Two New York Times articles published earlier this month illustrate the highs and lows of land protection right now. One, "Preservation Groups Find Bargains in Housing Bust," described how plummeting real estate prices have provided once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for land-conservation organizations to protect irreplaceable natural treasures once destined for sprawling development. From Idaho to Florida and Virginia to Oregon, groups have preserved fields and forests, marshland and ocean waterfronts that as little as a year ago were slated for massive housing projects. Many of these scenic wonders now will be turned into parks.
That's the high. The low, "New Year but No Relief for Strapped States," noted the challenges many state governments face to rein in skyrocketing deficits. Actually, the earlier article hinted at this dilemma's environmental implications: dedicated funds for protecting land and creating new parks already have been a casualty of fiscal belt-tightening in statehouses from Olympia to Albany just when they could do the most good. With red ink continuing to rise, even more drastic cuts are likely. There's a trickle-down effect, too. With less state support, county and municipal governments are being forced to slash their own budgets, so land preservation and parks often take another hit on the local level.
Why are these initiatives such easy deficit-reduction targets? Because there's a presumption they are luxuries. Sure, parks make us feel good and wildflower-filled meadows are pretty to look at, but they don't pay the bills. That's the all-too-common perception among legislators and even the public at large. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth.
For proof, take a look at Conservation: An Investment That Pays, a study released last year by The Trust for Public Land. It's one of the most comprehensive looks yet at the myriad benefits land protection offers our cash-strapped economies.
The report compiles a wealth of statistics offering incontrovertible evidence that:
Photo: Walkway Over the Hudson State Park (pre renovation), by Fred Schaeffer
Parks aren't freeloaders. Far from it, they provide communities with direct economic benefits. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has calculated that Americans who engage in hunting, fishing and wildlife-watching spend nearly $125 billion annually, supporting an industry responsible for 1.6 million jobs more people than are employed by Walmart, the largest U.S. retailer. The National Parks Conservation Association reports that for each $1 invested in our national parks, there's a $4 return in local spending. In New York, figures are comparable for state parks; I bet the same holds for other states.
In many states, including New York, funds for land protection already have taken disproportionate cuts that fail to take into account these far-reaching economic and environmental benefits. It's imperative we let our legislators know they can't let the landscapes that enrich our lives and, as it turns out, contribute so much to the bottom line be the primary victims of future reductions. For in the end, it's us who wind up being the true victims.
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