Protecting a Vital Tool


The following post was written by Mike Carlson, Executive Director of Gathering Waters, for the Fall 2017 edition of Saving Land Magazine.

Have you ever wondered why conservation easements are such powerful and effective tools? Or why you and your local land trust should care about their legal underpinnings? What if you learned that a few attorneys and academics may change the very foundation of your conservation work, and probably not for the better?

Unfortunately, this last question isn’t hypothetical. A recently formed study committee—a group, it’s worth noting, that does not include any land trust practitioners—is assessing whether the Uniform Conservation Easement Act (UCEA) should be amended to add new red tape.

In case you’re not familiar with the history of the UCEA, it was originally developed in 1981 by the Uniform Law Commission (ULC) to provide states, like my home state of Wisconsin, with a template to enable private land conservation. Many states have adopted the UCEA in its entirety, with more than half codifying at least some of the model language.

Now some members of the ULC want to “fix” something that isn’t actually broken, and I would urge the land trust community to pay close attention to this process as it unfolds. When the Land Trust Alliance approached me and other state association representatives to weigh in on this important topic, we readily agreed. This issue is just too important to ignore. Here’s why:

  • Unnecessary government oversight would burden public agencies with duplicative work and saddle taxpayers and easement holders with an unfunded mandate. In Wisconsin, agencies with expertise in conservation are severely understaffed—particularly our Department of Natural Resources—while other state agencies like the Department of Justice have limited, if any, experience with conservation easements.
  • UCEA modification would create unpredictable outcomes across the country, given the varying political environments in each state. Anyone needing a reminder about how dramatically a state’s
    political landscape can shift should look to Wisconsin and the swings that we’ve experienced since 2010. Decisions about land conservation in Wisconsin look a lot different today than they did less than a decade ago. Exposing the UCEA to the vagaries of the legislative process without thoughtful state-specific strategies will only create challenges for those of us on the front lines.
  • The original UCEA has been flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of local cultures and state laws, and further expanding the scope of the UCEA—seeking one-size-fits-all solutions—simply won’t work everywhere. Wisconsin could be a case study in cultural variances between urban and rural areas and differing views about the role of government. Our nearly 50 land trust members are able to navigate these nuances because they work directly with landowners to effectively balance private property rights with the public good.
  • Even if your state does not use the UCEA, courts across the country cite the UCEA in their decisions, often regardless of state law. Many states’ attorneys general routinely propose legislation to conform to all uniform acts, so changes to the UCEA could be introduced without consultation with the land trust community. We are fortunate to have the UCEA codified in Wisconsin, but we know that what happens in states across the country could directly impact our work.

The Land Trust Alliance and its Conservation Defense team should be applauded for responding quickly to this issue—keeping the land trust community informed, submitting written comments to the ULC study committee and posting useful information on its website ( Take a few minutes to review the latest updates and please stay vigilant to help protect the integrity of our most vital conservation tool.