Investments in Natural Assets Yield High Returns - Southern Maryland Headline News

Investments in Natural Assets Yield High Returns

Commentary by Sara Kaplaniak

It’s a fact. One of my earliest conservation influences came in the way of a cleaning product. The socially-responsible (and wildly successful) household products company Seventh Generation takes its name from and bases business decisions on the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy: “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”

For me, this is a philosophy that should apply to every land use and natural resources decision made today. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.

Take conservation easements. In these legally-binding agreements, a landowner voluntarily sells and/or donates certain rights associated with his or her property – often the right to subdivide or develop – to a land trust or government agency which holds those rights and enforces the landowner's promise. In return, the landowner retains private ownership and use of the land to a certain degree. It can be an effective way of keeping cherished property and productive land – often owned by conservation-minded landowners – in a family even during challenging economic times.

Most of the time, conservation easements are permanent. If land with an easement is sold, the easement transfers to the new landowner, who must use the property according to the agreement.

Conservation easements can also be tailored to specific types of land uses. The county where I reside in south central Pennsylvania is rooted in agriculture and has a program dedicated to coordinating public and private funds to secure conservation easements that permanently preserve the county’s farmland, rural heritage and agriculture-based economy. Established in 1989, the Cumberland County Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Program chooses from a long waiting list of applicants based on criteria that takes into account a property’s size, soil quality, proximity to other protected areas and environmentally sensitive features such as streams and wetlands. As part of its competitive process, the program also gives consideration to the implementation of conservation and land stewardship practices such as controlling the release of sediments and nutrients into local waterways.

The additional acres of farmland and open space protected by the Cumberland County Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Program benefit the surrounding landscape, where wildlife depends on open spaces to rest and roam. They also ensure that future generations of the county’s farming families will continue to have the opportunity to use the land to feed themselves and a growing population.

In the densely populated Chesapeake Bay watershed – downstream from many of these farms – every acre of green and open space counts. Prior to establishing the program, Cumberland County had lost more than 600 farms and 50,000 acres of farmland to development over a period of 40 years. For more than a decade, the program has worked to reverse that trend by purchasing more than 100 conservation easements to preserve about 14,000 acres of farmland with additional applications pending and a waiting list of farmers eager to participate. Multiply this effort across 57 Pennsylvania counties and in other states within the Chesapeake Bay watershed and imagine the results of so many conservation-minded landowners making a living off the land while ensuring it will thrive and remain productive into the future.

Conservation easements serve as a model of a sound investment for society during a time when many uses of public and private dollars seem uncertain or even suspect. That’s because natural resources – clean streams, fertile soils, healthy forests and yes, natural gas – represent significant financial assets, yielding high returns in the way of clean air and water, nourishing food, abundant fish and other wildlife, economic profits, spiritual renewal. . . the list goes on and on.

When these natural resources are used but not depleted, they can benefit people while still playing their important role in nature. This is what a forward-thinking tool like conservation easements achieves. When natural resources are overdrawn, everyone pays. Look no further than the current rush to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation. What will be left for the next generation – or in seven generations – after the drilling and the “fracking” and the extracting and the transporting . . . . and after the energy is all used up?

Every decision related to our lands and waters – from tapping into the Marcellus shale for energy, to cultivating the land to feed a growing population, to managing forests for lumber – needs be made with an eye to that seventh generation. The risks of not doing so are high; the rewards of doing so are great. Realizing the profits may take longer and require patience, but during unpredictable times it is a guaranteed return on investment.

Sara Kaplaniak lives and writes in Pennsylvania, where she reduces, reuses and recycles along with her husband and two kids. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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