The controversy surrounding the state Board of Public Works' recent acquisition of 1,000 acres of undeveloped land in Dorchester County underscores a dilemma for conservationists.

In good economic times, most people recognize the value of preserving working lands, natural habitats and open space for future generations. Tougher times, some argue, call for harder choices. Among many pressing priorities, land conservation may begin to sound like a luxury we can delay until the economy rebounds.

But can we?

National and local authorities agree that the next 10 years offer the maximum opportunity for protecting undeveloped lands. Afterward, our state may be so built up that significant conservation is no longer possible.

Even today, some areas of Maryland are beginning to experience what such a future might look like. In Howard County, for example, the agricultural preservation program has not been able to find willing participants despite offering up to $40,000 an acre for purchased easements. And while 123 acres represents the average-size easement held by Maryland Environmental Trust, Howard County Conservancy has good reason to celebrate when it secures just a 10-acre easement.

To act while we still can, conservationists need to be smart, efficient and flexible: The more tools in the preservation toolbox, the more land can be preserved. Acquiring land outright, as with the Dorchester parcel, may be the best option in some cases, and $3,100 per acre is certainly a reasonable price even for land with limited developmental potential.

In other cases, however, permanent conservation easements can offer a less costly alternative. Exemplary initiatives like the Department of Natural Resources' Rural Legacy Program and the Maryland Agricultural Land Protection Foundation have concentrated on such purchased easements, in which landowners forgo future development rights in return for payment.

Together, Rural Legacy and the land protection foundation have preserved more than 300,000 acres at an average cost of $2,500 to $4,000 per acre. In parts of the state where land values are significantly higher than in Dorchester County, purchased easements are an option worth considering.

Another DNR-affiliated program, Maryland Environmental Trust, has focused primarily on voluntary conservation easements. Because donors permanently preserve their land in return for federal and state tax incentives, Maryland Environmental Trust has been able to leverage its limited public dollars to maximum effect. Working with a statewide network of volunteers and 56 independent land-trust partners, we have permanently protected more than 122,000 acres on more than 1,000 properties throughout the state for an average cost of $70 per acre (covering staff salaries and expenses).

Donated easements are on the upswing, thanks to recently expanded federal tax incentives. In fact, our organization is experiencing one of its busiest years ever: a potential 60 voluntary easements totaling 9,000 acres are expected to be finalized in 2009.

Maryland has long been recognized as a national leader in conservation - a legacy well worth preserving. With the development clock ticking, we need to press forward despite funding limitations. Voluntary easements offer a remarkably efficient and cost-effective way to conserve land and financial resources alike.

K. King Burnett is chairman of the board of trustees of Maryland Environmental Trust. His e-mail is

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