The results of a 2019-2020 Return on Environment study of Lebanon County were recently published in a 28-page report which aims to demonstrate the financial value of the natural environment in Lebanon County in a way that can be understood by a broad audience.
Return on Environment (ROE) studies are the environmental equivalent to return on investment studies in businesses. They use peer-reviewed methods to determine the financial value of natural resources and environments in a township or county.
“Because we put it in dollar form, it can be used as a tool immediately because everybody understands dollars,” said Keystone Conservation Trust Principal John Rogers.
Rogers did the research for the study and wrote the report with Senior Program Manager of Landscape Conservation for Pennsylvania Audubon Jeanne Ortiz. Lebanon County was the eighth ROE study they have done along the Kittatinny Ridge, which spans 12 counties in Pennsylvania.
“Every [ROE study] is unique,” said Rogers. “The decisions, the framework, how people make decisions, those are all different. It’s a real learning experience.”
The study found that preserving the environment and open spaces in Lebanon County would save at least $309.8 million in expenses for economic development, water treatment and supply, flood remediation, infestations, air pollution removal, and erosion control costs. If these locations were not conserved, the burden of this cost would fall on taxpayers and local businesses.
“Too often, policymakers, businesses and even residents view nature as a commodity or an added expense as opposed to an asset,” said Rogers. “[Nature is] more than just beautiful places.
“Nature provides billions of dollars in avoided costs and revenues to counties and townships.”
In addition to preventing expenses, the report demonstrates that preserving Lebanon County’s natural landscapes would generate income for the county. Outdoor recreation provided by the locations analyzed in the study is estimated to generate $183.9 million and 1,795 jobs annually. It will also provide $9.12 million in state and local taxes. They also estimated that the increased exercise promoted by the natural environment currently results in the avoidance of $67 million in healthcare costs.
“I think people are motivated to do things because they begin to realize how valuable nature is,” said Rogers. “It begins to turn heads in terms of their appreciation not just for the beauty of nature or the fact that they enjoy it as part of their quality of life, but also because they begin to realize how critical it is to almost every aspect of life.
“Nature is the foundation for all of life.”
The report identified 13 locations in Lebanon County as the county’s “major natural assets and protected open space” that should be prioritized in land preservation. Two of these locations are internationally recognized: the Kittatinny Ridge, which is a global migration pathway for birds and wildlife, and Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, which is a globally important migration stop for snow geese and tundra swans.
“What was amazing to me about Lebanon County was the number of natural assets that [it has] and how important they are to the county and how important they are for recreation,” said Ortiz. “You have these two internationally significant landscapes in your county, plus all of the other natural assets.
“You really are blessed with natural resources in Lebanon County.”
In the Lebanon County ROE study, the researchers looked at land cover, such as forests, streams, rivers and agricultural land, and used modeling to add economic value to each type of land cover, based on the results of research and interviews with experts. They then used these values to calculate how much money would be saved and/or generated by the preservation of those natural landscapes.
“We didn’t pick all of [the issues],” said Rogers. “We only picked the ones that had a relatively significant value, so the study is somewhat conservative because we didn’t look at every possible value.”
The study also took the recently introduced stormwater management regulations in Lebanon County into account in its calculations. These regulations require businesses to pay increased taxes in proportion to the amount of impervious surfaces, such as asphalt and concrete, they have on their property. They were introduced to encourage businesses to maintain open spaces rather than simply paving them over.
“What we’re hoping is that businesses especially will look at this,” said Lebanon County Commissioner and President of Swatara Watershed Association Jo Ellen Litz. “And hopefully, this will help to preserve our groundwater and the moisture in the soil so that we have good crops to grow here.”
There were a large number of people and organizations involved in the study. Organizations that participated include the City of Lebanon Authority, Lebanon County Conservation District, Lebanon County Planning Department, Lebanon Valley Economic Development Corporation, Swatara Watershed Association, The Lebanon Valley Conservancy, and Visit Lebanon Valley.
The study was also assisted by a steering committee composed of interested citizens and people with experience in a variety of fields, including people from non-profits, government, and businesses. The committee had three two-hour meetings over a three-month time frame, during which the members provided and discussed ideas and data. They also participated in various surveys.
“We talked to a number of different people and they participated at different times and on different levels, and they are always very informative,” said Rogers. “I can collect data, but they were able to put it in context.
“Some of them are subject-area experts so they really put a fine point on some of the issues I have to think about and do research on.”
The report was published by Audubon Pennsylvania on behalf of the Kittatinny Coalition and in partnership with Keystone Conservation Trust and the Swatara Watershed Association. Funding for the study was provided by the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
The data gathered in the study will likely be used by various county departments, including economic development, tourism, and land planning, to preserve the valuable natural landscapes in the county and implement environmentally friendly policies and practices.
“I think that it was well-received,” said Ortiz. “I think the people we were hoping to reach embraced the study and they will be motivated to start using this kind of data.
“My hope is that we will continue to work with county officials, the Swatara Watershed Association, tourism, and other community groups on ways we can help ensure these natural assets stay in place while the economy grows.”
Aside from the full report, results of the ROE study can be viewed in the format of a brochure summarizing the results, a map showing areas that should be prioritized in preservation, a PowerPoint file for presentations, and a 3.5-minute video. They put the results in such a variety of formats to make them easily accessible, especially for teachers and students.
“I just think the is so good and it really highlights what we have good about Lebanon County,” said Litz. “If you’re a teacher, you can use this one day as a teaching program in your classroom, and it’s local. If kids can identify with something local, they really take it to heart.”
Some believe that, in addition to saving businesses and taxpayers money, preserving the environment in Lebanon County will help preserve its distinct rural character.
“As a county, we’re rural, and we like it that way,” said Litz. “We’re proud of it. That doesn’t mean that things aren’t going to change, it just means that we have to think carefully about where we develop and what we develop.”
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Full Disclosure: The campaigns of Jo Ellen Litz was an advertiser on LebTown during the previous election cycle. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here.