CSU study finds conservation pays its way

Here in southern Colorado, we value our wild and working open spaces, productive agricultural lands, wildlife habitat and scenic open spaces for what they bring to our quality of life. Many of us are here because of the beauty and because the valley offers a quiet escape from the rapidly developing cities of Colorado and beyond.

Colorado’s spending on land conservation returns far more than pretty views, according to a recently released study. It provides a solid foundation for the state’s economic future.

Colorado State University researchers found that the state’s investment returns $4 to $12 for every dollar it spends on tax credits for conservation easements and Great Outdoors Colorado grants, a voter-approved use of lottery proceeds. 

These conservation programs protect land important for agriculture, wildlife, tourism and outdoor recreation. In return, the study states, the public gets clean water and air, scenic views, locally produced food and wildlife habitat. And because conservation easements are forever, these benefits will continue into the future, becoming even more valuable as Colorado’s population increases and the supply of open lands decreases.

The study was conducted in response to a 2016 audit of the state’s Conservation Easement Tax Credit Program. Auditors told lawmakers it was difficult to determine the overall benefits of the conservation easement program. That prompted CSU to find the answer. 

The study’s authors looked at data on about 2.1 million acres protected through the tax credit program or GOCO grants. They determined the return on investment by looking at the value of not only agricultural production, but also ecosystem services the properties provide ­– such as water filtration and purification, wildlife habitat protection and soil retention – compared with the money spent to protect them. The study notes that these ecosystem services benefit the public even if the property remains in private hands.

Since 1995, Colorado has invested $280 million in GOCO grants and $772 million in tax credits. As a result, Colorado residents and visitors have received $5.5 billion to $13.7 billion in economic benefits. That’s $4 to $12 in public benefits for every dollar spent. Custer County residents have benefited from both programs. For example, GOCO has helped fund parks and playgrounds in Westcliffe and Silver Cliff.

Based on the new analysis, the CSU research team found the state programs have protected:

  • 1.5 million acres of critical wildlife habitat.
  • Nearly 300,000 acres of prime farmland.
  • 250 miles along designated scenic byways.
  • More than 4,100 miles of streams, creeks and rivers.
  • More than 270,000 acres of habitat used by elk during severe winter conditions.

What is this worth? We will only really know down the road, as Colorado’s population continues to grow. Demographers estimate that Colorado will gain about 3 million new resident by 2050. If you are reading this, you probably agree that Custer County is a very desirable place to be. State programs that fund open space provide a balance to the rapid growth across the state.

Conservation easements are voluntary, legally binding agreements between a private landowner and a land trust. These agreements permanently restrict and define the amount and type of development allowed on a property. The land remains in private ownership and control, and landowners continue using their property as they always have. 

San Isabel Land Protection Trust has protected more than 40,000 acres with 133 conservation easements in our four-county region. That includes more than 30,000 acres of productive agricultural lands and more than 50 miles of streams. The land trust works to protect our quality of life, which depends on a healthy, intact and beautiful landscape and a strong agricultural foundation.

The bottom line: Land conservation is a sound investment that benefits Colorado residents now and into the future.

Ben Lenth

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  • "The Hood Family placed a conservation easement on our ranch because it gave us a chance to preserve the land as undeveloped property while allowing the operation of the ranch to continue to make ranching decisions as we have always done. It also provided funding to establish retirement funds and an investment portfolio, providing long-term income."

    – Keith Hood, fifth-generation rancher