For the Love of Open Spaces: Donors step up as state funding for land conservation dwindles

At the crest of the Ellison Bay hill, perhaps the most spectacular public panorama on the peninsula opens before you, where the blue waters of Green Bay curve along the rocky shoreline of Ellison Bay and the woodland that expands to the very edge of the shore. The Grand View Scenic Overlook is breathtaking if you can remind yourself not to take it for granted, and it’s not here by accident.

A decade ago it very nearly became a private residential development when plans were announced for a large-scale project in 2006. But shortly after, residents started working with the Door County Land Trust to raise funds to purchase the property, finally succeeding in 2012 when the land trust purchased the property with a combination of $900,000 in state grants and $250,000 raised from private donors.

It’s one of dozens of such purchases by conservation organizations and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that have preserved some of Door County’s most treasured vistas and byways.

But after decades of state support in the form of funding from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, which has played a role in 90 percent of land trust purchases, the well is running dry, and for those who love public spaces for aesthetics, health and recreation, philanthropy is more important than ever.

Governor Scott Walker has twice attempted to eliminate Knowles-Nelson funding since taking office in 2011. The state pays $84 million each year in borrowing costs for the 651,000 acres it has purchased through the fund since 1989, but Walker has said land conservation is not worth that cost. In 2013, Walker ordered the DNR to put up for sale 10,000 acres of public land to pay down debt, a goal it reached late in 2016.

In January, Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah introduced a bill that ordered the sale of 3.3 million acres of federal land, spurring protests from anglers, hunters and environmental protection societies. Chaffetz pulled the bill a week later.

These attempts to transfer public land to private ownership for development, resource extraction, privatized hunting, and other interests comes at a time when study after study extolls the civic and economic benefits of open space, from improved health to burnished real estate values.

Access to open space for recreation, hunting, fishing, and study has never been in higher demand. And in few places does such open space have the impact that it does in Door County, where five state parks, 19 county parks, and dozens of private nature preserves draw millions of tourists to pump economic lifeblood into the peninsula each year. But putting a dollar figure on the value of open space has proven much harder than other expenditures such as transportation, energy, and other more tangible infrastructure projects.

Putting a price tag on open space

Preserving open space has more than an aesthetic value. When space is secured for conservation and public use in the form of trails, bike paths and parks, it improves water quality, air quality, and has been shown to increase property values dramatically.

In Cincinnati, the 12-mile Little Miami Scenic Trail drove housing price increases of $9 for every foot closer to the trail entrance a home was located, or $9,000 for a thousand feet closer.

In New York City, properties within two-thirds of a mile of High Line, an elevated park on a converted rail line, doubled in price from 2004 to 2012, according to Michael Levere of the University of San Diego Economics Department. The park today is at the center of the Hudson Yards development, the largest private real estate development in U.S. history.

And in Chicago, real estate prices jumped 12 percent within months of the opening of the 606 Trail, an elevated bike and pedestrian path and park built on an abandoned railway and modeled after the High Line.

In urban centers, the returns on such investments in open space are easily quantified and seen almost immediately in the balance sheets of realtors, home sellers and developers. In Door County such qualifications are more difficult to measure. There are far fewer units on the market, and those for sale spend much longer on the market than those in cities. On a narrow peninsula where no home is more than a few minutes from a beach or preserve, it’s also difficult to attribute price increases to any particular preserve.

But Kevin Nordahl of True North Real Estate says open space does add value.

“It’s a selling point if you’re beside a park or preserve. You know that you’re going to have a buffer,” he says. “There’s an obvious attraction to having that next to you. Plus, any time you drive more scarcity, it can drive value. If there is 10,000 acres in conservation, that’s 10,000 acres less to sell.”

But there’s a tradeoff. That’s also 10,000 acres off the property tax rolls.

“When you take land and put it into a trust or government ownership, of course it reduces the total taxable property,” says longtime Liberty Grove Town Administrator Walter “Bud” Kalms. “The rest of the landowners end up picking up the tab for what taxes would have been paid for those parcels. People probably don’t notice a big impact individually, but it adds up.”

But Robert Ross, an attorney specializing in estate planning who has helped several landowners complete conservation sales and donations, said the loss in tax revenue is outweighed by other measures.

“Look, this is what’s providing the quality of life we love here,” he said. “Yes, we all pay a little more tax for that. But the amount we all pay is a drop in the bucket for all this that we get. That’s a conversation I’m having with all of our state parks. There are only two state parks in the entire state that make a profit. But you look at all the economic benefit that those parks drive — boaters in Nicolet Bay, hikers and bikers in the parks, the Door County Half Marathon. They all have to stay someplace and do things. Would you ever, in real estate taxes, recoup those kinds of numbers? I don’t think you’d come close.”

Tom Clay, who took over as executive director of the Door County Land Trust in 2016, agreed, saying open space is a part of the peninsula’s brand.

“I would argue that Door County is known throughout the Midwest because of its ecological value,” he says. “Permanently protecting important properties adds value for people to hike, to hunt, to fish. It brings more and more value over time.”

In 2010 the Trust for Public Land released a study that aimed to put more specific value to open space. The study showed that conservation in the form of parks, preserves, and trails returns at least $4 in benefits for every $1 invested, and much more in certain regions. This comes in the form of recreational opportunities, flood control, protecting air and drinking water quality, habitat and farms, as well as supporting tourism, agriculture and fishing industries.

In Wisconsin’s Northwoods region, 20 years of trail building has enhanced the value of vast swaths of national forest. Scott Chapin is an outdoors enthusiast who has spearheaded research into the economic impact those trails have had near Cable, Wisconsin, from tourism expenditures to real estate developments built with trail access in mind.

Chapin surveyed everybody who did an athletic event such as a 5k, fat tire bike race, or ski race in Sawyer, Bayfield, and Ashland counties during three years to find out how much they spent in the community during their visits. The final tally was $26 million per year.

“That’s just from people who signed up for events, not the many others who came to use the trails recreationally,” he says. “You could easily speculate that the overall number is $50 million or more.”

It returns more value in the form of those drawn to the quality of life provided by such spaces. Like Door County, the Northwoods region struggles to attract skilled workers and young residents. In recent years, employers and municipalities have turned to the trails and preserves to recruit employees.

Jim Miller, an alderman in Hayward and board member of Essentia Health — Hayward, says the presence of trails and open space has become central to the recruitment strategy of the hospital and schools.

“Trails are part of our economic development plan,” Miller says. “In rural settings it’s increasingly difficult to find staff, you have to get innovative. One way we do that is to highlight our trail system. Here you can work your shift, hop on your bike, and be on some of the great trails in North America in minutes. Access to the outdoors is a big component for us, a lot of our teachers are enthusiasts, a lot of our doctors are. It’s hard to put a dollar figure on that.”

In spite of such evidence, the call of government austerity measures is ringing loudly in the conservation world.

“It’s an easy place for government to take away from,” Clay says. “If you let the roads fall apart, people scream.”

In January, Congress passed a measure that makes it easier to give federal land to the states for sale to private interests. In Wisconsin, the Republican-controlled legislature continues to push for the dismantling of the DNR, cutting funds not only for land purchases, but for maintenance of existing lands, even those with easily demonstrable economic benefits, such as Eagle Tower, which has been one of Door County’s marquee attractions for 80 years. After years of neglected maintenance, it was closed and dismantled in 2016. The state offered no funds to rebuild it, pushing the responsibility on fundraisers to come up with $750,000.

As legislative support for conservation continues to dwindle, philanthropy becomes more essential in preservation circles. It remains to be seen if that will be enough to preserve the peninsula’s most cherished places.

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