Measuring the true cost of conservation

Environmental conservation expert discusses how new research will play a key role in promoting a greener future

BOSTON UNIVERSITY

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IMAGE: ESTIMATED FAIR MARKET VALUE OF ALL PROPERTIES IN THE UNITED STATES (3D VISUALIZATION). view more CREDIT: PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRISTOPH NOLTE, BOSTON UNIVERSITY.

For decades, scientists have been warning about potential future effects of global climate change, including more frequent wildfires, longer periods of drought, and sharp increases in the number, duration, and intensity of tropical storms. And since the start of 2020, we’ve seen natural disasters in record-breaking numbers, from the wildfires that ravaged California and Colorado, to most consecutive days with temperatures skyrocketing over 100 degrees in places like Arizona. Environmental concerns are continually creeping to a broader, national stage: issues of climate change and conservation received more attention during the first presidential debate on September 29, 2020 than in any other presidential debate in history.

When it comes to the topic of safeguarding the environment, Boston University Earth & Environment Assistant Professor Christoph Nolte is hardly a newcomer. He’s spent the majority of his academic career studying the effectiveness of conservation, asking key questions about where concerted efforts take place, and what difference they make for our world at large. To inform future decisions about conservation policy, Assistant Professor Nolte has now created the first high-resolution map of land value in the United states — a tool he says will better estimate environmental conservation costs, inform policy recommendations, and help peer academics conduct their own research on rebuilding and protecting what’s left of our natural resources and the biodiversity within our ecosystems. Boston University interviewed Nolte to learn more about his research and its impact.

You’ve created the first high-resolution map of U.S. land value. What spurred this research?

I was dissatisfied with the quality of cost data in conservation research. Land conservation decisions are about trade-offs. If we wish to keep forest carbon on the ground, species’ habitats intact, wetlands functional, or landscapes beautiful, conservation usually means that we also give up something: the benefits from alternative land uses. Arguments in favor of more conservation are widespread. For instance, Harvard University’s E.O. Wilson suggests that 50% of the Earth should be protected. However, those points are incomplete if they are not also explicit about what we should be giving up where, who wins and who loses, and who gets to decide.

Ignoring costs can make us blind to the negative effects of regulation, often borne by those without a voice. In the case of voluntary conservation programs, ignoring cost can mean that we end up with a proposal, but insufficient funding. If we want to make informed societal decisions about conservation efforts, we need reliable, publicly accessible estimates of its cost.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to get good data for conservation cost. Conservation organizations don’t freely share their financial records. Land prices can be good substitutes for data on conservation cost, but such data is valuable, sensitive, and unavailable to the public in most countries. So when large-scale land price data in the United States became available to academics for free for the first time, this created an exciting opportunity to create the first high-resolution map of land value and see how well it would predict conservation cost.

What data did you use to generate this map?

There are many datasets behind this map. Perhaps the most important is a nationwide database of properties and their sales. This dataset came from Zillow, the real estate company, which obtains the data from public records and makes it available to academics and nonprofits. In my research group, we developed a system that links this data to digital maps of property boundaries. This allows us to obtain detailed information on land characteristics: buildings, terrain, land cover, road access, water access, flood risk, local demographics, nearby amenities, and so on. This data is fed into a machine learning algorithm, which learns to predict sales prices from its knowledge of the characteristics of each property. After the algorithm is trained, I let it predict the sales prices of every property in the country. The result is this map.

What does this map tell us about environmental conservation costs? Why is it essential to have accurate land value data?

I found that most of the cost estimates that were used in the literature have underestimated the cost of conservation in the United States. This underestimation is particularly large near cities, where land values tend to be much higher than previous proxies suggested. In other words, it means that we will need substantially higher levels of funding than previously assumed if we want to achieve certain environmental goals, such as protecting all floodplains from development or protecting species habitat in the face of climate change.

How can your research help to educate policymakers on future conservation plans and priorities? Why is this important?

