Conservation in Tough Times—Land&People

Generations of Minnesotans spent childhood summers at Camp Ojiketa on the shores of Green Lake, a place where one can still see deer, owls, loons, wild turkeys, painted turtles, great blue herons, and beautiful sunsets. But this idyllic place came under threat in recent years, when its owner, Minnesota Council of Camp Fire USA, decided to sell the land and considered developers as buyers. Former campers formed the Ojiketa Preservation Society to raise money for the land’s protection, but Camp Fire’s $5 million asking price was out of reach.

In 2008, however, the real estate market first softened, then plummeted, and the price came down to less than $3.7 million. Taking advantage of the reduced price, The Trust for Public Land was able to combine donated funds with public money and purchase the camp in mid- December. Camp Ojiketa will be a regional park, owned and managed by the local community, Chisago City.

In another year-end transaction, TPL acquired 290 acres along the lower Colorado River near Blythe, California. The land could have become a waterfront subdivision, but the California Department of Fish and Game wanted to restore it as part of a multistate habitat conservation effort along the river. The slumping real estate market forced the developers to shelve their plans, and TPL was able to negotiate a purchase for half the original asking price.

California approved the land purchase from TPL with voter-approved bond funds. But then the state’s unprecedented budget crisis—caused in large measure by a drop in tax revenues due to the recession—prompted it to freeze spending on all conservation acquisitions. All over the state, conservation temporarily came to a standstill; at one point early in 2009, as many as 4,000 previously approved, bond-funded conservation projects were on hold. As this issue of Land&People goes to press, California’s funding of conservation projects has not resumed.

Taken together, the stories illustrate the puzzle of trying to conserve land in times of economic distress. On the one hand, funds for conservation dry up as everyone from individual donors to the federal government feels inclined to tighten their belts. On the other hand, recessions also can create great bargains and conservation opportunities—if money can be found to complete the efforts.

Motivated Sellers

Historically, economic downturns have been a boon to conservation, points out Ernest Cook, senior vice president of national programs for TPL. “Some of the great national forests, wildlife refuges, and national grassland reserves that we have today and from which we benefit so much came from the Great Depression, when land values absolutely hit bottom.”

Whether we are approaching anything like that kind of collapse in land values is unclear, but certainly the demand for real estate has decreased dramatically, and it is suddenly a buyer’s market.

“We’re literally getting calls every day, around the country, from developers who have properties they want to sell, often at huge discounts,” says Tim Ahern, TPL’s senior director of media relations. Local developers are particularly anxious to sell because they have had poor lot sales and their loans are coming due. “Local developers tend to be more reliant on projects that have specific funding, unlike big national developers, who tend to rely more on longterm corporate debt,” says Bowen Blair, TPL senior vice president and director of conservation transactions.

But large national developers are not immune to market tides, either, Blair says. “Time after time, we’re seeing developers selling land for thirty cents on the dollar compared with what they paid for the property. There are incredible opportunities out there if you can position yourself to take advantage of them.”

For example, in suburban Portland, Oregon, TPL recently was able to purchase environmentally sensitive land along the Tualatin River for the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District after its value dropped by nearly a third. Before the downturn, the 2.9-acre, 12-lot subdivision was appraised at $1.5 million. In December, TPL conserved the land for a little more than $1 million. And in Florida—a hotbed of the recent real estate boom that is suffering commensurately in the bust—TPL was able to purchase for $4.4 million a three-acre New Smyrna Beach tract that had been valued at $6.2 million as recently as 2005. The seller had planned to build 20 condos on the property. Now it will be a city park.

A Local Demand For Conservation

In spite of bleak economic news, public support for conservation remains high. In the November 2008 election, 71 percent of conservation initiatives passed, generating $7.3 billion for conservation, a one-day record. Some of the measures will protect water quality; others will preserve local lands. Some of last year’s conservation victories were staggeringly one-sided. For example, in Windsor Locks, Connecticut—a working-class town north of Hartford—nearly 90 percent of voters approved the expenditure of $2.16 million to protect 224 acres of watershed land, the last parcel of open space in town.

“It just goes to show that people are not willing to compromise when it comes to the environment,” says Cook. Voters have demonstrated that they understand the tangible community benefits of these measures, such as protecting play areas for children and scenic views, reducing traffic congestion, and generally creating a better quality of life.

“People are better educated and better organized around these issues than they were in the past,” notes Bowen Blair. “They see that parks are not so much a luxury as an essential part of the infrastructure. They have definitive economic, social, and conservation benefits.” Moreover, a lot of these local measures don’t cost much per household, usually between $8 and $50 annually.

