Protecting Open Space & Ourselves

Preserving open space can provide social, economic and environmental benefits.

The recently released Protecting Open Space & Ourselves report, led by The Nature Conservancy and Texas A&M University, highlights the role that open space can play in reducing flood risk in the Gulf of Mexico region.  The findings provide guidance on where to target strategic land conservation to both reduce flood risk and conserve biodiversity.

“Floods are a real and growing problem in the US and land conservation is an effective way to reduce flood risk”, said Dr. Christine Shepard, Lead Scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico Program. “We have an opportunity in the Gulf of Mexico to increase community resilience by preserving open spaces in areas of high flood risk.  The science shows us where we can do this in a way that also benefits fish and wildlife

The report identifies 421 priority multi-objective watersheds with high likelihood of future flood damage and high conservation opportunity. The watersheds identified in the analysis are appropriate locations for further consideration of open space protection as a flood risk reduction and conservation strategy. Municipalities, land trusts and government agencies engaged in land acquisition within these watersheds are best suited to identify specific land protection opportunities within each watershed but should consider opportunities to fund these acquisitions to meet multiple objectives.

Economic Benefits of Preserving Open Space

The report also finds that, as of 2014, only 100 of 343 municipalities within the priority watersheds are currently participating in FEMA’s voluntary Community Rating System (CRS) program.  The CRS is a voluntary program in which communities get points for flood mitigation activities and can earn discounts on their residents’ flood insurance premiums. Open space protection has long been a creditable CRS activity but is underutilized despite its likely effectiveness in reducing losses.

Of the 100 CRS communities, the average number of points each community earned for open space was only 131 out of a possible 2020 points for open space preservation. This indicates that there is substantial opportunity to improve CRS scores within key target watershed communities by protecting open space which can reduce flood risk, conserve species and habitats and provide an economic benefit in the form of reduced insurance premiums.

Next steps

The 421 target watersheds, identified using data-driven research methods, point the way towards identifying specific tracts of land within the Gulf of Mexico region that if left in a natural state, can help reduce the adverse impacts of floods in the future and provide other benefits such as fish and wildlife habitat, places for outdoor recreation, improved water and air quality, attractiveness for tourism, and retention of the traditional character of the Gulf coast. Next steps for this project include working with partners and stakeholders to familiarize land trusts and agencies with the findings and engaging a selection of communities within the target watersheds to identify specific opportunities to conserve open spaces.