Harvard forest

As the Green New Deal heads to the Senate floor for a vote this week, the debate about whether such conservation proposals can deliver on their promise to create jobs has intensified.

It turns out there is truth to that particular assertion, at least in the experience of New England over the past couple of decades, according to Amherst economics professor Katharine Sims and colleagues at Harvard Forest (Harvard University’s outdoor laboratory and classroom for ecology and conservation), the Highstead Foundation and Boston University.

Katharine Sims
In a first-of-its-kind analysis, Sims and her fellow researchers and found that when land protection in New England increased, employment rates rose modestly over the next five-year period, even when controlling for other associated factors.

A paper about these findings published this week in the journal Conservation Biology estimates the local net impacts of private and public land conservation between 1990 and 2015 across 1,500 cities and towns that are home to nearly all of New England’s population.

“Job growth was modest but significant across the region, and the effect was amplified in more rural areas,” explains Sims, who is a co-lead author of the study.

Sims illustrates the paper’s results using a hypothetical example of a town with 50,000 employed people. If the municipality increased its land protection measures by 50 percent, it saw, on average, 750 additional citizens employed in the next five years.

Today, about a quarter of New England’s land base is permanently conserved and more than half of the region’s conservation has occurred within the last 25 years, says Spencer Meyer, senior conservationist at Highstead and a co-author of the study. “We now have further evidence that conservation generally boosts, rather than depresses, local economies through job growth.”

Such findings contradict a long-held view by some who view conservation—the permanent protection of land from developed uses—as a loss of possible local tax revenue from new development or resource extraction and thus incompatible with economic growth. Proponents of land protection point to the fact that conservation can reduce the cost of community services while providing both indirect economic benefits (clean water and flood protection) and direct economic gains (increased real estate and amenity values and inputs to the forest and farm products industry).

Previous economic studies have mainly focused on measures taken in the Western United States, and on projects more commonly associated with public land conservation, such as the creation of national parks. Sims’ team’s study builds on efforts by the Harvard Forest and Highstead Foundation to track and learn from the unique framework of land protection in New England, which includes large amounts of privately-owned land.

“New England is unique,” says Jonathan Thompson, senior ecologist at Harvard Forest and another co-lead author of the study. “Most of its land is privately owned by hundreds of thousands of individual landowners. We’ve now shown that when private landowners protect their land, the benefits extend beyond nature and into their communities, too.”

The gains in employment following increases in conservation may be driven by overall amenity-related growth or new jobs in tourism and recreation, Sims and her colleagues speculate. They also point to the preservation of jobs in areas with commercial timberlands that support timber harvests, non-timber forest products such as maple syrup, and public access and recreational activities.

In addition to modest job growth, the team found small gains in median household income, overall population, and employment in recreation, tourism and arts-based industries as a result of land conservation, though the effects were not statistically significant. There was no change in the number of new building permits when conservation increased, suggesting that protecting land does not reduce housing development, but redirects where it occurs. The team notes that more research, especially on property values and tax revenues, is needed to get a more complete picture of the costs and benefits of land conservation.

Sims notes, “The future of land conservation is likely to look more like it does in New England: a mix of public and private land conservation in more densely populated areas. Our results are hopeful because they suggest that local economies can benefit from these new forms of stewardship as well.”