Spotlight: How Parks Pay

May 13, 2011

Conservation Economics quantifies the economic benefits and fiscal impacts of land conservation.

We may call it a new service, but we've been doing it all along, honing our skills and expanding our scope over the years. With the addition of economist Jessica Sargent-Michaud to our staff in November 2007, our economic analysis toolkit has matured into a powerful force that helps cities, counties, regions, states, NGOs, and other groups understand and communicate the full value of their conservation investments. 

"We're not the only ones out there doing economic benefits analysis," Jessica notes. Other groups have great economic expertise within their particular conservation niche. But because TPL conserves a broad spectrum of land, "we have lots of expertise" to weave together in comprehensive, holistic reports. We are, Jessica explains, uniquely well positioned to "leave no benefit uncounted."

Before joining TPL, Jessica worked for an environmental economics consulting firm. Her professional experience includes public policy analysis and natural resource damage assessment for state, federal, and international agencies. TPL attracted her because it is so responsive to need. "We get real, on- the-ground results I can touch, see, and experience as part of the policy debate," Jessica says.

She points to the Katahdin Lake project in Maine's Baxter State Park as the kind of work that makes TPL such a good fit. "The lake had always been envisioned as part of the park," but a host of complexities stalled the addition. "Not even Governor Baxter could get the lake added. It took TPL's help to get it done." Her connection to this land is deep. She attended college nearby, and the park's Mt. Katahdin was important to her father, who passed way in 2006. "So," she explains, "it was personal."

Jessica came on board at TPL just as the Conservation Economics service began to take off.  While TPL's focus had been on the costs of community services and property tax implications, Jessica broadened the scope of her position, which grew-like the entire organization-to meet changing community needs.

When Jessica started, she recalls, land conservation had been seen as a luxury, something to be shifted in the budget-"stolen" is the word Jessica uses-to pay for other things.  For the last two years, she says, the majority of her work has been defending existing funding programs.

Building on a decade of ground-breaking TPL research on the economic benefits of parks and open space, Jessica and her team undertook rigorous and comprehensive examinations of economic benefits in New Jersey (pdf); Colorado; Long Island, New York; and North Carolina, each of which added clarity and weight to the economic case for conservation investment. The reports have been particularly helpful to legislatures weighing funding decisions. "Everyone is happy to have an economic argument in their back pocket."

Most recently, Jessica's team has been working with partner organizations to determine the return on investment from land conserved though the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The team found that natural goods and services alone return $4 for every $1 invested. They also looked at recreational use of conserved land and learned from recreational spending studies that 11 million visitors to just 16 LWCF-supported national parks, refuges, forests, and monuments pump $500 million into local economies.
The current economic climate, Jessica notes, is a big challenge. "There are so many needs, so little time-every state deserves one of these analyses, to know the benefits of their investments in land conservation."

Still, there are more good days than not, and Jessica believes we are on a broader and bolder trajectory than ever before. "Building on our name, on what we've done, we've become the go-to organization in conservation economics," she says. "We always evolve by asking ourselves what more can we do-and how can we do it better?"

Right now, Jessica feels lucky. "We actually have days of victory," she notes. "When a report we did leads to the passage of land conservation funding, that's a good feeling," she says. "Really unusual for someone who works on spreadsheets!"