Managed Retreat Toolkit

Conservation Land Trusts

Introduction to Conservation Land Trusts

Conservation land trusts (“land trusts”) are nonprofit organizations that are incorporated for the purpose of acquiring and holding land for the public benefit. Conservation land trusts often focus on preserving and restoring undeveloped lands for their natural resource values, such as protecting natural habitats and watersheds, or for preserving working lands for farming or forestry. They preserve important lands with high ecological or conservation values by acquiring land or interests in land, through conservation easements.See footnote 1  


Conservation Land Trusts in a Managed Retreat Context

Conservation land trusts can be constructive partners in helping governments facilitate retreat from vulnerable flood-prone areas and efforts to restore and maintain natural floodplains. In some areas, land trusts are already helping governments facilitate retreat by acquiring flood-prone properties, restoring natural floodplains, and creating new “receiving” developments to help families relocate to homes out of harm’s way.  

State and local governments can work with land trusts to support managed retreat efforts by:

  • Collaborating to identify priority areas for acquisition where environmentally beneficial restoration could improve habitats and preserve migration corridors for wetlands and other coastal ecosystems that are vulnerable to sea-level rise; 
  • Ensuring that land trusts are eligible to receive acquired properties from hazard mitigation buyouts; and
  • Ensuring that land trusts have the financial resources to restore and maintain properties over the long term. 


Policy Considerations for Conservation Land Trusts


  • Land trusts often need start-up support to launch and build sufficient capital to acquire properties.
  • Land trusts often have to patch together funding and financing from multiple sources to support the acquisition, restoration, and long-term management of properties
  • It is unclear whether land acquired with certain types of disaster aid can be transferred to a land trust for long-term management or whether disaster recovery funds can be used to support environmentally beneficial restoration of acquired properties.
  • Land trusts have to navigate state and federal laws to qualify for tax benefits for land held for “conservation purposes.”
  • Land trusts may need start-up legal support to draw up legal agreements, including conservation easements.


  • Land trusts can help to reduce the cost of buyouts on communities by providing for long-term maintenance of properties.
  • Land trusts can help to generate economic value by delivering recreational uses of acquired properties.
  • Land trusts benefit from state and federal tax incentives for holding land in trust for public benefit.
  • Land trusts could also help to develop “receiving communities” that can create safe, affordable housing for residents relocating away from vulnerable flood-prone areas.


  • Land trusts help to maximize the environmental benefits delivered by acquired lands because they restore and enhance natural ecosystems.


  • Land trusts are often trusted community partners because they are active in communities and steward important community assets, like recreational open space. 


Practice Tips 

When using or working with conservation land trusts in a managed retreat context, decisionmakers may consider the following practice tips to address and balance different policy tradeoffs:

  • Develop acquisition programs in ways that can leverage partnerships with land trusts while complying with different funding programs: Most acquisition and buyout programs will leverage different federal funding programs (e.g., Hazard Mitigation grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant–Disaster Recovery grant program). Both state and local governments administering disaster recovery and other funding programs must ensure that different funding sources can be leveraged to support different aspects of a project (buyout, relocation incentives, development of receiving communities, restoration of buyout sites, etc.) and that funds and the conditions of the funding sources can be passed along to land trust partners to implement different aspects of the project. For example, sites bought out with FEMA funding must be preserved in perpetuity as undeveloped open space. Land trusts acquiring properties with FEMA funding must have the capacity and financial resources to enforce deed restrictions on the acquired properties and to restore and maintain the sites as environmentally beneficial open space in perpetuity. Additionally, bonds, environmental grants, and other programs should be considered and aligned as potential sources of funding to restore and maintain bought-out sites, to maximize the environmental and flood risk reduction benefits delivered by buyout projects. Finally, state and local governments may also need to incorporate buyouts and resettlement projects into plans that govern the use of disaster aid (e.g., hazard mitigation plans) and community development (e.g., local comprehensive plans) so that these types of partnerships can be activated quickly in the aftermath of a disaster when significant federal aid becomes available to help communities recover and rebuild. 
  • Seek state legislation to enable public-private partnerships with land trusts: Many states have adopted enabling legislation to specifically authorize the formation of nonprofit land trusts and even government-led land trusts. These types of enabling statutes are useful because they clarify the structure and operation of land trusts, allow for the dedication of conservation easements to preserve land in perpetuity for natural and open space uses, and allow preferential tax assessments to encourage the conservation of open space lands. Policymakers should evaluate state laws to determine the types of roles that land trusts can play in managed retreat initiatives and the adequacy of incentives, like tax incentives, to enable land trusts to play these roles. Additionally, states should review legislation establishing various state funding programs to ensure that land trusts are eligible grant recipients under programs that could support buyouts, restoration, redevelopment, community engagement, planning, and other activities that will be required to implement comprehensive managed retreat projects. For example, in South Carolina, the state legislature is considering a bill that would create a Resilience Revolving Fund to facilitate floodplain buyouts and restoration of natural floodplains and the program specifically includes land trusts as eligible recipients of funding under this program. 
  • Provide start-up funding and technical assistance: Governments can provide funding and technical assistance to help start-up and build the capacity of land trusts to support state and local resilience efforts, including managed retreat initiatives. Most conservation land trusts were formed to conserve pristine natural landscapes and may not have the technical know-how to navigate disaster recovery programs and facilitate floodplain buyouts. To enable land trusts to play these types of roles, state and local governments can provide start-up funding and training to help land trusts develop the capacities needed to engage with disaster recovery programs, develop legal agreements needed to comply with program requirements, develop the skills and capacities to engaged disaster-affected residents, among other skills and expertise needed to support managed retreat initiatives. This type of start-up support has proven instrumental in the affordable housing context, where cities — like the City of Irvine in California — have supported the establishment of community land trusts to build and maintain permanently affordable housing.

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