Land for Tomorrow wants the state to invest more than $800 million over the next five years to protect North Carolina’s land and water resources. These investments will protect nearly 400,000 acres of farms, forests, parks and game lands, including 20,000 acres within view of the Blue Ridge Parkway and other scenic byways.
It is imperative that we act now to protect the open space, farms and forest lands that constitute our state’s green infrastructure. Farsighted decisions today will create jobs, save money and generate tax dollars for decades to come.
While some may argue that conservation expenditures are frivolous during times of tight state budgets, just the opposite is true. When we conserve our state’s land and water resources, we are directly supporting the state’s $32 billion agriculture industry, the $22 billion tourism industry and the $2.6 billion hunting and fishing industry.
Research conducted by the Trust for Public Land estimates that for each dollar invested in conservation, four dollars in economic value are generated in North Carolina.
A majority of respondents to a 2011 poll believe that air and water protection are important for attracting jobs to our state. Turns out they’re right. In just the last few months, three of the country’s finest craft breweries – Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues – have indicated they will be locating new facilities, spending millions of dollars and creating hundreds of new of lobs in Western North Carolina.
Their decisions to locate here are due in part to the region’s abundant clean water and high quality of life generated by outdoor recreation opportunities. The founder of Oskar Blues – one of the fastest growing breweries in the country – has kept a mountain bike in Brevard for years in order to take advantage of the area’s great mountain biking.
New Belgium Brewing is starting redevelopment of a brownfields site and sponsoring a new riverfront music festival, bringing dollars to our state years before it brews its first beer here.
In addition to a brewery, tasting room and restaurant, Sierra Nevada Brewing will build a million-dollar lab which it has offered to existing local breweries. The company’s presence will thus enhance cooperation between firms while providing a boost to the area’s growing beer tourism scene.
Despite the tight budget, spending on green infrastructure is an especially wise investment at this moment. In addition to being integral to recruiting new businesses to our state, natural assets are crucial to our tourism industry, particularly in rural areas of the state. Protecting this source of jobs and tax revenue is especially important at a time when other sources of employment and tax revenue are still recovering. Investments now will position these areas to benefit even more from the economic recovery.
Investments in green infrastructure today can also prevent costly built infrastructure expenditures – think, more dams, levees and sewer systems – as our state’s population increases in the future. Open space serves as a natural shock absorber to development, helping to limit flooding, improving our ability to capture surface water for later use and raising water quality.
In addition, green space tends to increase tax revenues by raising the value of adjacent properties. This is good for both the property owner and for local governments that rely on the tax revenue from real property.
Since the real estate market has not completely recovered, we can get even more bang for our conservation bucks. Some conservation easements or outright purchases of land that may have been out of reach of governments and land trusts in the past are now feasible.
All told, green infrastructure expenditures are wise and essential investments in times of economic uncertainty. We can utilize nature’s services instead of paying for manufactured substitutes, recruit new businesses that value our assets in place and protect property values, quality of life and tourism revenue streams that are so important to us in North Carolina.
It’s clear that conservation investments pay off, so let’s make space in our budget for open space now, before it’s too late. Investments in green infrastructure today will yield a much better tomorrow for all of us in North Carolina.
Leah Greden Mathews is Sara and Joseph Breman professor of social relations and professor of economics at UNC Asheville.