The most traditional way to protect private land is a conservation easement, a restriction landowners voluntarily place on their properties that defines future uses of the land and preserves family farms, wildlife habitat and natural or historic land.

This legal agreement between a landowner and land trust permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. The easement allows landowners to continue to own and use their land. The restrictions on future land use will remain in place in perpetuity even if land is bought, sold or inherited.

Landowners give up some rights associated with the land when establishing a conservation easement. For example, a landowner might give up the right to build additional structures, while retaining the right to grow crops. Future owners also will be bound by the easement's terms. The land trust is responsible for making sure the easement's terms are followed. This is managed through stewardship by the land trust.

Conservation easements offer great flexibility. For example, an easement on property containing rare wildlife habitat might prohibit any development while an easement on a farm might allow continued farming and the addition of agricultural structures. An easement may apply to all or a portion of the property. An easement also does not require public access.