Over the past twenty-five years, courts and commentators have recognized and upheld conservation easements as an important vehicle to preserve natural and ecologically sensitive land, focusing primarily on easements held by nonprofit organizations (NPOs). During the same period, courts and commentators have supported property rights of owners against governmental land use regulation. This paper maintains that these two independent developments militate for the increased use of consensual conservation easements by governmental entities to achieve public land preservation goals. Governmental conservation easements can realize the benefits of efficiency, consent and free choice, and conservation, while avoiding the coercion implicit in public land use regulation. Moreover, governmental conservation easements have advantages over private easements in some situations: governmental easements may be more easily modified or even terminated to address future changes in conservation values and community needs; as with public land use regulation, governmental easements must be transparent and are subject to democratic, participatory processes that NPOs do not have to follow; and properly functioning governmental ownership may be best able to discern and represent the public interest when making acquisition, modification, and termination decisions about conservation easements. I suggest that both NPO-held conservation easement activities and legitimate public land use regulation are valuable and should continue, but argue that increased use of governmental conservation easements can bring significant benefits as well.
78 Brook. L. Rev. 467 (2012-2013)