I believe that it is good to be realistic about what a given level of funding can achieve. For instance, in August, congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act, a historic bipartisan bill that makes $4.5 billion dollars of federal funding available for land protection. If previous estimates of conservation cost were correct, this budget could help reach us proposed habitat protection needs for all species in the U.S. However, the new cost data suggests that even such an unprecedented budget covers merely 5% of what is actually needed. That’s a big difference!

More accurate cost data can also change recommendations about where conservation investments should go. When I reproduced recent work, about one quarter of the sites recommended for species protection shifted from one location to another, for instance, from expensive Long Island to slightly less expensive Southeastern Massachusetts. While this result should be taken with a grain of salt, it shows that the quality of cost data matters. The good news is that the cost map is now published, so anyone can incorporate it in their analyses and revisit their earlier findings.

How can people best use this data when thinking about environmental conservation as it relates to their day to day lives?

Data on the cost of conservation helps us be real about the actual magnitude and severity of the conservation problem we are facing as a society. Many of us feel positively about the benefits that conserved lands provide. However, not all of us are willing to make sacrifices to protect these lands, whether it is by reducing our own ecological footprints, or by voting in favor of local land use regulations or measures that increase taxes to fund conservation. In the midst of this, we are exposed to advertising that suggests that we can cheaply “offset” our effects on the environment — for instance, that we can become “carbon-neutral” for a few dollars by purchasing carbon offsets when we fly.

A closer look at many cheap offsetting schemes suggests that they don’t actually reduce emission by very much. But their existence has the side-effect that we are getting our hopes up that there might be a cheap way to get around the conservation problem. In reality, win-win situations are rare, and trade-offs are real. This might be difficult to accept, but we should not ignore it, even if we so desperately want to feel good about our own levels of consumption.

Despite costs being much higher than originally estimated, why is conservation still such an important investment?

Answers to this question have two dimensions: science and values. Science helps us understand the consequences of our actions. If we want to mitigate climate change, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Land conservation can help, for instance, by conserving forests and wetlands, reducing urban sprawl, or increasing opportunities for local recreation. If we want to prevent species extinctions, we need to protect and restore threatened habitat, conserve lands in climate refugia, and build ecological corridors, so species can move as temperatures rise. And if we want to avoid damages from flooding, we should protect more floodplains from development.

Science tells us about the consequences of our actions, but it doesn’t tell us what to do. The more difficult question is how much we, as individuals and as a society, care about these outcomes, and what we are willing to give up for them. There are 8 billion of us. What each of us cares about is shaped by our diverse beliefs and morals, our upbringing, the people in our lives, the media we consume, the things we enjoy doing, etc. Given my affiliation, it probably won’t be a surprise that I feel positively about policies that reduce our collective human footprint, but it is unwise to elevate anyone’s individual worldview to a standard. Instead, I think what it is desirable to have a broader societal conservation of well-informed citizens that make those decisions together. My job, alongside that of thousands of other colleagues, is to provide the tools that can help us gain clarity about what’s at stake.

Are there any other surprising findings? Could this data have other applications in areas outside of conservation (for example, real estate)?

I was surprised by the predictive power of the algorithm. As a validation step, I tested whether estimated land values could predict the actual cost of more than 4,000 public land acquisitions for conservation that were distributed all over the country. I expected that the predictions would outperform the proxies used in earlier studies, which they did. But to my surprise, the predictions even outperformed the estimates of tax assessors. Tax assessors are tasked with estimating the value of all properties in a given jurisdiction for taxation purposes, and part of that process often involves estimating the “fair market value” of each property. Because assessors work locally and know their area much better than a national dataset does, I would have expected their estimates to vastly outperform mine. However, instead, I found that mine were 29% more accurate. This does raise the question of why these differences exist and opens up new interesting avenues for scrutinizing existing methods for property taxation.

In your opinion, what is the single most important conservation issue facing the world today?

