Conservationists model smart shopping, save big

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3:29 p.m., Feb. 3, 2010----If there was ever a time for conservationists to shop smart, this is it. Across America, states confront budget shortfalls -- a grim cycle of cuts, followed by more cuts that the Pew Center on States refers to as “fiscal crisis.” Tough choices confront land conservationists, who shop the American landscape with big ambitions but slim wallets.

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That's why an emerging economics tool is so timely. Researchers at the University of Delaware and The Conservation Fund have designed a computer based decision making tool that is helping conservationists get more bang for their buck -- by evaluating potential conservation projects for best dollar value. With this new tool, government leaders can comparison-shop projects like never before.

“We all want the most bang for our buck, and conservation is no different,” says Will Allen, director of strategic conservation at The Conservation Fund, a leading environmental nonprofit. “Are you spending too much money on expensive projects -- what some call budget sponges -- or are you getting real value? With public budgets so tight, government officials must be able to justify how they're spending these dollars wisely.”

Until now, conservation organizations have chosen which lands to conserve based primarily on land benefits. Their goal is to save high-priority land that's valued for agriculture, perhaps, or open space and wildlife habitat. But Baltimore County, Md., has a better way, using optimization techniques developed by UD's Kent Messer, an economist in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Allen.

According to Messer, optimization strategy, first used by the military during World War II, is gaining new ground in the conservation world. He says it would have once taken a supercomputer to run these calculations. But thanks to evolving technology, people can now run optimization analysis quickly for fields like conservation, which has largely operated more on a
wish-list level.

Messer compares buying land to buying wine -- choosing well means recognizing good value when you see it.

Messer and Allen have developed and applied a computer model to “optimize” conservation decisions. The model turns raw data about conservation decisions -- project costs, benefits (scored numerically), budget constraints -- into a user-friendly spreadsheet yielding comparison shopping conclusions.

Using the model, for example, a government agency can quickly compare the relative value of all possible projects -- and then make, and justify, an informed choice.

The Baltimore County Agricultural Land Preservation Program in Maryland has one of the nation's most well-established farmland preservation efforts. Every year since 2007, Baltimore County has tapped an optimization model to choose which agricultural lands to save with impressive results.

Over the past three years, Baltimore County staff estimate that optimization has helped the county protect an additional 680 acres of high-quality agricultural land at a cost savings of roughly $5.4 million compared to the class conservation decisions tools. This amounts to a return on investment of more than 60 to 1. In other words, for every dollar that Baltimore County spent using its optimization model, it has gained more than $60 in conservation benefits.

“This work is especially important in these times of constrained budgets. Making our money go as far as possible is a good thing,” says Michael McGrath, chief of planning for the Delaware Department of Agriculture (DDA). Messer used data provided by the DDA for some of his initial research related to optimization. He and he and McGrath continue to look for ways that UD and DDA can use these techniques in Delaware.

McGrath says, “Dr. Messer's current work in Baltimore County provides important substantiation of his techniques in optimization. These techniques have applicability in Delaware and all across the U.S. in optimizing farmland preservation easement negotiations.”

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