In the top photo you’re looking down at the Valley floor from The Knob in Mount Jackson that was permanently protected in 2018 with a conservation easement and is now a part of the George Washington National Forest, a project that was enthusiastically supported by both the community and the town. Now, let’s talk about how we protect that view and its many resources.
(Photo: Heather Richards)
Many thanks to guest author John Hutchinson for contributing this piece to the summer 2022 Land Conservation edition of the ridge & valley.
That’s a funny word that gets tossed around when people talk about protecting the amazing rural landscape of the Shenandoah Valley. Literally, “viewshed” means “as far as the eye can see.” How can one protect a viewshed, not only for today and tomorrow, but forever?
Sure, the viewsheds towards the mountains to the east and the west, the Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington National Forest, enjoy some protection from development. But what about all the private land on the Valley floor? Enter the land protection tool known as the conservation easement. If you put your land under easement and your neighbors do the same, together not only is everyone’s viewshed protected, but the natural resources “as far as the eye can see” are protected as well.
A conservation easement is a legal agreement that a private nonprofit land trust and a landowner use to join in restricting certain development and permanently protecting the essential aspects of the land. The nonprofit agency is called the easement “holder.” Many government agencies, including counties, can also hold conservation easements.
Conserved land has many benefits for individual landowners and communities. Atop the list are pristine views and clean water that are protected forever because the landowner donating the easement has agreed to limit building on the property and protect the natural resources in various ways such as fencing livestock out of streams.
Because our society values these community resources (everybody likes clean drinking water!), the government provides incentives to landowners who choose to protect them under conservation easement. Conservation values—things that the government will pay you to protect forever—include wildlife habitat, open space, agriculture, water, recreational space, and historic resources such as a battlefield or an old mill.
The Commonwealth of Virginia provides an income tax credit equal to 40% of the easement value to owners who donate conservation easements or conservation land outright to land trusts and government agencies via the land preservation tax credit. The federal government also provides an income tax deduction to conservation easement donors. These deductions reduce one’s taxable income just like a gift to a church or charity.
Alliance board member Bobby Whitescarver and his wife Jeanne Hoffman just hit a milestone in their journey to place a conservation easement on their Churchville farm Whiskey Creek Angus. Shown here, (left to right) Laura Thurman, Senior Conservation Specialist with VOF, and Jeanne walk the farm to discuss the conservation values they’ll be protecting together. (Photo: Robert Whitescarver)
Whether you are a landowner or just live in the neighborhood and like the view, you may wish to advocate for the continuation of these programs because they protect the characteristics we value in the Shenandoah Valley. Our legislators at all levels need to hear that we want grant programs that support easements to continue and funding to meet the demand.
If you are considering a conservation easement, Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley, through the Shenandoah Valley Conservation Collaborative, can refer you to the right partners who will best meet your needs. We can also recommend agencies that can help you design and implement best management practices, like stream fencing and cover crops.
When paired with land management practices for clean water and healthy soil, conservation easements can make a current landowner’s stewardship permanent. That way our children, and our neighbors and friends, can enjoy the pristine waters and landscapes of the Shenandoah Valley in perpetuity. And that’s peace, love, and land conservation.
John Hutchinson has been at the forefront of land conservation efforts in the Shenandoah Valley and Virginia for more than 36 years. During his tenure at the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, he was instrumental in preserving thousands of acres of nationally-significant historic lands. He lives in Staunton.
In the photo to the left, Keven Walker (left), executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, presents John (right) with the Carrington Williams Preservation Award at the Foundation’s 2022 National Conference. The award honors John’s outstanding commitment to battlefield preservation. (Photo: Nancy Sorrells)