It would be difficult to answer this question without pointing towards climate change. It affects everything else that we think about in conservation. If we don’t stop climate change, conserving species where they are today won’t conserve them in the future. Future flooding and sea level rise will be a lot less manageable. And we worry a lot more about the conservation of forests and wetlands today because we know that their loss fuels this fire. At a project level, if you want to persuade people that conservation is a good idea, talking about rare or interesting species, beautiful landscapes, and recreational opportunities might get you more traction. But many of those efforts might be a drop in the bucket if we don’t address this massive elephant in the room.

What do you hope people take away from this project? What are you planning to research next?

For me, for my students, and for colleagues at universities all over the country, the synthesis of this rich database has created novel opportunities for empirical research that were unthinkable just a few years ago. We currently support research on the economic risks from flooding, oil spills and hazardous waste, the economic impacts of land regulations, the benefits of water quality and priorities for emissions reduction from forest protection. My own curiosity has mostly to do with projects that help people protect the places and species they love: identifying opportunities for protection, scrutinizing the effectiveness of existing programs, and reducing the informational barriers to get conservation done. It is an exciting time to do this research, and I’m glad that so many fantastic colleagues around the country are interested in advancing the frontiers of knowledge together.

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From EurekAlert!

49 thoughts on “Measuring the true cost of conservation

  1. Ask not, what the issue of “Climate Change” can do for the issues of conservation and the environment. Ask instead what those issues can do for “Climate Change”.

    • Data has no agenda, it is what it is. It only inherits an agenda when it has been modified or adjusted by a researcher. That’s when it takes on an agenda which is a reflection of the researcher’s own bias. – James D. Goodridge

  2. “For decades, scientists have been warning about potential future effects of global climate change, including more frequent wildfires, longer periods of drought, and sharp increases in the number, duration, and intensity of tropical storms. And since the start of 2020, we’ve seen natural disasters in record-breaking numbers,’

    Completely screwed the pooch in the very beginning. “Scientists” claiming global warming by man, which is what they really mean because without it being our fault it would be simply a case of adapting to changes, are biased government-paid shills for agenda 21.

    Land values are clearly in the eyes of the beholder and this has to be biased big time.

    I feel I should apologize for this clown. I earned my Masters in marine biology at BU and taught at the, then College of Basic studies for several years in the late 1980s. My daughter went there and wants her tuition back as they are so liberal and manmade global warming biased. She gets sick thinking about how wrong her professors were. Neither of us will ever donate a dime to BU.

    AND, their claims of various droughts, floods, storms and forest fires are comely unfounded. The species extinctions simply never happened, the only climate refugees are fleeing oppressive regimes and genocide, and sea level rise is doing nothing unusual. Thus, the article is about propaganda not science.

  3. If the fired all the staff, tore down the buildings, and seeded it all over in native grasses, it’d be greener. We’d probably be better off as well. Maybe in this day and age we only need one university.

    • I am thinking 3, Spetzer, to keep each other honest for a couple generations.

      How long do you figure before 2 would collude to undermine the 3rd and then merge to become one monopoly of thought? As to current curriculum what came first the University or the New York Times

      That is how our Free Market evolved into the Corporatocracy we have in the U.S. today. The mergers and acquisitions Corporate Lawyers created our current oligarchy.

      The Crony Capitalists have the best politicians money can buy in order to appoint the swamp creatur…ahh bureaucrats to the permanent government that actually does their bidding. The bidding of the Corporations that is, not the hand puppet politicians, who are too stupid to speak coherently without a scripted teleprompter.

  4. This makes no sense to me. What am I missing?
    Of course land values are higher in Manhattan, DC and LA. (Did we need an academic study with AI to tell us that?)
    But is “species protection” a significant issue in those urban areas?

    If natural disasters were a significant enough threat that we needed a massive conservation program to forestall them, wouldn’t that threat be reflected in the prices of the properties? Or is this another assumption that the people who own these high priced properties (and pay exorbitant taxes for the privilege) are too stupid to know they are in danger and need the government to tell them what to do and to fund their rescue?

