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The Economic Benefits of Land Conservation

To show how a strategy of land conservation is integral to economic health, this report illustrates that parks and open space increase property tax revenue and yields a better return on investment than development. It reviews the economic benefits of farmland preservation, shows how forest cover decreases the cost of treating drinking water, enumerates the economic value of urban trees, and examines the role of parks and open space in attracting businesses and affluent retirees to a community.

This report brings together scientists, economists, and researchers from academia, government, nonprofits, and industry to summarize the best current studies, present new research, and to suggest areas for further inquiry into the economic benefits of land conservation. To show how a strategy of land conservation is integral to economic health, the report:

  • Illustrates that parks and open space generate increased property tax revenue and yield a better return on investment than development:
  • The proximate principle states that the market values of properties located near a park or open space are frequently higher than those of comparable properties located elsewhere. Higher property values lead to higher property taxes. Those revenues can be used to pay debt used to acquire, develop, or renovate the park and once the debt is paid, can provide additional funds to the community.
  • When open space is developed for homes, the taxes of existing residents increase because the cost of providing public services and infrastructure to the new development is usually higher than the tax revenue it generates.
  • Reviews the economic benefits of farmland preservation, including maintaining viable local economies and protecting rural and environmental amenities:
  • Land preservation policies do not cause jobs in a community to shift from high to low wage positions. Wage rates are not affected by putting land into non-extractive uses versus multiple uses (including timbering).
  • Preserved farmland can increase the value of nearby houses enough to generate enough extra property tax revenues to enroll additional acres of agricultural land into the preservation programs.
  • While farmland is disappearing from some areas, there is still sufficient land within the country to ensure the nation’s food security. However, farmland preservation helps to ensure sufficient farmland to supply communities with locally grown produce and helps farmers improve their economic well-being.
  • Farmland preservation can signal a commitment to agriculture that stimulates the industry to invest and work to be successful rather than waiting to “sell out.”
  • Farmland preservation can help to ensure a critical mass of farms that may be necessary to protect the viability of a county’s agriculture, depending on the type of farming.
  • Agricultural preservation preserves the open space attributes and rural amenities that attract tourists and new residents to an area
  • Shows how forest cover decreases the cost of treating drinking water:
  • For every 10% increase in forest cover in the source area (up to about 60% percent forest cover), treatment and chemical costs decrease by about 20%.
  • About 50 to 55% of the variation in water treatment costs are attributable to the amount of forest cover in the source area.
  • Enumerates the economic value of urban trees, which improve air and water quality:
  • Air Quality: Urban trees reduce temperatures and have other microclimate effects, reducing costs energy costs. In Washington D.C., this annually saves residents $2.7 million and in Milwaukee, it annually saves residents $216,0000. They reduce ozone levels. Although the economic benefit of this is unknown, a 1997 study found that the cost of reducing a single part per billion of ozone through electric utility nitrogen oxides limitations is estimated at one-half to three-quarters of a billion dollars annually. Trees remove air pollutants, typically 11 g/square meter of canopy of ozone, particulate matter less than 10 microns, sulfur and nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide. The annual economic value of this pollution removal, per hectare of canopy cover, is estimated $663 in Atlanta, $447 in Boston, $482 in New York, and $527 in Philadelphia.
  • Water quality: When a wooded area is developed, impervious surfaces block the absorption of rain water, and the tree canopy is no longer able to intercept rain before it hits the ground. For natural ground cover, 10% of precipitation runs off lands and into nearby bodies of water. When 75% is impervious surface, 55% of precipitation becomes run off. Parking lots and other paved areas have 98% runoff. Trees can reduce and delay peak flows after a storm, reduce the need for stormwater treatment facilities, and improve water quality. Reducing runoff is likely to save city residents millions per year.
  • Most pollutants enter water bodies from nonpoint sources, including runoff from agricultural lands, urban areas, construction and industrial sites, and failed septic tanks. More than a third of the country’s streams, lakes and estuaries are impaired by water pollution. Damage to streams, lakes, and estuaries from nonpoint source pollution was estimated to be about $7 billion to $9 billion a year in the mid-1980s, and more land has been developed since then.
  • Examines the role of parks and open space in attracting businesses and affluent retirees:
  • In recent decades America’s industry has substantially shifted from traditional manufacturing to “smokeless” industries. Many of these smokeless industries are characterized as “footloose”, because they are not tied to material location, and can be more flexible with where they locate or relocate. They are seen as attractive to communities because they bring money into a local economy, but not the pollution often associated with traditional manufacturing industries. These companies often choose to locate in communities that offer a high level of amenities to employees as a means of attracting and retaining top-level workers. Parks, recreation, and open space are top-ranked amenities for a large majority of employees.
  • In a 5-year study of 174 small business owners who relocated to, expanded in, or launched in Colorado, quality of life was their main reason for choosing the area and small-business decision makers ranked the presence of park, recreation, and open space amenities as being most important factor in the measure of quality of life.