Well-planned, sustainable development can be good for conserving natural areas. As CEO of a conservation organization, an avid hiker and a believer in wide open spaces, I didn’t come to this conclusion lightly.
Texas is vast and beautiful with 11 eco regions – eight mountain ranges, 37 mountains over 1-mile high, around 200 reservoirs and 15 major rivers. We have a lot to enjoy and a lot to conserve.
As Texas grows at one of the fastest rates in the U.S., with 60% growth projected from 2010 to 2050, we can expect more pressure on natural resources. This growth creates greater demand for development while also creating greater demand for natural environments.
On the surface, this can seem like a no-win situation with the goals of conservation and development seemingly at odds. However, it is increasingly clear that development can be aligned with conservation in a way that keeps, and improves, these natural environments that make a community like El Paso with its history, culture, hiking and biking trails even more attractive for growth.
One approach to address growth is to set aside natural environments and say, “don’t touch,” believing that this will result in healthier environments, protected species and open space. History has shown that this can be a successful approach to saving some features on specific tracts of land, but the outcomes rarely satisfy our growing demand for natural areas. Furthermore, by taking a 100% “don’t touch” approach, we miss the opportunity to educate, to enjoy nature as a healing resource and to generate funding to care for these resources.
On the flipside, development without considering the conservation of natural areas can be fast and relatively inexpensive. However, it misses the opportunity for enhanced economic growth, cost-effective infrastructure that utilizes natural solutions such as wetlands and trails, and potentially lower medical costs for residents and ultimately businesses.
Examples of communities taking a conservation approach to development are becoming more common in the United States and urban areas of Texas. There are even examples of developing around and reclaiming land severely damaged from mining.
In Crosby, Minnesota, an estimated 25,000 visitors and $2 million have been added to the local economy due to the development of mountain biking trails and local businesses. The annual number is expected to increase to $21 million as more trails are developed.
Studies show that trails / open space access:
• Boost spending at local busi
• Make communities more at
tractive places to live
• Influence business location
and relocation decisions
• Increase tax revenues
Well-planned, sustainable development can be good for conservation and good for economic growth. Planning for improvement and upkeep of open spaces and trails while developing for growth is the path forward for our natural resources, our health and our economic growth.
Joni Carswell is CEO and president of Texan by Nature, an Austin-based conservation nonprofit founded by former first lady Laura Bush.