- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 23, 2000

There are few things more unseemly than abuse of the federal death tax by rich environmentalists to cheat people out of their land.Until the 20th century, death taxes were only passed as a short-lived tool to finance major military engagements. According to Bruce Bartlett of the National Center for Policy Analysis, the first death tax was passed in 1797 to finance naval rearmament and ended four years later. The second, passed in 1862 to finance the Civil War, was repealed in 1870. The third, levied in 1898 to pay for the Spanish-American War, ended in 1902.In 1916, a fourth death tax was passed to finance World War I. That tax survives today, vivid testimony to the immutable 20th century law that taxes are forever. Taking up to 55 percent of your money, the death tax has helped destroy the legacy of five generations of hard-working Americans. But it has finally turned into an albatross for fans of big government. Despite a full court press to defend it by the liberal media, 65 House and nine Senate Democrats recently voted for death tax repeal.Among the unhappy campers created by resurgence of this issue are the 1,200 U.S. land trusts that sprang up after the discovery of just how virulent the death tax could be as a land-use control tool. When it became clear in the late 1970s that environmentalists wanted a lot more land than they could pay for in fee simple, two property-control strategies evolved that have since proven highly effective. The first was use of environmental regulations (especially wetland and endangered species regulations) to keep people from using their land. This had the happy ancillary effect of devaluing property that the environmentalists wanted to buy outright.The second strategy was use of the tax code to extort the right of property use from reluctant farmers and ranchers. The death tax proved perfect for this purpose, and the rest is history. About 80 percent of all private property acquired by the land trusts to date, some 2.3 million acres, was obtained from private landowners in the past 10 years.Check out the literature of almost any land trust in America, and you'll find that their primary sales pitch revolves around "saving the legacy" of landowners from a tax that would otherwise force their heirs to sell the family farm. The pitch is simple: "We can protect your legacy. Just sell us a land-use easement, and reduce property value to below the estate tax threshold. Not only can your heirs keep the family farm, but they can keep on farming it forever."What the trusts don't advertise is that your heirs can't do anything else with the land forever, except farm it and pay taxes on it. So on your deathbed you're faced with the choice of either giving 55 percent of your life's legacy to IRS, or giving up your children's land use rights to the environmentalists.The mouthpiece for the land trusts is an umbrella organization called the Land Trust Alliance (LTA). In testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee last year, LTA recognized the ability to reduce estate tax liability as "an important element in land trusts' solicitation of easement donations." It also testified that "the federal government has been a partner in (this) effort, through the tax code and in many other ways." Indeed. And it is this collusion between government and the land trusts that has robbed many thousands of Americans of a priceless heritage the right of use of the family property.Although horrified by the prospect of repeal, environmentalists have been uncharacteristically quiet during the death-tax debate. Maybe their focus groups tell them that to publicly oppose repeal of a tax so damaging to rural families would be unseemly for some of the richest tax-free organizations in America. The biggest three land trusts have collective assets of more than $2 billion dollars, and income at the largest The Nature Conservancy was over $490 million in 1998 alone. In last year's testimony, LTA argued for maintaining a 10-year phase-out period if legislators were serious about death-tax repeal. "Even if the next decade is the last one for estate taxes, in 10 years it will be too late for much of the farm and ranch land, forest property and key habitat that is under pressure." Not to mention too late for the thousands of families that own the land coveted by the environmentalists.Land trust abuse of the federal death tax has already sucked the lifeblood out of too many rural families in America. Congress should drive a stake into the heart of this practice, instead of giving rich environmentalists another 10 years to cheat people out of their land.

Jeff Goodson is president of JW Goodson Associates Inc., a Texas property consulting company specializing in property threat assessment and response.

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