2009-06-25 / Letters

Preserved lands more than pay for themselves

In this economic downturn, we're looking at everything from a dollars and-cents perspective. So it's important to ask: Does it make sense for this state we're in to take on more debt to keep preserving our open spaces and farmland?

To answer this question based on numbers rather than gut instinct, the national Trust for Public Land (TPL) analyzed the fiscal impacts of borrowing money to save land. They concluded that the economic returns on preservation far exceed the amount spent for borrowing.

This analysis is critical as the state Legislature debates whether to put a public question on the November ballot for a $600 million bond measure to fund the land preservation programs of the Garden State Preservation Trust (GSPT).

Here are the numbers: the Trust for Public Land analysis estimates that the funding called for by the ballot question would preserve about 110,000 acres of land. The Trust calculates that these additional preserved acres would generate over $500 million in ecosystem goods and services annually — farm and fish products, outdoor recreational activities and natural services like filtering our air and water and controlling flooding.

Over the 20-year payback period for the bonds, adjusted for inflation, land preservation benefits add up to about $10 billion. Of course, these economic benefits don't go away in 20 years; preserved lands keep on giving.

In contrast, the total cost of borrowing $600 million would be $48 million annually over 20 years, or $960 million total. Compare the numbers and the returns from saving the land are more than 10 times the cost. And the analysis didn't even include the economic benefits from historic preservation and park development projects or residual economic benefits like job creation.

The TPL analysis uses New Jersey's own 2007 Natural Capital report, which calculates the economic value of the goods and services we receive from various types of land. The estimated number of future preserved acres — based on actual GSPT figures from 2000 through 2007 — was further broken down by type of land. This allowed TPL to calculate ecosystem goods and services on a per acre basis using the values provided in the Natural Capital report. These numbers could then be multiplied back out and adjusted for future inflation to yield a final estimate of benefits.

But any good analysis also asks: What if we do nothing?

The answer is: Doing nothing will mean losing the benefits of these ecosystem goods and services if the lands are not permanently preserved. The stark economic reality is that we would have to pay to replace these services or allow our quality of life to decline.Wewill either pay to control flooding or clean up after it. We will either clean the air and water or live with the health care costs that come from it being dirtier. One way or other, we will pay. Why not save land and, in doing so, pay less?

And in this economic climate, doing nothing also means missing out on depressed land prices, a phenomenon that may likely be over in a few years.

People are right to be concerned about New Jersey's debt level. After all, we don't want to preserve the natural bounty of the state for future generations, but saddle them with so much debt they can't afford to care for or enjoy them. But the numbers show that bonding to preserve open space is a wise and sound fiscal investment for which our grandchildren —and their grandchildren — will be grateful.

For more information on ecological benefits of open space, see the state's Natural Capital report at http://www.state.nj.us/dep/dsr/ naturalcap/.

And I hope you will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation's website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconser vation.org, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey's precious land and natural resources.

Michele S. Byers

Executive Director N.J. Conservation Foundation

Far Hills

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