Since the mid-1970’s, Long Islanders have spent approximately $1.5 billion to preserve some 60,000 acres of land.  $1.5 billion is a lot of money.  So it’s fair to ask:  what did we get in return?

How about $2.74 billion a year?

That’s the finding of a study released last month by the national non-profit Trust for Public Land, and was sponsored by Long Island Community Foundation and Rauch Foundation.

Long Islanders have always innately known that saving open space and farmland makes sense.  Now, we know it makes dollars too.

Lots of them. Here’s a few of the ways how:

  • Tourism. About 5.1 million people a year come to the Island to visit our parks and open spaces.  They spend $615 million annually and generate $2.3 million in sales tax.
  • Higher property values. Living near parks or open space increases the value of your home.  That added value adds up--to $5.18 billion Island-wide.  Which generates $58.2 million a year in extra tax revenues.
  • Agriculture. Direct agricultural sales in Suffolk County bring in $288 million (2007).  That’s just the beginning. Long Island wineries draw 1.2 million visitors, who spend $90 million each year.
  • Lower government cost. Preserving land not only makes us loads of money, it saves us even more than it makes. Residential development drives costs up, for more schools, police, and so on. Every acre of preserved land saves $29,000 compared to a typical residential acre. Multiply by 60,000 preserved acres and we’re saving $1.7 billion, year after year.

All this still only scratches the surface.  Preserved lands keep our drinking water and beaches clean and reduce air pollution. Plus, access to them helps make us healthier. All of which either makes or saves real money.

Earning $2.74 billion a year on an outlay of $1.5 billion—that’s some investment. But can it last? There’s the catch.

These benefits accrue because there is enough open space to create the rural ambience that attracts tourists, enough farmland to make agriculture viable. What happens if this land gets developed?

The 60,000 acres already preserved is likely not enough. How much more is needed? We don’t know, and we’d better find out, fast.

As was done for the Pine Barrens Act in the mid-1990’s, the region’s business, political, civic and environmental leaders need to come together and strike a deal for the future. We need to figure out exactly what we need to preserve, and where it makes sense to develop.

An investment that improves living conditions and makes you money in the bargain—you don’t see that very often. We’ve got a great thing going. Let’s act now to make sure we don’t lose it.