Why do we do what we do?

Published 8:00 am Friday, April 14, 2023

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“Why?” may be the longest lasting question we’ll ever ask during our short time on earth. I

hope that we’ll get a glimpse of the answer to that question when we go on to another existence,

but of course we’ll never know what/where/when that might be until we’ve left this world. 

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I’ve learned from experience that a way to get someone to think about difficult decisions is to ask a question in a non-confrontational way that requires the person being asked to think deeply. 

Since this column is about conservation, I’ll give you some examples of what questions

help landowners make difficult decisions. To my surprise, often the stimulus for making those

difficult decisions is completely beyond my imagination. 


First, I’ll begin with a two-sentence summary of possible permitted and prohibited activities allowed on land protected with a conservation easement. These permitted and prohibited activities are based upon what is best for the land, the landowners (including future landowners), the environment, the community, natural habitat, etc. 


Typical permitted uses include farming and timbering, recreational use, trail building, limited residential development, repair and maintenance of existing structures, etc. 


Non-permitted uses might include no commercial development, no paving, no subdivision,

and most important: no land uses which would cause soil erosion or degradation. 


Of course there are some necessary details in every easement, but those are most often

specifically determined by the land itself – its current use and location. 


So, what is the question that potential easement donors need to ask themselves? It goes like this – “after you are dead and looking down from ‘up there’, what do you want to see happening on the land that you left behind?” It’s a question that the landowner can ponder, and wonder what might happen to his/her land when they no longer have control. The question is non-threatening, and most landowners (at least those who love their land) have a pretty good idea of what they hope to see when they look down from heaven 50 or 100 years after they have left this earth. 


But, knowing what you’d like to see in 100 years is a far cry from actually putting those thoughts into a legally binding document.


My question is “How much do you care?” and “Do you care enough to do something to

make that vision a reality?” Often the landowner will dodge the question by answering, “I’ll

leave that decision to my children,” which simply passes the responsibility on to someone else,

usually to children and in-laws who know and care less about the land. At that point it’s all

about the money. 


But some landowners DO make those hard decisions and what drives them to make those decisions fascinates me. Here are a few examples: 


An extended family inherited a large parcel of beautiful wooded land with streams flowing into

the Green River. They had taken care of it for many years, spending summers and vacations

there even though they all lived far away. When one of the family members was diagnosed with

cancer, they wanted to make sure that their sibling could leave this earth knowing that the land

he loved so much would stay just as it was when he left, with deer and possums free to roam as

they wish. So, the family protected that land while their brother was still alive. He died a few

months later.


A man who wants to preserve land and also be able to earn an income from that land buys large

tracts of timberland. He cuts the timber using a sustainable timber management plan,

encumbers the land with a working farm/ forestry conservation easement. The conservation

easement allows him to take an income tax deduction determined by the difference between

the “highest and best use” (residential and commercial development value) and farm/timber

value, which can be used in increments over a 16 year period. This man has preserved four

large parcels of land in our area thus far. 


A man with 45 acres enrolled in the NC Present Use Value (PUV) category was required to cut

timber in order to remain in the PUV system. He cut the trees which were easily accessible and

not on prohibitively steep slopes. The county threatened to cancel his PUV property tax status

unless he cut more acreage, which really would have been environmentally disastrous. Being a

good ‘ole local man, the landowner said “I ain’t going to let them tell me what to do on my own

land!” so he preserved his land with an agricultural/forestry conservation easement prohibiting

residential and commercial development. NC law stipulates that if a piece of property listed in

the PUV program is encumbered with an agricultural/forestry type conservation easement, the

county can never take away that property tax advantage. Now the landowner can harvest

timber and farm according to his own judgment, and the county cannot dictate how he should

manage his own land. 


Here’s my favorite example: A couple donated a large parcel of mountain land to Saluda

Community Land Trust [SCLT] worth a lot of money. When asked why they were doing that,

the man said that he’d been sick recently and had come to the realization that “you can’t take it

with you.” So, he chose to give the land to SCLT rather than try to sell it. When his wife was

asked the same question, her answer was “When we were riding on the mountain I saw a

bobcat run across the road. I kept asking myself, ‘Where would that bobcat go if there were

houses all over this mountain?”


So, to answer the question “Why do we do what we do?” there are many answers, and they are

all determined by the folks making those decisions, and what is most near and dear to them.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to be thinking about the difficult decisions we must make before we

leave this earth.