Despite the lingering effects of the Great Recession and big cuts to government funding, U.S. voters continue to support public funds for land conservation. The most recent evidence of this is found in Travis County, Texas, where on November 8 voters approved $82.1 million to buy land for parks and open space. The most expensive project supported by the voters would set aside $22.2 million to buy nearly 800 acres (324 ha) for recreational use along the Pedernales River in the Texas Hill Country.
It may come as a surprise to some, but the outcome of the Travis County vote was hardly unusual. Since the start of the recession in 2008, voters have approved 171 public finance measures for parks and green space totaling more than $15 billion. Public support for green space has remained remarkably popular in both good times and bad. Since 1988, when the Trust for Public Land started to track conservation ballot box measures, voters have approved 1,756 referendums totaling over $126 billon.
Land conservation is not limited to the public sector, however. In recent years, private land conservation has become big business in America. A recent report issued by the Land Trust Alliance—the umbrella group for land trusts—found that despite the weak economy, a total of 10 million acres (4.05 million ha) of land has been voluntarily conserved since 2005 as urban parks, family farms, forests, and natural areas.
Land saved from development jumped 27 percent from about 37 million acres (15 million ha) in 2005 to 47 million acres (19 million ha) in 2010, according to a five-year census of the nation’s roughly 1,700 private land trusts.
A land trust is a nonprofit organization that works to conserve land by buying land outright, acquiring conservation easements, or otherwise assisting in the protection and stewardship of land. Today, there are 1,699 state and local land trusts and 24 national land trusts such as the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund. California has the most land trusts with 197, followed by Massachusetts (159), Connecticut (137), Pennsylvania (103), and New York (97). The states with the fewest land trusts are North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
Other key findings of the 2010 National Land Trust Census Report include the following:
- The number of land trust volunteers increased by 70 percent since 2005, while the number of paid staff and contractors increased by 19 percent;
- The number of members and financial supporters grew to almost 5 million people (4,986,093) in 2010; and
- From 2005 to 2010, state and local land trusts more than doubled the amount of funding that they have dedicated to easement monitoring, stewardship, and legal defense. They also tripled their operating endowments.
TRENDS IN LAND CONSERVATION BALLOTS
Source: TPL LandVote Database, the Trust for Public Land. Accessed November 10, 2011.
Some land trusts have managed to buy more acreage because of falling real estate prices. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently reported that “raw land destined for residential development has fallen so far in value that thousands of acres across the country are being used again for agriculture.” During the housing boom, real estate investors paid top dollar to buy land from farmers and convert it into subdivisions. Now, according to the WSJ, “with crop prices soaring and housing in a deep slump the economics of land investment have turned upside down.” Today, farmers and conservation organizations are buying land that had been slated for development and using it for agriculture or preserving it as natural areas.
Experts say that another factor in the upswing in land conservation has been increased federal tax incentives. In 2006, Congress approved the Pension Reform Act, which allows larger tax deductions over a longer period of time for taxpayers who donate a conservation easement to a qualifying land trust.
Rand Wentworth, president of the Land Trust Alliance, says that donated conservation easements grew from about 1 million acres (404,858 ha) per year to over 1.3 million acres (526,315 ha) per year after the law took effect. He predicts that the tax incentives slated to expire at the end of 2011 will be extended because of bipartisan congressional support.
Governments throughout the United States and around the world have long recognized the need to preserve open space because of its critical role as a provider of food, recreational opportunities, and natural-hazard mitigation or because it possesses rare geological or biological features. What may have been underestimated, however, is the commercial value of open space and its potential to create value.
There are, of course, dozens of studies that document the positive relationship between real estate values and proximity to green space. A 2011 study by Gensler and ULI Europe found that 95 percent of respondents believe that open space adds value to commercial property and would be prepared to pay at least 3 percent more to be in proximity to open space. Similar factors drive the market for open space in residential developments. Buyers are willing to pay extra for access to trails and protected green space (whether a golf course or greenway). They value views of fields and forests, and these community amenities contribute to increased home values, even if providing the amenities results in smaller lots or more compact layout of houses, or both.
A final factor in the growth of land conservation in the United States has been the entry of private capital investment funds into the conservation arena. In recent years, a number of funds have been established to provide market-rate returns for investors while providing a new solution to land conservation priorities. For example, Maryland-based Ecosystem Investment Partners delivers competitive risk-adjusted returns to investors through the use of market-based “payments for ecosystem services” (PES) that reward landowners for the restoration and protection of critical natural resources. The most established and active PES markets in the United States are wetland, stream, and endangered-species habitat mitigation banking. Carbon sequestration projects are another area of growing interest. At present, almost $4 billion is spent each year to mitigate the unavoidable impacts of highway and other construction projects on federally protected natural resources. There are currently more than 1,000 mitigation and conservation banks encompassing over 1 million acres (404,858 ha) across the United States.
The private sector is clearly willing to invest in green space if the right vehicle for investment is made available. Given the current state of the economy, public/private partnerships to preserve green space are certain to grow in popularity.