Wild and Wonderful: Making a Case for Undeveloped Open Spaces

March 2, 2017, Department, by Melissa May and Serda Ozbenian

2017 February Research 410

Park and recreation agencies are leaders in preserving the natural landscape of the community they serve. NRPA’s Park Metrics reveals that the typical agency has management responsibility of more than 425 acres of developed and undeveloped open space. More than 40 percent of those acres are undeveloped. Choosing to develop or not develop a piece of land comes with great responsibilities as well as great consequences.

Despite the economic setbacks the United States faced in the early 2000s, urban sprawl has continued to be a threat to rural and pasture lands and natural habitats. According to the American Farmland Trust, more than 24 million acres of agricultural land — an area the size of the states of Indiana and Rhode Island combined — was developed between 1982 and 2010. A 2005 collaborative study, released by the National Wildlife Federation, Smart Growth America and NatureServe, found that rapid consumption of land could threaten the survival of nearly one out of every three imperiled species in the United States. The study goes on to report that in some areas, “existing parks and other public lands may help sustain these species and mitigate this loss of green space. However, species will not benefit unless those lands are managed specifically for wildlife protection.”

In a recent NRPA Park Pulse poll, more than 1,000 Americans were asked about the importance of local governments setting aside land for the sheer purpose of preserving the natural landscape. More than four in five surveyed Americans agree that local governments should be setting aside land for the sheer purpose of preserving the natural landscape. In addition, gender, age, region, household size and parental status had no effect on the outcome of the results.

Benefits of Undeveloped Areas
Public support for undeveloped federal lands, or “wilderness,” was officially recognized by the U.S. Congress in 1964 with the signing of the Wilderness Act. This act defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

So why do Americans value undeveloped land? People value wild natural areas with limited evidence of humans because they provide a source of inspiration, wonder and escape from busy urban environments. Undeveloped green space also plays an important role in maintaining physical and mental health. These areas can serve as “living classrooms” and provide important educational opportunities and as “living laboratories” for scientists to study areas with minimal human alteration. The Wilderness Act also acknowledges the importance of protecting undeveloped areas for their scenic or historical value.

Setting aside land for conservation obviously also has many environmental benefits that vary depending on land cover, size and geologic variables. Some of the ecosystem services provided by undeveloped lands include stormwater absorption, air and water purification, microclimate regulation, reduction of greenhouse gases, carbon sequestration, flood control, erosion control and supporting habitat for native plants and wildlife, including threatened and endangered species.

Park and Recreation Agencies’ Natural Areas Programs
Many park and recreation agencies have Natural Areas Programs to conserve lands from development and preserve the natural landscape. The Natural Areas Program of Denver Parks and Recreation, for example, designates priority landscapes with important natural features that improve quality of life throughout the city. The mission of the program is to “manage these spaces so that present and future generations can understand and experience our native heritage.”

In addition to preserving ecological functions, a priority of the Natural Areas Program of San Francisco Recreation and Park Department is to support community-based site stewardship of these areas. They work with thousands of volunteers on habitat restoration in natural areas throughout the city. Similarly, the Milwaukee County Parks Natural Areas Program strives to create environmental stewards and advocates by engaging the community and providing opportunities for restoration ecology. With the help of the community, Milwaukee County Parks enhanced 1,565 acres of natural areas in 2015.

The Rachel Carson Conservation Park, a Best Natural Area managed by Montgomery County Department of Parks in Maryland, houses a rich diversity of plants and animals. The park consists of contiguous, high-quality, maturing, mixed-deciduous forest, ponds, streams and old fields in varying successional stages. It is home to a wide variety of wildlife and provides an important respite in the highly developed county for people who visit the park to enjoy the natural surface trails.

Protecting and Managing Undeveloped Areas
Implementing a Leave No Trace policy and promoting the Leave No Trace Seven Principles on undeveloped areas can help minimize human impact on the land.

A Natural Resources Management Plan can be a valuable tool for park and recreation agencies to provide a scientifically sound planning framework for protecting, restoring and managing natural undeveloped areas. Every good management plan should start with inventories of native plants and wildlife. Inventories present a great opportunity for community participation through citizen science activities using tools like iNaturalist, which has a dual benefit of educating and engaging community members, as well as reducing the workload of park and recreation staff.

Quantifying the ecosystem services of a natural area can also be very helpful when communicating the value of an area in economic terms to the public and leaders. To assess ecosystem services, there are various tools such as i-Tree, a software suite from the USDA Forest Service which quantifies the environmental services that trees provide.

Controlling invasive plant species and restoring native plant populations are vital to preserving the natural landscape and biodiversity. Community members can be recruited to participate in invasive plant removal and native plantings. Involving community members and building partnerships as part of the management plan are key to ensuring proper stewardship of natural areas. Although sometimes difficult to conduct in urban areas, controlled burns are very helpful and are a better alternative to chemical treatments, in removing invasive plants and bringing back valuable native species.

Though there is great evidence about the vast amount of previously untouched land that has been transformed for development over the past few decades, there is great public support for local governments to acquire and secure additional undeveloped areas to preserve the natural landscape. Americans reap the benefits, both physically and mentally, of these wilderness areas, and natural habitats thrive from dedicated management when made a priority. Park and recreation agencies across the country are stewards of these valuable ecosystems. Through the use of available tools and resources, park and recreation agencies can ensure a future where the natural landscape can remain wild, wonderful and for the enjoyment of all Americans.

Melissa May is NRPA’s Research Manager. Serda Ozbenian is NRPA’s Conservation Program Manager.