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Over the past thirty years, statutes have reversed the common law and authorized private conservation organizations to hold conservation easements "in gross." These interests allow nonprofits to control the use and development of the burdened property by preventing alterations of the natural and ecological features. Conservation easements can be held by organizations geographically distant from the restricted land.

Conservation easements bring great benefits as they support conservation, represent private initiative, yield efficiency benefits, and exemplify freedom of choice of property owners. There are costs, however: significant federal and state tax subsidies, the lack of coordinated planning and public process, class issues, stewardship failures by nonprofits, and lack of flexibility by easement holders to meet emerging needs of the community (such as for economic development or affordable housing). There is a risk to effective policy making and democratic principles when local, public land use decisions are delegated to non-representative, non-accountable private organizations.

The benefits of private conservation easements are significant, and they should be continued but with changes. The paper suggests five principles and related specific reforms that should be enacted: restoring market mechanisms in the creation of conservation easements; enhancing governance and operations of easement holders; protecting the expectations of future generation owners; achieving flexibility through expanded termination and modification doctrines; and preserving the public's power of eminent domain.