Jeffrey Sundberg is associate professor of economics and business at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Illinois, where he has taught since 1989. He also serves as chair of the College’s interdisciplinary Environmental Studies Program. He earned his B.A. from Carleton College in 1982, and subsequently received an M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from Stanford University. His current research examines various aspects of public policy toward land conservation, including tax incentives for conservation easements and factors influencing voter approval for programs to protect open space. In a recent article in Land Economics, he examined membership patterns in land trusts across the country as evidence of private willingness to provide a public good (Sundberg 2006).
Sundberg’s interest in conservation extends to his volunteer activities as well. He currently serves as the vice president of the board of directors for the Liberty Prairie Conservancy, a countywide land trust in Lake County, Illinois, and is a past member of the board of directors of the Chicago Audubon Society. He initiated and directs an ongoing habitat restoration program on the grounds of Lake Forest College. A dedicated birder, he leads bird walks annually for several different organizations and volunteers as a bird-bander every spring.
Land Lines: Conservation easements are a topic of great interest to the Lincoln Institute. What specific aspects of them are you researching?
Jeffrey Sundberg: There has been quite a lot of research on the use of easements as a tool for conservation, and there is a growing interest in various legal aspects of easement policy. However, there has been relatively little work on the economic aspects of easements. The number and value of these incentives have increased over the past 20 years, and so has the number of acres under easement. This has had a largely unmeasured effect on tax collections at the local, state, and federal levels.
In collaboration with Richard Dye, my colleague at Lake Forest College and a visiting fellow at the Lincoln Institute, I am examining tax incentives for the donation of easements to nonprofit conservation groups and government agencies (Sundberg and Dye 2006). A broad range of incentives exists, and their effects may vary with the income and assets of the property owner, and the state in which the parcel is located.
An analysis of these tax incentives suggests certain conclusions about the type of property owner who is most able to benefit financially from such a donation. These incentives are likely to affect both the number of available easements and the cost to society of accepting the donations. The easement must have conservation value in order to qualify for the tax savings, but there is no benefits test that compares the amount of conservation value to the amount of tax revenue lost.
Land Lines: What are some of your findings?
Jeffrey Sundberg: Numerous publications, including Jeff Pidot’s recent work with the Institute (Pidot 2005), have speculated that under certain circumstances it would be possible for a landowner to receive tax savings that exceed the value of the donated easement. In fact, under certain conditions a taxpayer could receive more than two dollars of tax savings for every dollar of easement donation, even when future tax savings are discounted. The largest single potential benefit often stems from various estate tax reductions that result from the donation of a qualified easement. However, a donation could create a positive net present value even without qualifying for the estate tax benefit. Many states also have substantial incentives of their own in the form of income tax credits, property tax reductions, or both.
These incentives offer both good and bad news for conservation policy. While they certainly make it easier to persuade property owners to donate a conservation easement on their land, they also create an incentive for owners to take efficiency-reducing actions by tailoring their easements to create the maximum tax benefit, rather than the maximum conservation value. In addition, land trusts and other qualified organizations may have to spend time and energy evaluating relatively low-quality easements offered by financially motivated donors, who may be able to expend considerable effort to find a willing holder of an easement.
Land Lines: What are some public policy implications of your work?
Jeffrey Sundberg: It is important to distinguish between federal and state tax incentives in making policy recommendations. Federal incentives consist of tax deductions, which are most valuable to property owners who have substantial tax liabilities and face high marginal tax rates. Many land parcels with significant conservation value are owned by land-rich, low-income individuals who are unable to take any significant advantage of income tax deductions, and who may not be subject to the estate tax. Federal tax incentives offer relatively low benefits to this type of landowner, even with the recent change that allows a longer carry-forward period until those benefits expire.
State incentives typically offer credits that can be used to offset existing income taxes on a dollar-for-dollar basis. The benefit to the donors does not depend on their marginal tax rate, though high-income donors are still more likely to be able to use their credits. Most credits are not “refundable,” which means that a donor must have taxable income to make use of them. Two states currently allow donors to sell their excess credits, which increases the likelihood that they will be able to benefit financially by donating an easement. A move toward credits, rather than deductions, would allow low-income donors to receive more benefits without necessarily reducing the benefits to high-income donors. This should increase the number of high-quality parcels potentially available for conservation.