    • Excellent point! It’s a substantial problem for this analysis. Why are these properties so highly priced if they are in such danger? A former president bought an expensive property that will be underwater by 2100 if predictions of sea level rise are correct. Why did the property cost so much when it is in great danger according to the experts?

  5. 2 things:

    “to most consecutive days with temperatures skyrocketing over 100 degrees in places like Arizona” DUH. I grew up in AZ, temps “skyrocket” over 100 degrees starting in May or in hot years, the end of March. 100 degrees in the Valley is nothing, it’s a cool day in the summer months and a warm day in the Spring and Fall.

    “If we don’t stop climate change, conserving species where they are today won’t conserve them in the future. Future flooding and sea level rise will be a lot less manageable.” Why in the world are these people convinced they can stop the climate changing? It changes and we adapt, if an organism doesn’t adapt, it dies. What part of this is hard to understand exactly? It’s what we as humans have been doing since we took our first steps and it’s what organisms on the Earth have done for millions if not billions of years. There is NO CONTROLING THE CLIMATE. Get over it. The Earth does not have a thermostat that you can turn up or down by simple collective will. Don’t believe me? Go hold back the tide with a broom and see how far you get. The problem is that your models are infinitesimal in scale compared to the systems of the Earth and it’s placement in the solar system, let alone the universe.

    OTOH: If the goal of your models is to garner more understanding into the complexity of intertwined complex systems, that’s pretty cool. But drop the pretense and obvious funding language and just shoot it straight. OH and please stop using Zillow..that only reflects the asking price, not what the property is actually worth. You are placing the idea of worth that changes depending upon the season, the current rental market, house market, and economy.

  6. I am very much in favor of basing actions on the true costs. However, calculating costs on the unpredictable reality of climate is not a good idea. I suggest that any predictions be viewed as a process and not as an event. Base future climatic events in light of what is known to be true and not on speculations which are very likely to be biased.

  7. “Machine Learning” and “AI” are the new terms for “I did statistics, and I used a device designed for computing. Sometimes called a ‘computer’.” Also, I used the equivalent of Excel’s “What If” feature.

    I remember when artificial intelligence used to be about the engineering struggle to develop a machine capable of emulating biological behavior. Most computer science students clap gleefully when they write their first program that uses the sensors on a Lego robot in a 30-by-30 foot room with a concrete floor to find a ball and place it on a blue sticker somewhere in that room. All while avoiding walls, remembering where obstacles are at, avoiding covering ground already searched, and knowing the precise movement of the motors manipulate the ball. No human input needed.

    Now AI is just– “I have an Excel spreadsheet. Now pay me a bunch of money.”

  8. 29% different than land assessors estimates for tax purposes surprised the researcher. I note Assistant Prof doesn’t say which way, plus or minus. Everything in CC research you are expected to assume the worse than thought situation.

    Now I happen to know that the assessor for taxes underestimates real sale value. The municipality, has a budget design process and the budget(which is the primary number) is underwritten by the ‘value’ of land holdings. They apply a formula to the assessed values to obtain the cash they need – ‘value’ is in this case relative. One big reason for the assessment being notably lower is an owner can dispute the assessment. I did this successfully on one occasion. Dispute costs money to the city. The higher the level of assessment the more disputes…

    This is another example of a researcher not getting all relevant info in his data which is available with a phonecall. He should know this. What if he was doing something important and he built his whole middle with tax- assessed value figures.

  9. This is simply a red county-blue county map in dollars and cents.

    So what he wants is for the millions of people packed in the cities, who know nothing about nature or resource management and use, to decide what happens in flyover country, as if those who live and work in flyover country (the “deplorables”) have no understanding. Oh, that’s what just happened in this recent election. The cities, with their high crime, homelessness, poverty, and “high value” real estate tyrannize the rest of the country.

    Well the wind blows in cities, too. That’s why I suggest that if city-dwellers really want “clean, green” wind farms, let them be the first to construct turbines atop all of their own high rise buildings and throughout their own urban and suburban neighborhoods. Let THEM worry about “climate change” while the rest of us are free to go about our lives, unpolluted by their windmill and solar dreams.

