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Urban Natural Resources Stewardship

Feedbacks through the Land Market Affect Success of Open Space Conservation Policy

Commuter ferry, Lopez Island, WA. Photo Credit:  Eileen S. Burns, Milliman, Inc.Research Issue

In response to urban growth and development, conservation organizations and local governments acquire land to protect open space and wildlife habitat within or on the fringe of metropolitan areas. With the purchase of land for conservation, increasing land price, which reflects increasing amenity values and development pressure, results in the conversion of some previously undeveloped land.  Guidance is needed to help organizations prioritize areas for open space conservation where development pressure is high and land conservation can have unintended consequences of increasing land price, promoting development, and limiting future conservation options. 

Our Research

A fundamental question is how to prioritize land protection options under a limited budget: should funds be spent on small, expensive parcels under high risk of development, or on larger, inexpensive parcels that are further away from population centers?  A Northern Research Station scientist and university partner developed a novel modeling framework that incorporates the effect of land protection decisions on nearby land price and development.   The framework accounts for the two key land price feedbacks that arise in markets where conservation competes with development: the amenity premium for properties close to protected land and price increases driven by the overall reduction in the supply of land available for development.  Applying the framework, the team helped prioritize land conservation decisions on Lopez Island, Washington.  The island’s proximity to the major population center of Seattle creates strong demand for residential properties. At the same time, the island supports many unique and sensitive wildlife species and habitats.  The results suggest that, on Lopez Island, a strategy of purchasing small, expensive parcels that have both high conservation value and high risk of development is more likely to achieve conservation goals because that strategy limits the risk of unintentional increases in land price and development in the surrounding area and increases options for future open space conservation.

Expected Outcomes

The results for Lopez Island suggest that accounting for the effect of land protection decisions on nearby land price and development is important in markets where land conservation competes with development.   Conservation strategies that use available funds to protect fewer parcels with smaller total area, higher conservation value, and higher risk of development are more likely to avoid unintended consequences of increasing land price compared with strategies that protect larger, less expensive parcels under the given budget.  The failure to account for land price feedbacks can lead to significant losses in biological conservation.  For Lopez Island, conservation strategies that ignore land price effects may contribute to biodiversity losses equivalent to the impact of halving a conservation budget of US$20 million.

Research Results

Toth, Sandor F.; Haight, Robert G.; Rogers, Luke W. 2011. Dynamic reserve selection: Optimal land retention with land-price feedbacks. Operations Research. 59(5): 1059-1078.

Research Participants

    • Sándor F. Tóth, School of Forest Resources, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. 
    • Robert G. Haight, Research Forester, USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station
Last Modified: May 8, 2015