Our research also studies the possible impact of eliminating the federal estate (or death) tax. In 48 of the 50 states, estate tax savings are the single largest source of potential financial benefits to easement donors, so elimination of the tax could have a significant chilling effect on easement donations across the country.
Programs for the sale of easement credits highlight another area of concern, the potential for fraudulent activity. Needless to say, fraud is costly in terms of lost tax revenue, in the administrative burden it imposes on governments and conservation organizations that must resolve troublesome donations, and most of all in the loss of trust and goodwill for these important programs, which currently enjoy great public support.
Land Lines: How would an economic approach to easements differ from an environmental approach?
Jeffrey Sundberg: An environmental approach might consider conservation benefits in both ecological and human terms, with an eye toward preserving significant benefits for the future. Their existence would be enough to justify creation of the easement, without the need to set a monetary value. This view is similar to current easement policy, where there is no comparison of benefit to cost.
An economic approach would attempt to place a monetary value on those benefits, not because they can be bought and sold, but because this is the only way to make any kind of reasonable comparison between the benefit of the easement and its cost. Without having at least a rough estimate of these figures, it is impossible to ensure that any particular easement creates a net benefit for society. Under most current easement programs, the organization that accepts the easement only has to certify that some conservation value exists; the organization typically has little idea of the actual cost of the tax subsidy to the easement. The primary cost to the organization is likely to be the obligation to monitor and enforce the easement, which may be a widely varying fraction of the total cost of the easement.
Both environmental and economic approaches would agree that different easements will provide differing amounts and types of benefit, suggesting that the tax incentives should be tailored to encourage the donation of easements that provide the most overall value, whether measured in economic or environmental terms.
Land Lines: Are there alternatives to tax incentives for easement donations that might be more efficient?
Jeffrey Sundberg: It’s a little difficult to answer that, since there is so little data available about our current system. We don’t know what the magnitude of the costs have been, so it would be premature to claim that it has been clearly inefficient. What we do know is that the current system does not provide incentives for efficiency.
For example, consider the case of a land trust that accepts an easement that meets or exceeds several of the requirements for qualification; it provides both ecological and human benefits that are significant. However, the land trust does not have any idea of the amount of tax revenue lost as a result of the donation. Depending on various circumstances, including location of the parcel and the income and wealth of the donor, the tax savings might range from thousands to millions of dollars. There is no way to know the net benefit to society, or even if that net benefit is positive. All we can say is that benefits have been created, and costs incurred. Such a system does not create any expectation of efficient behavior. At best, organizations will accept only easements that generate high conservation benefits, with no regard to the actual cost of the tax benefits generated for the donor.
The problem is that other systems, such as requiring that easements be purchased rather than donated, also generate efficiency problems. Given how little we know about the magnitude of the benefits and costs being created, and the difficulty of predicting responses to a new set of incentives, I favor improvements to the existing system rather than beginning a new experiment.
Land Lines: What role do you see for economic analysis in shaping future environmental protection legislation?
Jeffrey Sundberg: Easement policy is like many kinds of environmental protection legislation—it tends to be benefit-based. Economic analysis can point the way to the creation of appropriate incentives that can reduce the cost of achieving those benefits. It can also suggest the kind of benefits that have greater value to society, and which should therefore receive higher priority.
It is not realistic, or desirable, to use economic analysis to evaluate each easement before a donation is accepted. However, economic analysis can be used to create incentives that are compatible with more efficient kinds of donations. For example, most federal incentives, and those of most states, apply equally to any easement that meets one or more of several possible qualifications, including habitat for endangered species or scenic value for local residents. Economic analysis could be used to suggest which qualifications are of the highest value to society, and tax incentives could then be tailored to provide the most payment for the easements likely to offer the greatest benefit.
Pidot, Jeff. 2005. Reinventing conservation easements: A critical examination and ideas for reform. Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
Sundberg, Jeffrey. 2006. Private provision of a public good: Land trust membership. Land Economics 82(3): 353–366.
Sundberg, Jeffrey, and Richard F. Dye. 2006. Tax and property value effects of conservation easements. Working Paper. Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.