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Trust Our Land: Stimulus through conservation

Investment in the conservation of the lands our community cares about most is a formidable economic driver, study says. 
Todd Winslow Pierce | Special to the Daily

Financial jargon such as ROI, debt servicing, and risk mitigation is commonplace amongst corporate boardrooms, not so much across dusty backroads of the American West. Yet a recent report from Andrew Seidl of Colorado State University, demonstrating the potential economic impacts of federal funding for conservation easements, is brimming with such terminology.

Rather than being covetous of boardroom parlance, folks in the conservation biz are talking like this because, well, the numbers warrant it. Indeed, the returns on investment are looking increasingly inviting.

The federal funding under review was the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which is funded by the National Resource Conservation Service — a federal agency within the Department of Agriculture. The ACEP provides financial assistance to landowners and land trusts through purchased easements — voluntary legal agreements that limit or condition certain types of uses of the land — that protect the agricultural use and conservation values (like wildlife habitat) of eligible land.

Keep It Colorado and Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, who jointly commissioned the report, write, “The study concludes that if $88.9 million in federal ACEP payments (the estimated current need for active conservation projects in Colorado) were secured, this funding would generate up to $195 million in economic activity and create more than 1,200 jobs in Colorado.” Rural communities across Colorado would be the biggest beneficiaries, with some 80 percent of the targeted funds going toward rural economies.

Not a bad ROI. As the pandemic continues to reorient how we look at our socio-economic structures, conservation work is taking center stage. For good reason, too. Rural areas don’t often have as robust of safety nets as urban areas and are therefore more susceptible to economic downturns, be it spurred by drought or pandemic. So financial stimulus from ACEP not only gives immediate help to struggling areas, but it also diversifies local economies away from exposure to such shocks. Well, heaps of federal dollars are certainly nice but where does local level conservation funding usually come from?

For your local land conservation group, the Eagle Valley Land Trust, project costs come from donations, grants, local governments, and occasionally, federal or state funding. These contributions tell only part of the story, however.

Leverage — another financier favorite — is a better indicator of how EVLT and other conservation groups best allocate limited funds. For conservation projects to get done, private dollars are often matched by state and federal dollars, thereby doubling, or even tripling, the initial investment and thus the potential project size.

The Eagle County Open Space Fund is no stranger to leveraging limited funds for big community return. Since its inception in 2002 and (overwhelmingly) voter-approved reauthorization in 2018, the county’s Open Space Program has conserved over 13,000 acres of land valued at $93.3 million, $57.4 million of which came from the fund. That $35.9 million difference was made up of Great Outdoors Colorado grants, contributions from municipalities and towns, private donations from local stakeholders, and other organizations, both large and small. The conservation of places like Minturn Boneyard, Brush Creek Valley Ranch and Open Space, and Eagle River Preserve, are all a result of these leveraged dollars.

For these kinds of collaborative conservation efforts to continue, the Eagle County Open Space Fund needs to ensure that it receives enough funding each year. Without strong financial support, the ECOS Fund’s status as the backbone of local conservation efforts will be in jeopardy. Currently, the fund receives about $4.5 million a year through a 1.5 mill levy tax on property. This revenue could nosedive come November if two key ballot initiatives fail.

Amendment B on the statewide ballot proposes repealing the Gallagher Amendment, which, on a surface level, halts the year-over-year decline in residential assessment rates, and thus, property tax revenue collected by the state and local governments. Since property taxes are what funds the Open Space Fund, leaving the Gallagher Amendment in place would result in a $650,000 net loss to the fund every year.

The Eagle County Board of Commissioners have proposed a measure to mitigate this potential loss in property tax revenue in the form of Issue 1A. Issue 1A would allow the commissioners to adjust the county’s mill levy rate to maintain existing revenues that would be lost if the Gallagher Amendment is not repealed. The proposal is a prescient hedge against a serious loss of tax revenue that would not only negatively affect the Open Space Fund but also services like, as the ballot question states: “emergency and law enforcement response to wildland fires and other natural disasters; necessary road repair and maintenance; emergency assistance to our workers and residents.”

With federal funding programs taking a heightened interest in rural conservation work and academic research confirming the kinds of investment returns that await, it’s a no-brainer for local governments to lay down some seed money and take advantage of the multiplying effects. The Eagle County Open Space Fund has been doing exactly that for nearly two decades. 1A’s passage would ensure funding for the foundation of our valley’s exciting and expanding breadth of conservation projects.

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