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Utah needs to protect our open spaces. They’re the reason people want to live here.

The Case For Protecting Our Open Space

It’s 5:00 PM. A familiar, comfortable tee shirt, cool weather jogging pants, and a light breathable jacket replace the clothes you had worn to the office. Footwear ready for exploration now adorn your feet. Just 10 minutes from the office, you’re riding, hiking, running, or adventuring in Utah’s canyons, rivers, foothills, and mountains.

You don’t live in Anytown, USA. You live in Utah. The moments, weekends, and after work escapades that keep you steady and balanced are what makes Utah a destination; whether it be for a weekend or a lifetime. 

Increased Quality Of Life

Your creativity, self-inspiration, and self-preservation come from the moments you have to yourself, and the moments you spend with your family and friends in Utah’s great outdoors. Whether it’s an evening at the park, up a canyon, or a stolen moment during a lunch break, Utah’s majesty is what gives so many a sense of place.

The phrase “sense of place” defines the feeling that drew author, Wallace Stegner to our state. And that sense of place comes from Utah’s open spaces. The places that have been preserved so that we might enjoy and explore them. These open spaces define how we live, how we grow up, how we grow our sense of self, and ultimately how we grow and define community. They give us a certain quality of life.

What we experience and how it’s experienced has a profound effect on our lives. We know that time spent in nature impacts our wellbeing, that’s why it’s so important to protect our landscapes. But protecting open space makes fiscal sense as well, as open spaces are an economic draw. Scenic beauty and recreational opportunity rank among the top reasons businesses relocate to Utah. It’s why families choose to live here and why tourists want to visit.

Smarter Fiscal Sense

Running the numbers, it’s easy to demonstrate the impact protected open space has on the livability and desirability of our Utah communities. Outdoor recreation in Utah brings $12.3 billion to the State’s economy and employs 110,000 individuals. Open space is also Utah’s calling card. It’s how we sell the difference between Orem and San Bernardino. It is about the quality of life and connection to the outdoors and that cannot be discounted.

There have been studies throughout the nation regarding the costs of residential development versus open space preservation. For every $1 of revenue a residential development receives in property taxes, it costs between $1.19-$1.65 in expenses. Conversely, for every $1 of revenue an open space generates―even land under green belt designation―it only costs about 65 cents in expenses.  

The reason lies in the fact that cows don’t go to school and ducklings are rarely in trouble with the law. Services that are necessary as we grow cost money, and as we grow, those services can create financial burdens on communities. Replacing aging infrastructure, plowing roads, and providing police services as well as street paving and sewer line improvements are all the financial responsibility of cities and counties throughout the state in order to support residential development.

Open spaces do cost communities money to maintain if they own it, but what many Utah Assessors have acknowledged is that costs associated with open space are offset by the increased market value open space creates for its surrounding development. Central Park is a great example of how homes that are right on the open space sell for a higher value than the homes that are just one row back.

Growth is important and inevitable. The key is balancing that growth with the protection of open space.

Better Real Estate Value

Another key factor in the link between open space and economic prosperity is the increase in market value for lands adjacent to open space. From Central Park in New York to Swaner Nature Preserve in Summit County, real estate market values hold steady and retain a higher value the closer they are to open space.

In fact, during the most significant downturn of real estate values in the last decade,  communities in close proximity to open space reserves retained their market value better while rebounding faster. According to the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, “The National Association of Home Builders estimates that parks and recreation areas can increase the value of nearby building sites by 15-20 percent”

So while open space is a wise investment, it does require sophisticated involvement from the business community.

Even though Utah has a significant amount of public land, recreational surveys continue to demonstrate that we have moved away from larger destinations, to open spaces closer to where we live, work, and play. Requiring miles of trails as well as access to those trails.

Access to trails and trail connections continue to dominate the discussion in the most populous areas in the state. In those areas, increased preservation is needed to ensure we still have access to public lands and the recreational pursuits they enable as we grow as a population.  

A Legacy For The Next Generation

Conservation is increasingly important as we grow but isn’t always a given. And preserving open land is not easy. Take, Armstrong Trail, North Round Valley Preserve, or Corner Canyon, these were all places once threatened by development that are now protected by a conservation easement. In all of these cases, the community passed open space bonds to purchase these landscapes and continue maintenance of trails and trailheads. And organizations like Utah Open Lands have ensured these beloved treasures remain protected.

We recognize that even our best developments may need redevelopment over time, but the lands we save as farms, wildlife habitats, and scenic view-scapes will continue to define our communities. The environment in which we live shapes our relationships with one another and our relationship to the land, and as the climate shifts, it well may be that the places we save become our most important refuges. Healthy wetlands and stream corridors will be important elements as precipitation and weather changes.

Working with landowners who choose to leave a legacy of open land is inspiring. Though there are income and estate tax incentives to conserve land, these incentives will never match what a landowner could get from selling their land for development. If landowners choose to preserve their land, it’s because they see the importance of that land and they want to preserve it for the next generation. You can too.

I believe protecting our open spaces is critical. These spaces provide limitless opportunity to explore the best in ourselves and in one another, while creating memories and shared experiences that are invaluable to the people who live here. Utah has done a great job selling of marketing the state’s recreational prowess. But as Utah considers the growth to come, the protection of our farms, ranches, rivers,  foothills, wildlife, and forests needs to be at the forefront of our vision. Learn more at utahopenlands.org.

Wendy Fisher is the executive director for Utah Open Lands. Learn more about protecting Utah’s lands at utahopenlands.org.

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