"Nature's Contributions to Our Quality of Life"

The Economic Case for Conservation

It’s no secret that conservation of our natural heritage results in significant benefits, such as improved air and water quality, protection of wildlife habitat and increased recreational opportunities.

But can conservation and community greening actually strengthen Western Pennsylvania’s economy? A growing body of national and local research indicates that urban and rural communities that conserve natural areas, invest in parks and green spaces, as well as plant trees and other forms of greenery, see measurable economic benefits.

"The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy protects our most spectacular natural resources because they should be conserved for their inherent ecological, recreational and scenic value. We know with conviction that they should be conserved in their natural condition for future generations. We protect our rivers and streams because our watersheds have intrinsic value and are crucial to habitat health and human enjoyment. We plant trees by the thousands because they add beauty and shade to our neighborhoods. But these conservation actions all, every one, have a side benefit: They also are good for the economic health of our communities and our region," said Tom Saunders, president and CEO of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Outdoor recreation contributes billions of dollars to Pennsylvania’s economy each year.

Nature’s Cost-Effective Services

It is common for communities and economists to study the public costs and benefits, such as municipal services and tax revenues, associated with housing developments, office parks and other forms of development. More difficult to quantify, however, is the economic value of natural lands and water sources. But the "services" that nature provides — which would otherwise require expensive, technology-based solutions — are immense:

  • supplying clean water
  • improving air quality
  • filtering pollutants from soil and water
  • breaking down organic waste
  • pollinating plants
  • moderating temperatures locally and globally
  • offsetting greenhouse gases
  • retaining rainwater to replenish groundwater and reduce flooding
  • providing food, medicines and fuel
  • assisting with pest control
  • myriad aesthetic and recreational benefits

In a groundbreaking and widely reported study, researchers estimated these worldwide "services" to be worth $33 trillion per year, according to The Trust for Public Land (TPL).

Having conserved nearly 225,000 acres over 77 years, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has made a significant contribution toward safeguarding priceless natural resources — and all the benefits that they provide to residents of the region. Our Watershed Conservation program works to improve water quality and reduce pollution sources to rivers and streams. The significant blocks of forest conserved by WPC help to improve air and water quality, offset greenhouse gases and moderate the temperature of air and water. In addition, our Natural Heritage program identifies the highest priority habitats and lands to conserve, enabling WPC to protect the region's diversity of plant and animal life and assist in maintaining the balance of nature. In urban areas as well, WPC makes a difference by planting trees, flowers and greenery that improve air quality, moderate temperature and reduce stormwater runoff.

Boosting Tourism

Beyond providing cost-effective "services" to our communities, conserved natural areas also support tourism — the second-largest industry in Pennsylvania. A significant portion of this segment of the economy is centered on outdoor recreation — and therefore depends on the ongoing protection of wild, natural areas to support activities ranging from wildflower walks to whitewater rafting.

McConnells Mill State Park (shown here) and Moraine State Park, both of which were established through WPC conservation actions, draw more than 1.3 million visitors annually.

"Undeveloped lands are key holdings in Pennsylvania's economic portfolio. Tourism, agriculture, timber production, hunting and fishing, wildlife-watching and outdoor recreation contribute billions of dollars to Pennsylvania's economy every year. Environmental services such as preventing floods and recharging groundwater contributes tens of billions more," said Andrew Loza, executive director of the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association.

In Pennsylvania, anglers and hunters spent $3.9 billion within the Commonwealth in 2006 alone to support these activities. Wildlife-watching within the state generated an additional $1.4 billion in 2006. "Wildlife and wild places are big businesses in Pennsylvania. Eco-tourism is one of the fastest growing segments of Pennsylvania tourism," reported the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

Nationally, the fastest-growing forms of recreation are birding, hiking, backpacking, snowmobiling and walking, according to DCNR. These activities, combined with hunting, fishing and other wildlife-based outdoor activities, contribute billions to the national economy. In 2006, 34.8 million people visited national wildlife refuges, generating almost $11.7 billion for local economies, $547.8 million in employment income, and $185.3 million in tax revenues, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The work of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to establish and expand publicly accessible natural areas, and to restore and protect rivers and streams, supports these critical segments of the economy. In 2008 alone, the Conservancy protected over 14,000 acres, including important additions to Ohiopyle State Park and several state forests that will contribute to recreational opportunities in our region.

Improving Water Quality

Technology makes it possible for water treatment facilities to filter out pollutants and provide safe drinking water to the public. However, nature still plays a critical role when it comes to delivering safe, clean drinking water to communities in a cost-effective way. Forests and natural areas help to buffer streams from sediment, agricultural runoff, pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals. Even freshwater mussels are known to improve water quality where their populations are abundant.

Urban trees – here planted by the TreeVitalize property values and reduce utility costs.

A 2002 joint study conducted by TPL in cooperation with the American Water Works Association's Source Water Protection Committee reconfirmed the link between the extent of forest cover in communities and the cost of water treatment. Specifically, the study found that the cost for water treatment rose as forest cover in the source area declined, reporting, "the less forest cover, the more expensive the water treatment."

Wetlands - another conservation priority for WPC - also deliver a surprising economic boost. The estimated value of all economic benefits generated by a single acre of wetland is between $150,000 and $200,000, according to TPL. These benefits include storm buffering, water quality improvement and flood protection.

Investments That Grow

The economic benefits of large-scale land and water conservation are impressive. So, too, are the returns on investments in green spaces within cities, towns, neighborhoods and even individual properties. Adding parks, trees and other forms of greenery to communities helps to increase property values, speed home sales, reduce utility costs - and may even draw more business relocations.

According to Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest, adding 20,000 new trees to the city - the stated goal of the TreeVitalize Pittsburgh program administered by WPC - will generate $800,000 in utility savings annually. In addition, a tree planted within 50 feet of a house can increase the home's property value by as much as 9 percent, according to the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania.

Moreover, trees provide valuable "utility" services to communities by capturing and filtering stormwater during wet weather events. Stormwater runoff contributes to pollution in our streams and rivers, and in turn, can negatively impact human health, wildlife and recreational opportunities. An additional benefit in urban areas is that trees effectively moderate temperatures and cool neighborhoods in the heat of summer, reducing energy use and related costs.

Parks and green spaces also positively impact real estate values. A study carried out by the National Park Service, "Economic Impacts of Protecting Rivers, Trails and Greenway Corridors," reported that home buyers or shoppers highly value homes located near natural areas, with nearly 80 percent rating natural open space as "essential" or "very important" in planned communities. Walking and bicycle paths also were highly valued by people in the market for new houses.

Communities with green amenities also tend to fare better in the competition for highly skilled workers and business relocations. Larger numbers of companies today place a premium on factors such as a healthy, safe environment and access to outdoor recreational amenities when selecting a location, according to TPL. A report by Arthur Anderson consulting company found that mid- to high-level executives prioritized quality of life and access to outdoor recreational opportunities when selecting a place in which to work.

Complementary Goals

Abundant natural areas, clean rivers and streams, and vibrant, green communities deliver a host of tangible benefits that improve quality of life for residents of Western Pennsylvania. The fact that the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy's conservation and community greening work also can improve the regional economy makes investments in these activities all the more valuable and urgent.

Give your legacy roots

By including the WPC in your estate plans, such as through a bequest, a charitable gift annuity, or a gift of life insurance, you will ensure that our natural heritage is also a part of your future legacy.

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