Open Space: An Investment That Pays Forever

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by Michele S. Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation

More than 1.4 million acres of farmland and open space have been preserved in New Jersey.  As voters consider a $400 million November ballot question to continue this effort, they may logically ask: Is this a wise investment?

Investing public funds to preserve farmland, open space and historic sites has been proven hands down to be a sound investment.  It benefits the very economic, physical and environmental health of New Jersey and its residents – for both current and future generations.

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Research shows us that preserved open spaces and farmland stabilize our communities’ property taxes.  Unlike lands that are developed, preserved lands don’t need schools, libraries or most other municipal services.  In other words, “Cows don’t go to school.” And neither do warblers, foxes or turtles!

An American Farmland Trust study found, for example, that Freehold Township (Monmouth County) spends $1.51 on police, public education, road maintenance and other services for every tax dollar it collects on residential properties – a total net loss.  Farms, forests and other natural lands, on the other hand, cost the town only 33 cents for every dollar collected – a total net gain!

New Jersey’s preserved open spaces also directly support our state’s economy, from farming to commercial fishing to tourism. A national survey found that 2.1 million people fished, hunted or watched wildlife in New Jersey in 2006, contributing $1.7 billion to the state’s economy.

Open space benefits our physical and emotional health. Parks, recreation fields and trails are inviting outdoor meeting places for friends and families. Here we socialize, exercise and play together. A study by the Centers for Disease Control found over 25 percent more people exercised three or more days per week when they had access to parks and other outdoor places.

And don’t forget about the “ecosystem benefits” we realize from preserved lands.  Forests absorb pollutants from the air, including carbon dioxide, the prime culprit of climate change; they replenish and filter surface and ground waters, protecting drinking water supplies.  As a result, the air we breathe and water we drink are cleaner, at a cost far below what we would pay for expensive engineered solutions.  A Trust for Public Land study on The Economic Benefits of Open Land found that a 10 percent increase in forest cover yields a 20 percent decrease in water treatment and chemical costs.

These are just some of the ways preserved lands keep money in our pockets and improve our lives.  Preserved open space isn’t just pretty; it’s a smart financial investment today and a valuable legacy for future generations.
It’s also a modest investment. Repayment of the bonds would cost less than $1 per month for every New Jersey household, or about $10 a year. But the economic benefits from the land go on forever.  It’s probably the best $10 you’ll ever spend!

For more information on the economic value of preserved lands, see the state Department of Environmental Protection’s “Natural Capital” report at www.state.nj.us/dep/dsr/naturalcap/ .   This report summarizes the results of a two-year study of the dollar value of services and goods produced by New Jersey’s natural resources.

Another resource on the benefits of investing in preservation programs can be found on the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org/documents/GSPTImpacts4_22_09.pdf . Please contact me at info@njconservation.org, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.


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