Conservation has raised the profile of our beautiful lands and waters. Millions of people are discovering fresh air, open spaces, and wilderness. But successful conservation has been a double-edged sword for tourism-driven communities: at once protecting natural amenities and contributing to dramatic social inequities.
By attracting people to parts of the country with conserved landscapes and access to recreation, conservation efforts, together with factors ranging from the pandemic to skyrocketing housing costs, have accelerated an “amenity trap” in which tourism and rapid growth create unaffordable communities, labor shortages, and other profound problems. From overburdened wastewater systems in Cooke City, Montana, to increased homelessness in Moab, Utah, amenity-related growth has stressed residents and civic institutions in many towns.
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Beyond its impacts on people, the amenity trap also endangers some of the very conservation goals that have made these places so attractive in the first place. Poorly planned development is replacing working farms, limiting access to natural areas, and increasing wildlife highway mortality. Irreplaceable habitats are being destroyed, and crowded public lands are suffering from overuse and human-wildlife conflicts. As more people seek affordable housing farther from job centers, traffic worsens and open space is lost. Pollution and climate impacts follow.
How we manage population centers is intertwined with our conservation of wild areas. They are two sides to the same coin—the more we create equitable, concentrated population centers in places people want to live, the more we can create durable, landscape-scale conservation outcomes outside of towns.
Some conservation leaders are already bringing their skills to craft solutions that lead to more equitable outcomes. Organizations are intentionally working at the intersection of land conservation and land development, recognizing the inextricable link to their mission. They are adapting the tools of conservation to solve housing and fiscal challenges faced by communities to ensure that the conservation gains of recent years are lasting and enjoyed by all residents—not just the affluent.
Housing solutions can be conservation solutions
The lack of affordable housing is a huge source of stress in most amenity destinations. No single solution fits all communities, so the staff at conservation organizations are learning and testing a broad set of tools, some of which incentivize building at higher densities and some of which augment the availability of existing housing for local, year-round residents.
One example can be found in Washington’s Methow Valley, a remarkable ecosystem that hosts a vibrant tourism economy and an all-too-familiar struggle with affordable housing for the people who work there. Rather than sit aside while unfettered development eroded the valley’s natural amenities, a regional conservation collaboration, the Methow Conservancy, took action. They partnered with the Methow Housing Trust to make land available for a new neighborhood of affordable housing for local workers. Land that might otherwise have been developed by a few wealthy homebuilders on large lots is now finding a much more sustainable use, and the community can remain livable for many local families.
Other examples of conservation and amenity trap solutions coming together can be found around the country. In Sandpoint, Idaho, a conservation-led partnership is centering the development of workforce housing in tandem with conservation projects. In Durango, Colorado, a fund reimburses homeowners who build new auxiliary dwellings and rent to local workers. In Norwood, Colorado, donated land, modular home construction, infrastructure subsidized by philanthropies, and a nonprofit developer are increasing the stock of affordable housing. And in McCall, Idaho, deed restrictions (similar to conservation easements that follow properties in perpetuity) are being used to ensure future home buyers are local workers rather than second homeowners.
Each of these efforts ensures greater access to housing and results in reduced development pressure on wildlands and on working farms and ranches, while also minimizing climate impacts from longer commutes. The number of creative solutions to augment affordable housing is nearly endless, but in all cases, successful execution requires a committed set of individuals with campaign experience, real estate expertise, and the ability to bring diverse partners together. On all marks, conservation groups fit the bill.
Fiscal solutions also can be conservation solutions
Many of the challenges facing amenity destinations come down to funding. Communities frequently lack the tax base to self-fund the infrastructure required by visitors and newcomers, such as drinking and wastewater systems, health centers, parking, or public land access. There are extreme cases such as West Yellowstone, Montana, where the year-round population of 1,300 hosts four million visitors annually. But even in less extreme cases, destination communities across the country are struggling to manage recreation impacts and invest in expanded infrastructure.
In some places, funding streams that are directed toward conservation are being closely linked to livability solutions. In Vermont, the state’s Housing and Conservation Trust Fund supports grants or loans for projects that include elements of both land conservation and housing affordability. The revenues for the fund come from a real estate transfer tax assessed largely on higher-end properties used as nonprimary residences. In San Juan County, Washington, voters passed a 2018 referendum to add 0.5% to an existing real estate excise tax that had primarily been used to fund land conservation. By law the new revenues go to affordable housing programs, as long as the conservation portion of the REET continues to be funded.
Resort taxes are another fiscal policy that links conservation and equity, but communities need help convincing state legislators when resort taxes should be reformed. In Montana, voters can enact a resort tax district, but only in towns with fewer than 5,500 residents—a limitation that leaves this solution out of reach for many of the state’s most overburdened communities. Compounding the problem, a 4% cap on Montana’s resort tax limits the revenue available for housing and infrastructure projects. In North Carolina, state lodging tax guidelines urge communities to spend 2/3 of lodging tax revenue on promoting additional tourism and the remaining 1/3 on tourism-related facilities like convention or meeting facilities, even when a community may already be struggling with overcrowding. Conservation groups in Montana, North Carolina, and many other states are advocating for resort tax reforms that will help fund needed infrastructure and prevent degradation of resources in amenity communities.
The key to these fiscal solutions is the creation of revenue streams that leverage the economic engine that natural amenities bring to communities, balancing the need to protect ecosystems with opportunities and quality of life for local families. Conservation organizations are uniquely adept at leading campaigns, assembling coalitions, and making the case to voters and local decision-makers who can make these changes possible. Putting these superpowers to work for fiscal policy reform will help ensure equitable conservation outcomes for generations.
A new audience for conservation values
This is an exciting time for the conservation community. Historically, conservation has not always led to economically equitable outcomes. In fact, conservation is often seen as a driver of gentrification. But as evidenced by new and innovative projects across the country, that is beginning to change.
Conservation groups are engaging in housing and fiscal solutions that advance shared objectives. These efforts have tremendous potential to build trust and strengthen communities in which conservation organizations work, and to ensure the future success of both conservation and equity goals. Projects that ease the pressures on natural areas and wildlife and fulfill a responsibility to improve social equity will be noticed by local workers and families that need affordable, livable communities. In turn, they will support more such efforts. It’s a dynamic that can only increase momentum for greater and more durable conservation goals down the road.
The work to build more equitable communities is just beginning and should be replicated across the country. Conservationists’ hard-earned skills in coalition building, grant writing, data analysis, communications, and expertise in real estate transactions will be extremely important for advancing solutions to the amenity trap. Success in building more equitable communities will only beget more success in conservation.