveraging donation of land acquisition dollars. In addition to representing clients and writing books, Small also tours the United States delivering speeches and leading workshops on the importance of income tax planning and estate tax planning for landowners.

Jim Levitt is the manager of land conservation programs in the Department of Planning and Urban Form at the Lincoln Institute, and director of the program on conservation innovation at the Harvard Forest, Harvard University, in Petersham, Massachusetts. In addition, he holds ongoing fellowships at the Harvard Kennedy School and at Highstead, a nonprofit organization advancing land conservation in New England. Levitt focuses on landmark innovations in the field of land and biodiversity conservation (both present-day and historic) that are characterized by five traits: novelty and creativity in conception; strategic significance; measurable effectiveness; international transferability; and the ability to endure. Levitt has written and edited dozens of articles and four books on land and biodiversity conservation. He has lectured widely on the topic in venues ranging from Santiago, Chile, to Beijing, China, and Stockholm, Sweden. Among his current efforts, Levitt plays an instrumental role in the effort to organize the International Land Conservation Network (ILCN), whose mission is to connect organizations around the world that are accelerating voluntary private- and civic-sector action to protect and steward land and water resources. Levitt is a graduate of Yale College and the Yale School of Management (Yale SOM). He was recently named a Donaldson Fellow by Yale SOM for career achievements that “exemplify the mission of the School.”