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Study: Land conservation good for New England economies

  • A 31-acre parcel of Hadley grassland will be protected in perpetuity for its conservation value as public land in the Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, seen in May 2018. Courtesy of Kestrel Land Trust



Staff Writer
Friday, April 19, 2019

AMHERST — In a first-of-its-kind study, a group of Massachusetts researchers — including an economics professor from Amherst College — have found land conservation in New England leads to job growth. 

The study, published in the journal Conservation Biology late last month, estimates the economic impacts of conserving land by looking at 1,500 cities and towns in the region from 1990 through 2015. The report’s conclusions challenge beliefs among some that conservation hurts economic growth by keeping land from being developed or used for natural resources.

“The study analyzed how increased land protection at the local level … affected employment and some other economic indicators,” Katharine Sims, the Amherst economics professor, explained. The researchers found that land conservation boosts local economies. “I think overall it suggests that the factors on the positive side are outweighing some of those possible costs.”

The researchers sought to identify a cause-and-effect relationship, instead of just correlation, between conservation and economic benefits, Sims said. So they controlled for many potentially confounding factors, like general metro region growth trends, fluctuations in employment and land conservation in neighboring towns. 

The results were clear, Sims said: places where land is being conserved have seen modest employment gains over the time period that the researchers looked at. Part of that job growth was because land conservation provides jobs in areas like sustainable resource use, tourism and recreation, Sims added. 

“It speaks to the potential for land conservation to attract economic activity,” she said. However, she added that towns need to be intentional about how conservation land interfaces with residential and business areas.

Land conservation also attracts new residents and businesses, Sims added: “Stewardship of the land is creating places where people want to live and want to work.”

Those findings weren’t a surprise to Kristin DeBoer, executive director of the Kestrel Land Trust. Those who work in conservation have long known that their work contributes to the local economy, she said. Conserving farmland, for example, contributes to the agricultural economy, and amenities like wooded trails draw people to the region.

However, DeBoer did say that it was “validating” to see the study’s conclusions. And although many communities in the Pioneer Valley support conservation, she said the study could help other communities grappling with the economic questions that arise when trying to conserve land.

“I think it will help people who are on the fence,” DeBoer said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.