The Importance and Context of Land Conservation

Over decades, land conservation in the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake watershed has produced great treasures, among them:

  • More than 4 million acres of state-owned parks, forests, wildlife management areas, and natural areas;
  • Over 2 million acres of privately owned farm, forest, and historic lands protected through conservation easements;
  • Thousands of local parks and open spaces;
  • Hundreds of nature preserves and cultural sites managed by nongovernmental organizations;
  • Over 1,300 public access sites along rivers and the Chesapeake Bay; and
  • 57 units of the National Park System, 17 national wildlife refuges, and 2 national forests.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) claims that outdoor recreation accounted for 563.7 billion of the US gross domestic product (GDP) and $1.1 trillion in gross economic output, nearly 200 billion more than in 2021. Outdoor recreation supported 5 million jobs and added nearly half a million since 2021. The BEA published an Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account (ORSA) in each state, showing tens of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs in our watershed:

  • Delaware outdoor recreation supported 15,401 jobs and added $1.3 Billion
  • Maryland outdoor recreation supported 80,391 jobs and added $8.2 Billion
  • Pennsylvania outdoor recreation supported 164,344 jobs and added $16.9 Billion
  • New York outdoor recreation supported 256,975 jobs and added $31.2 Billion
  • Virginia outdoor recreation supported 124,908 jobs and added $11.3 Billion
  • West Virginia outdoor recreation supported 20,018 jobs and added $1.6 Billion

While these numbers are for the entire state, much of it is in the Chesapeake Bay. The jobs and economic activity reach far beyond national parks, though the economic activity that national parks attract to the region is also essential. For example, in 2022, millions of visitors spent billions of dollars in local gateway regions while visiting National Park Service lands in Chesapeake Bay states. For example, 22.5 million park visitors spent $1.2 billion in Virginia supporting 17,662 jobs, 5.8 million park visitors spent $199 million in Maryland supporting 2,361 jobs, and 7.6 million park visitors spent $385 million in Pennsylvania supporting 5,742 jobs. Permanently conserved lands ranging from rural easements to large refuges to small urban parks are essential to the outdoor economy.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, the outdoor recreation industry grew for the eighth year in a row. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is capitalizing on this growth through a new blueprint released this year to focus the Bureau more on outdoor recreation. This blueprint is intended to guide BLM investment, programs, outreach and partnerships into the future while advancing the U.S. Department of the Interior Equity Action Plan. The Chesapeake Bay Program is working to continue to add permanently protected access points to the Bay and its tributaries to ensure anyone can access outdoor recreation no matter who they are; 11 new access sites were added in 2022.

The intrinsic and economic values of protected lands—sometimes referred to as ecosystem services—are significant and diverse. These are the benefits people derive from ecosystems, such as goods like food, wood, and raw materials; plants, animals, and other organisms that provide essential regulating services such as pollination, prevention of soil erosion, and water purification; and an array of cultural services like recreation. A 2011 study determined that natural resources in Virginia, for example, provided over $21.8 billion in ecosystem services annually. State and federal protected lands generated more than $5.1 billion of this amount, and the more than 700,000 acres in private land protected through conservation easements generated $520 million of the total.

Conserved forests protect drinking water and important wildlife and plant species and help control flooding. Protected working farms ensure the availability of local foods; and orchards, vineyards, wineries, crop and vegetable fields, and dairies support related businesses. Conserved habitat sustains wildlife populations, blue crab and rockfish populations, and streams that are clean and full of trout for sport and food. Many of these are culturally and economically valuable.

Through decades of research, scientists have studied the associations between nature and human health. The findings address some of the most urgent human health challenges: stress, obesity, mental health, and loneliness. Medical research increasingly shows how vital time spent outdoors in natural areas is to our physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental health. Likely as a result, studies document that homes near well-maintained natural area parks have higher real estate values. While access to conserved lands may not be the whole remedy for human health challenges, any margin of benefit is important as healthcare represents a major expenditure for areas like the Chesapeake with dense populations.

Protected lands also preserve historic places that teach us about and connect us with our past. They provide space for recreation and renewal through places to walk, hike, paddle, hunt, and fish. Conservation is, above all, about providing for the future. People care about future generations—their children and grandchildren— having access to green spaces to recreate, clean drinking water, healthy food, a safe climate, the chance to see wildlife, a sense of shared history, and overall quality of life.

The Chesapeake watershed’s landowners, local, state and federal officials, organizations and agencies have long recognized the values of conserving land. They have worked locally, regionally, state-wide, and watershed-wide to protect the small and large places that sustain and enhance quality of life. The continuous, broad, progressive leadership and inter-jurisdictional collaboration to achieve conservation goals sets the Chesapeake watershed apart.
But these values are at risk if we don’t make land conservation an even higher, more urgent priority. An ever-growing watershed population of 18 million requires more conserved land, not less. More development and fewer forests exacerbate air pollution, and lead streams and rivers to overflow their banks, inundating towns and cities. Farms lost to development rarely supply local food again. Science documents the extinctions of more species and huge decreases in wildlife abundance from human impacts, threatening whole ecosystems. Temperatures are rising and extreme weather events are increasing, and we know that restoring and conserving more forests and healthy soils is one of the easiest and cheapest ways of combating climate change.

With every passing month, there is mounting concern about the need to protect more of the vital ecosystems on which our quality of life depends. Edward O. Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book Half Earth started serious discussions in 2016 about protecting half the planet to maintain biodiversity. Study after study—from climate change impacts to crashing insect populations—points to a need for urgency. A landmark report released in May 2019—the most comprehensive assessment ever of the state of Earth’s biodiversity and natural systems—warns that one million species are threatened with extinction, “eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide.” The report also makes clear it is not too late to make a difference, “but only if we start now at every level from local to global.”

A separate 2019 study by a group of scientists highlights land conservation as one of three essential cornerstones of the effort to limit increases in global temperatures, along with expanding use of renewable energy and cutting fossil fuel burning. The authors call for protecting 30 percent of the planet by 2030 and another 20 percent by 2050 to avoid catastrophic climate change, conserve species, and secure essential ecosystem services, and they set out the scientific rationale and approach for doing so. The top priority is to protect and restore intact forests and other natural areas to limit resource extraction and conversion to developed uses. This will preserve natural carbon sinks, hedge against the unraveling of ecosystems, and lessen the predicted extinction of vast numbers of plant and animal species—all of which are critical to sustaining the quality of human life on Earth. These studies reaffirm and reinforce the vital importance of local and regional conservation priorities already set in the Chesapeake watershed. We are well positioned for sustaining and increasing land conservation, with a rich legacy of local and state leadership, effective programs, and conservation results from which to build. The Chesapeake Conservation Partnership is dedicated to a vision of a bright future for our landscape. Achieving that requires collaborative action to conserve the cultural and ecological places that benefit people, economies, and nature throughout the watershed.

Our goals are ambitious and shared among our coalition partners. We all must accelerate our efforts, dedicate new resources, and engage larger and more diverse communities in this effort. There is no time to waste.