It would be the worst kind of irony if the program that has preserved so many acres of Colorado's beautiful lands - and can preserve many more - was to be replaced by more miles of highway construction. But that is what could happen if the Colorado Legislature halts the tax credits that landowners receive for agreeing not to develop, and instead uses that tax revenue to fund needed highway improvements.
Colorado, of course, needs both open space and highways.
The tax credits serve as compensation for not developing, and in recent years it has been possible to buy and sell them. That has caused the conservation program to grow. While some landowners can apply a tax credit against other sources of income, many do not. Most ranchers and farmers, sometimes those with the most stunning vistas and habitat, have only limited revenues from their agricultural enterprises. Receiving a tax credit, and selling it at a somewhat reduced value to someone who can use it, provides a critical incentive to put into an easement.
Yes, there have been some abuses. A few acreages have been overvalued to receive a larger tax credit than deserved, and a few others - very small parcels, for example - should have been deemed not to have conservation value at all. The industry is now policing itself.
While it has been wonderful to preserve so much acreage, the easement tax credits grew unexpectedly large in the aggregate. Colorado's tax revenue was reduced at a time when revenue has been sorely needed, and a cap on the total now exists.
Money to improve the state's roads ought to come largely from those who use them. An increased vehicle registration fee makes good sense, and a $32 average (plus a fee on rental cars) that is in current legislation would generate about $250 million annually. That would begin to get some work done. Longer term, the state gasoline tax should be increased. And to reflect the number of more fuel-efficient cars - and more and more will be coming - a road-building tax independent of fuel used will have to be devised.
Do not eviscerate the successful conservation easement program that has made La Plata and Montezuma counties, and much of Colorado, more appealing to live in.