The state's cities and towns are understandably hunting for new sources of revenue in these difficult times, but taxing conservation land should not be one of them. The state's Supreme Judicial Court acted wisely Thursday when it ruled that these lands must be kept tax exempt.
The SJC's unanimous ruling came in a case triggered by the New England Forestry Foundation's refusal to pay a $173 property tax bill sent it by the small Western Massachusetts town of Hawley for a 120-acre parcel owned by the foundation known as the Stetson-Phelps Memorial Forest. The town asserted that the foundation was not aggressive enough in encouraging proper public use of the parcel while the foundation asserted that preserving the land was a positive accomplishment in and of itself. The money involved may have been small, but the principle was considerable given its potential impact on conservation charities and trusts across Massachusetts.
By agreeing that the foundation served the public by protecting the woods from development, the court set a precedent that will protect forest and meadow land across the state, including in the Berkshires where it is plentiful. The decision should also encourage more donations of land for conservation purpose because it is now established in court that such charitable donations are of tangible value.
In his decision, Justice Francis Spina wrote that protecting land in its pristine form benefits wildlife, absorbs carbon emissions, which cleans the atmosphere, and sustains forests. There are many ways beyond paying taxes that land trusts and foundations benefit the state, and the court brought needed attention to them in its important ruling. In so doing, it helped assure that conservation land will be protected in perpetuity.