Directors Blog 1/17/20

Directors Blog January 17, 2020

By Ian Billilck, PhD

RMBL’s Board will be deciding whether to put a conservation easement on the Gothic property at their next meeting in Houston on Feb. 22.  This has been an on and off again topic of conversation for over 5 years.  But the easement is forever, so I wanted to put it in front of the community one last time.

The easement would be placed on RMBL’s core property of 270 acres in Gothic and held by Colorado Open Lands, a mature and respected conservation organization with a strong record of working well with landowners.  The purpose of the easement would be to dedicate the property to public outdoor recreation and education.  This would be achieved by limiting the use of the entire property to nonprofit research and education; private commercial recreation or other commercial and industrial uses would not be allowed.  It would limit all residences and general use buildings (e.g., dining hall,

admin) to a 50 acre building envelope.  The total square footage of the buildings could only grow about one-third above current space (which doesn’t mean that it would grow).  All existing structures would be allowed, as would research and education, including equipment or structures needed to support those activities, throughout the entire property.

One advantage of the easement would be to demonstrate to RMBL’s partners such as the forest service, the county, and the towns, that we are here forever.  Just as we were excited to see development rights limited on the adjacent ranch, our neighbors will be excited to know historic use of the property will continue, with limitations on further development.

Scientifically, it reinforces RMBL’s emphasis on place-based research, the accumulation of knowledge about the ecosystem and the synergies that emerge from juxtaposing diverse research programs.  The easement is also consistent with the objective of limiting our impacts of the ecosystems we study by channeling further scientific growth (e.g., cabins and lab space) as much as possible to North Village.

Another benefit of the move is financial.  We are following a strategy developed by other field stations.  Black Rock Forest in NY and Archibald in Florida, have used conservation easements to “monetize” the land they own without losing control.   We estimate that donating the easement will generate approximately $1.2 million through a state tax credit program.  The Board will decide on a financial strategy for the funds.  My sense is that such a one-time infusion will used to maintain the value of our assets in perpetuity, such as endowment or to purchase a critical property.  We have a number of strategic priorities, including stronger data management/IT, increasing our capacity to maintain/replace buildings and IT systems, and support of scientists through fellowships and direct support of long-term research, that could potentially be sustained through investment returns.

While $1.2 million is a lot of money, the spendable investment returns would be about $50,000/year.  We could easily add $10 million to the endowment without people much noticing.  Such an endowment would allow regular building improvements, data management and IT services as is standard at LTER sites and major field stations, long-term continuity of staff, and improved support for scientists.  In other words, all of the things we need to make RMBL viable for another 100 years.  So while the easement would be a nice step in the direction of financial sustainability, we would still have a ways to go.

We hope to continue filling the financial sustainability gap, at least in the long-term, by gathering planned giving pledges.  These would be non-binding pledges to include RMBL in estate plans.  While supporters may not be able to make large annual or capital gifts now, many have the capacity to have a big impact through estate planning.  Planned giving pledges will help inspire others who can make donations now by showing that we are here to stay and are well positioned to pass RMBL on to the next generation of students and scientists.  So a planned giving campaign could pay dividends now, even if funds came in decades later.

If you are interested in knowing more about the easement please don’t hesitate to reach out.  I can handle technical questions but if you have opinions for the Board, I encourage you to reach out to Dan, Kailen, or other Board members.  And if you are interested in learning more about estate planning and planned giving, Development Director Erin Fabbre would love to connect.

As always, feel free to reach out to me with any questions you have, large or small.  And I always encourage suggestions for future blog posts.  If there is something you are curious about, chances are there are a bunch of other scientists wondering the same thing!!