Kimble: Protecting open spaces attracts businesses

Kimble: Protecting open spaces attracts businesses

Tucson Citizen, Thursday 7-07-05

What can we do to improve the economy of Tucson and Pima County and make it more attractive to businesses we want?

Well, it wasn’t advertised as such, but 14 months ago, we may have taken an important step. It was in May 2004 that Pima County voters approved – by a margin of almost 2-to-1 – the sale of $173 million in bonds to buy open space.

Yes, it was good for the plants and the animals of the Sonoran Desert. But the authors of a new book say it also was good for the people who live here – and not just in an esoteric, feel-good way.

Spending money to buy open space is smart in a way that can be measured in dollars and cents.

Many in Tucson haven’t seen it that way, arguing that buying open space is a bad deal for taxpayers. After all, taxpayers lose when they spend public money to buy privately owned land. And they lose again when that land is taken off the property tax rolls, leaving a deficit that the rest of us must make up.

But that is only part of the story – and when all factors are taken into account, preserving land has very positive economic benefits. That’s the conclusion of the authors of a new book, "Nature-Friendly Communities."

There are a lot of things that we don’t do very well here. Our schools are not that great. We do a real bad job of providing health insurance for children. Crime? If you haven’t had something stolen yet, you’re due.


"Nature-Friendly Communities," 353 pages, published by Island Press ($49.95 hardcover and $29.95 paperback.
But those of us in Pima County are doing an excellent job of protecting the habitat, say the authors of "Nature-Friendly Communities" who picked Pima County as one of nine areas of the country highlighted in the book.

The authors say Pima County has "pushed the envelope with its innovative Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan."

The book tells people unfamiliar with Tucson something that we well know: Development pressures here are enormous. About 20,000 people move to Pima County each year, with seven to 10 square miles of desert consumed annually. That works out to between 86 and 123 acres of desert bladed each week.

But in the late 1990s, the authors say, there was a fortuitous convergence of events: The federal government listed the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl as endangered, there was a state mandate to create or revise comprehensive plans, and Pima County had a Board of Supervisors with the political will to drive land preservation.

The result was the conservation plan, which the authors call "one of the most ambitious biodiversity protection plans in the nation."

What has made our plan so special? "It considers biodiversity protection at an ecosystem level rather than simply at a species level, using a park or species approach," the authors write. In other words, the county has sought to protect land that has intact habitat serving as home to a wide variety of plants and animals instead of seeking just to protect the endangered species.

And it’s all good business.

Christopher Duerksen is one of the book’s authors and a Colorado-based land planning consultant. He also has seen the land-use discussion from the other side of the dais, formerly serving as a member of the city council in Fredericksburg, Va. He knows it is tough convincing people that preserving land is a smart economic move.

"Any time you vote to protect wildlife habitat, there is a lot of gnashing of teeth over how it will affect the community," Duerksen said in an interview last week.

But there are tangible economic benefits:
" High-tech companies treasure natural amenities. "Surveys have rated environmental quality ahead of housing costs, costs of living, commuting patterns, schools, climate, government services and public safety" when companies pick a location, according to the book.
" Tourism is the largest sector of the national economy – and the largest sector of the local economy. People go on vacation to see natural places, not to see big housing developments.
" Governments save money because open space doesn’t require water and sewer lines, roads and other services. A 1999 study in Massachusetts found that towns with the most permanently protected open space per capita have the lowest tax bills.
" Property taxes lost when open space is taken off the tax rolls often are made up for with higher property taxes from surrounding land. People are willing to pay more – and pay more property taxes – for land next to open space.
There is one other reason it is important to preserve open space: If we don’t do it, who will?

Duerksen writes that federal and state governments are "pulling back from the task of wildlife habitat preservation" with local governments stepping forward to meet the challenge.

And that is a lesson that the rest of the nation can learn from us. "Nobody is looking at the entire ecosystems like Pima County," Duerksen said.

Mark Kimble’s column appears Thursdays. He also appears at 6:30 p.m. and midnight Fridays on the Roundtable segment of "Arizona Illustrated" on KUAT-TV, Channel 6. Phone 573-4662, fax 573-4569 or e-mail .