The conservation easement is a powerful tool for conserving private land in the United States and beyond. Among the many incentives for encouraging conservation easement donations are tax deductions, which largely depend on the conservation value of the donated land. But groups of wealthy taxpayers, accountants, attorneys, and appraisers are manipulating the conservation easement tax framework and receiving large tax deductions for conservation easements that are practically worthless in a conservation sense—transactions known as 'syndicated conservation easements.' Syndicated conservation easements have generated substantial controversy, in part because they cost American taxpayers billions of tax dollars annually. While the Internal Revenue Service, the United States Department of Justice, members of Congress, and conservation groups are attempting to crack down on syndicated conservation easements, their efforts to curb the practice remain ineffective. This Note first examines the conservation easement tax framework and considers the ways in which it enables syndicated conservation easements. Next, this Note describes the measures taken against syndicated conservation easements and analyzes how such measures have fallen short. Finally, this Note contemplates more effective ways to uncover syndicated conservation easements and curb such transactions entirely. Specifically, the Internal Revenue Service must streamline its auditing efforts to focus on appraisals, while the United States Department of Justice must impose harsher penalties on those involved in syndicated conservation easements. Similarly, Congress must create a more effective system for appraisal oversight and should enact legislation that alters the existing tax framework in a way that disincentivizes wealthy taxpayers from engaging in syndicated conservation easements altogether. Lastly, individual conservation groups must work together to create a more uniform set of standards and practices for conservation easement donation, while state legislators should strive to create uniformity in state conservation easement tax law.
Jimmy Godin, A Sand County Tax Shelter: Syndicated Conservation Easements and Their Toll on the American Taxpayer, 2022 ULR 213 (2022). doi: 10.26054/0d-vcfv-fbkr