      • Griff,

        “Or they could put solar panels on their roofs?”

        Really? Do you *ever* stop to think? How many 200 apartment high-rises have enough roof area to power all 200 apartments using solar panels? How many 5-apartment buildings have enough roof area to power all 5 apartments using solar panels on the roof? Where are the battery installations supposed to go? On the roof as well? How many batteries can the roof support?

      • Griff, the whole point of the high-rise buildings found in cities is to maximize occupancy per land area. That means that the area available for solar panels, per occupant, is minimal.
        Solar panels on large buildings might provide a few watts per occupant. Lots of cost for very little benefit. I’m reminded of a great George Carlin routine – “Preparation H shrinks swollen membranes (moves hands from three feet apart to one foot apart). If this (hands three feet apart) is your problem then this (hands one foot apart) is no solution”.

  10. Boy you kind of not the ball on the head of the bat. This is urban vs rural. Hi dollar urban at that. So let’s protect urban, paved and built over earth, at the expense of rural agricultural land. LOL. That makes so much sense it defies logic! Are these high dollar urban folks going to grow their own food, lumber, etc?

    I’ve felt for a long time that we should have a program where urban grown and raised kids need to spend a year after graduating secondary school being an apprentice to some kind of manual trade. Look at it as a down payment for free college.

    • Amen to that. College kids are made to think that dabbling in an on-campus garden is something new and remarkable. They don’t know squat about squash. Nor where any of their other food, clothing, energy and consumer goods originate.

  11. Human beings cannot change climate! Why do people make such ludicrous statements like , if we don’t change the climate! Etc.
    What makes people think think they can control nature?

    • Colorado voted to reintroduce wolves into the state, one reason being that the elk population is too large (as an aside, I find it interesting that elk have an innate fear of canines).

      Anyway, one can only wish that packs are released in the middle of Anifa riots.

  12. The people who try to push this crap onto us, are almost always those who can easily afford to live outside of their own rules. Impoverish them first, to be like the rest of us, then listen to the tune they sing.

  13. Conservation, that is a word we do not hear much about today. too bad.

    Back in the day…..
    Conservation was something we used to think about a lot. Conservation takes many forms, of course. I will describe just two.
    Type One:
    People do what is right for the land just because it is the right thing to do. An example is the farmer who follows the old adage “leave the last three rows standing”, when harvesting a field. Those last three rows will provide both cover and forage for a variety of wildlife. The wildlife could be a hard-pressed species, or it could be “dinner” after hunting season. The young farmers come to understand that the old-timers know what they are doing. Also in this category are things like maintaining ponds and drainage, light forestry and woodlots, and such.
    Type Two:
    Land is permanently set aside as “Conservation Land” in exchange for tax easements. The land then becomes available for habitat preservation and recreation, both.

    Conservation was considered to be a general good, in it’s place, and well worth considering.
    Then came Environmentalism which just wants to shut everything down. In a move that defies logic and reason to this day, the environmentalists became the enemies of the conservationists, fighting everything in every way, in every location.
    What the paper above is describing is an assessment of how much it might cost to buy land to set aside as conservation land. It seems totally reasonable as a planning tool to me.

    • It doesn’t defy logic and reason. Environmentalism is just a codeword for Communism.

      And unfortunately this paper was created at precisely the wrong time, given the increasing number of people who can work from home and will be moving out of the cities over the next few years. Land values outside cities are rising while land values in cities are falling.

    • People spending their own money to conserve their own land tend to make wise decisions–they quickly learn the true cost of poor judgment. People getting gobs of government subsidy money to test out their politicized theories of conservation, rejecting practices that have been shown to work in favor of practices that sound good, tend to make poor decisions. And over and over again, because it costs them nothing to fail.