“It’s a very good investment,” says Cook. “Although land values are dropping right now in many places across the country, they’ll go up again. In twenty-five years, when we’re looking back on this time, the prices we paid will look like a bargain, and I think the average voter gets that. Conserving land is a fundamental value that Americans share, and it doesn’t blow with the wind.”

Still, some states have no significant conservation funding programs. And even in states and communities with established funding programs, decision makers may be reluctant to move forward with conservation projects. They may hope that land values will fall further, giving them more conservation for their dollar. Or they may simply be wary of spending money on anything in an environment of government deficits and fiscal restraint.

The Prospects For Federal Funding

“There is an ocean of conservation need, and there is never more than a puddle of money,” says Alan Front, TPL senior vice president of federal affairs. Conservation receives less than one-tenth of one percent of federal spending, the vast majority of which goes to entitlement programs, interest on debt, and defense. “The money that goes to protect farmland or national parks or working forests is a statistical crumb,” Front says.

In a budget that is expected to run a $1 trillion deficit this year, increasing conservation from $3 billion to $4 billion would have a negligible effect on overall spending. Yet an extra $1 billion could make the difference in saving specific wildlife areas, scenic vistas, or parks for people. “Individual places have great resonance for people,” Front points out. “And when people mobilize to protect those places, that’s what guides spending, in good times and bad.”

Many members of Congress are responsive to their constituencies when they advocate for specific places.

“There is no natural limit or artificial cap to what a Congress or a White House can invest in conservation,” says Front. “It comes down to how much of a priority they see it as being for the people those landscapes serve.”

The new administration and Congress will be taking a fresh look at federal conservation funding through a variety of programs. President Obama has signaled a strong commitment to the environment and conservation, and key administration figures like Interior Secretary Ken Salazar have been longtime champions of protecting our nation’s irreplaceable natural and cultural landscapes. TPL and a coalition of 30 other environmental groups have offered a broad array of policy recommendations, including a near doubling of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund over constrained FY08 levels.

“The fiscal crisis may complicate these efforts,” Front says, “but through the will of key decision makers in Washington, there may indeed be a way.”

One new element in the federal conservation spending equation will be climate change, which the administration has put high on its list of initiatives. As climate change forces vulnerable species from their current habitat, the conservation and restoration of new habitat lands will be essential to maintain flora and fauna that otherwise would be lost. Conserved forestlands also can act as an important sink for atmospheric carbon. Federal climate change legislation is expected to consider—and, it is hoped, fund—conservation to meet these and other public policy priorities, including preserving the lands that store and safeguard the nation’s water supplies.

Front is optimistic that the time is right for a major federal commitment to conservation. “Both on Capitol Hill and at the White House, there are leaders with just the right instincts, skills, backgrounds, and conservation passion to make a difference,” he says. “So in a time of economic despair, we see hope for conservation.”

Donors May Be Key

Conservation donors also are feeling the pinch, as might be expected with the dramatic decline in the stock market, says TPL’s Betsy McGean, who ran a recently completed fundraising campaign to protect the Page Pond and Forest, a much-loved community landscape in Meredith, New Hampshire. McGean was in the unenviable position of wrapping up her campaign last fall, as the stock market tumbled hundreds of points each day. A number of prospective donors were reluctantly forced to reconsider their pledges as, day by day, they watched their personal wealth shrivel. While the state and the town had committed substantial public funds for the project, project managers were counting on up to $1 million in donated private funds to complete the effort. For a while last September, it looked like the project was in trouble.

Then several things happened. Because of the real estate slump, TPL was able to renegotiate the price of the land and gain an extension for raising the money—more evidence that the recession can take with one hand and give with the other. With the funding gap narrowed, one intrepid donor ignored the economic risk and came up with a $100,000 challenge grant to match new donations.

Attracted by the prospect of doubling their support, more than 100 people from the small town and beyond dug into their pockets to conserve the land— many making a second or third donation in spite of hard times. “Many of these residents felt that with even a modest gift, they could make a big difference in the project’s outcome,” McGean says, “and they were right.”

The continuing loyalty of donors to conservation is evidence of how highly they value local landscapes and access to the outdoors. And while no one really knows what is going to happen in the complicated new world conservationists face, no one doubts that Americans will remain loyal to the conservation cause.

“Through good times and bad times, Americans love the land,” says TPL president Will Rogers. “We are currently facing both challenges and opportunities. But the people who are closest to TPL’s work have been generous and solid in their support. With their help, we will confront the challenges and try to take advantage of the opportunities.”

Erica Gies is a freelance environmental reporter who lives in San Francisco. She wrote about the importance of outdoor play to child development in the Fall/Winter 2008 Land&People.