What are they?
A conservation easement is an agreement between a landowner and an organization, such as a land trust or conservancy. The owner gives up the right to use the property in certain ways, and grants these rights to the organization.
The purpose is to preserve and protect the conservation values of the property, and prevent any use which might impair them. (Notice that the property must have conservation values for a conservation easement to be legitimate.)
The owner retains ownership and rights to use the property, and is still responsible for taxes, upkeep, and maintenance.
The easement places restrictions on what the owner (and all future owners) may do with the property. These are negotiable to some extent, but often include:
No development or subdivision of the property
No removal of trees
No filling, excavation, dumping
What are the benefits?
The main benefit is the satisfaction of preserving nature, whether it be streamside habitat, woods, or marsh. It is a great comfort to know that your property will be protected forever for the benefit of the creatures whose habitat it is, and of the humans who yearn for and cherish every remaining piece of "wildness" in our vast suburban landscape.
There are also financial benefits, which can include federal tax deductions and Virginia tax credits. Virginia is one of only two states in the country in which conservation tax credits can be sold. Consult a tax attorney familiar with conservation easements to learn more.
How can I find out more about placing a conservation easement on my property?
Contact a qualified land trust or conservancy, such as the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust (NVCT). The NVCT owns conservation easements on several properties on Little Hunting Creek, and can explain conservation easements, land donation, and other ways of preserving land.