      In 2014, Hillsborough County (Tampa FL) decided to put a solar panel generating facility on the roof of its city government building. It was Obama stimulus program money, so to them it was free. All the officials got to preen in front of the cameras. But the plant produced less than half the electricity it was projected to produce, and had a huge negative return on investment. It was a comedy of bureaucratic error. For example, it apparently never occurred to the designers that the high-rise building across the street would shade many of the solar panels, thereby reducing output even further. People don’t make mistakes like that when they are spending their own money.

  14. Look at all the high value areas. And the low value areas.

    ‘Jeez, as an unbiased recent urban planning graduate with essentially zero real world perspective I can see it is obvious that we really need to protect the high value areas, and we can use the low value stuff to do. Nobody is really harmed, right? … greater good and all.’

  15. Just because the government owns it, that does not mean the land is “protected” or “conserved”. In fact, government-owned land is the most mismanaged or unmanaged land of any ownership type.

    There is ample record of the catastrophic destruction of “habitat” and the environment by Communist and Socialist governments. Our own Socialized land has been burned in megafires that k*ll wildlife and heritage vegetation. Fires spreading from “conservation” lands have destroyed numerous towns and k*lled thousands of people.

    Government ownership does not mean species are “protected”. The Northern Spotted Owl population has plummeted 90% since the government decided to “protect” the species. Ditto many other species like the Hawaiian Palila. Over 2,000 species have been listed as Endangered under the ESA. A mere 40 have recovered, and half of those were not really endangered in the first place.

    Private “conservation” groups have failed miserably to protect anything. The largest of these NGO’s is The Nature Conservancy which claims to have “protected” 120,000,000 acres. TNC is actually the real estate arm of global investment banking giant Goldman Sachs. The claimed acres are bought cheap and sold dear to governments, whereupon they are devastated by horrendously bad management and catastrophic fires. The Humane Society of the United States is another land scam NGO that claims to purchase “conservation easements” but is really a socialist front group collecting donations from gullible people. Whatever land they claim to have “conserved” is not protected in the slightest.

    The typical case is purchase by such NGO’s of well-managed private parcels using taxpayer dollars scammed through various channels. The parcels are turned into quasi-wilderness by evicting all humans. The land then declines from abandonment and is eventually incinerated by uncontrolled wildfire. Whatever “environmental” amenities were there originally are destroyed.

    Real land values are never used. Regulations are imposed ahead of purchase that ban economic uses and thus devalue the land. Parcels are purchased for pennies on the dollar.

    The map in the article above is a total fraud. It’s all part of a crony capitalist scheme to advance global neo-Marxism, which is akin to Feudalism. The authors are useful idiots.

  16. 40+ years of lies.
    Our governments are lying to the people they are supposed to protect in order to gain more taxation and power. Except of course a few like President Trump.
    Local governments issuing a doctorine of “Klimate crisis” like bleating fools clearly not to offend the NWO and of course to gain more powers.
    Persons with science degrees (can’t really call them scientists can we) lying to gain grants and status in the NWO.
    The UN lying to all of humanity in the most most massive takeover attempt in the history of the world.
    Our so called media now a shallow. pathetic propaganda machine.
    And yet with all of this evil going on there is still hope as most people realize there is something fishy going on if they haven’t yet come to realize the true depth of the ugly trurh as more and more are doing.
    Even if you believe in the cause of environmentalism there are brave souls now breaking their silence and pointing out the folly of alarmism.
    I still believe in humainty and hope for freedoms, but we must never miss a chance to correct and counter point the endless lies being out by the alarmists (whether their cause be Marxism, political power, or pure greed).

  17. Frequent wildfires are caused by conflicted environmentalists that love wood floors but prevent logging. The rest is largely out of our control because CO2 has a third- or fourth-order impact on the climate. Besides, the monetary benefits of a warmer, wetter and CO2-enriched world far outweigh the negatives in the form of foodstuff production unless, of course, you believe a shrinking population for the earth is somehow beneficial. Then my advice is, You first!

  18. “to most consecutive days with temperatures skyrocketing over 100 degrees in places like Arizona”

    What a load of hyperbolic crap. There is no skyrocketing. Phoenix has long had 100 days over 100.

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