Campus News

Report finds protecting natural areas makes fiscal sense

Protecting a county’s natural resources and its fiscal health may seem to be competing goals, but a UGA study provides a blueprint for achieving both.

The paper, which appears in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, offers a new way to assess the financial and environmental costs and benefits of development. Focusing on Georgia’s McIntosh County, the study’s authors make recommendations to reduce the costs of growth while preserving the area’s natural resources.

McIntosh County is one of the least developed counties on the Eastern Seaboard, with forests and salt marshes accounting for 95 percent of its land area. However, it is poised for increasing growth as retirees and second-home buyers are attracted to its scenic beauty and recreational opportunities.

Residential development offers new sources of tax revenue, but it also comes with costs, such as building new roads and increasing police and fire protection.

Costs also are incurred as ecosystem services are lost when natural areas are developed. Ecosystem services include water purification, flood storage and carbon sequestration that nature does for free. They are more difficult to value, so often aren’t taken into consideration.

J.P. Schmidt, an ecologist in the Odum School of Ecology and the study’s lead author, was interested in both kinds of costs. Working with former UGA economist Rebecca Moore and Merryl Alber, director of the UGA Marine Institute, Schmidt first conducted a “cost of community services” study. It compared the tax revenue generated by different types of land uses-residential, commercial and rural-with the costs to provide municipal services to each of those development types.

Consistent with such studies conducted elsewhere, the researchers found that residential land costs more in services than it brings in to the county in taxes.

For ecosystem services, Schmidt and his colleagues used estimates from published studies for the value of services provided by forests, forested wetlands and salt marshes.

Putting the two analyses together, they ranked different landscape types by the value of services provided and by net cost to the local government.

“We found that forested wetlands are really valuable from the perspective of a number of ecosystem services like water filtration, water storage, flood control, biodiversity, carbon sequestration and nutrient absorption,” Schmidt said. “When they’re harvested, they’re not high-value for timber-landowners don’t make a whole lot of money, and it doesn’t generate much for the county in terms of sales tax or revenue that way. So it suggests that these are areas that should really be targeted for payments for environmental services.”