Trails and parks are valuable assets. Far too often, they are left off the balance sheet in spite of the fact that trails and parks offer tremendous value by providing recreational opportunities, supplying ecosystem services like salmon habitat or water supply, and supporting the outdoor recreation industry. This past week, residents of Alaska’s Mat-Su Borough recognized that value and passed a $22 million bond in support of trails, parks, pools, and ice rinks. Over $3 million of the bond will go to upgrade and construct trails and parks. This bond is a key part of a borough-wide recreation improvement plan that will ensure maintenance and support for open space and recreational opportunities into the future.

Passing the bond measure required some serious effort by the Mat-Su Borough and other local stakeholders to educate voters about the value of public lands. Last year, the Mat-Su Borough requested an Earth Economics report to identify the benefits of investing in the Mat-Su’s trails, parks, and open space. The report, funded by The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and released in December 2015, showed that every $1 invested in these resources provides a return of more than $5. The benefits of Mat-Su public lands are wide-ranging:

  • Opportunities for physical activity in open spaces can decrease healthcare costs and productivity losses by up to $3 million annually.
  • The Borough’s 1,438 acres of recreational land provide over $1.8 million in ecosystem services annually.
  • Both in- and out-of-state visitors support the local economy through food and lodging-related expenditures, recreational expenses, and more.
  • Direct, indirect, and induced tourism-related spending supports roughly 4,000 jobs and $282 million in revenue each year.   

With such a high return on investment and so many other clear benefits, the importance of trails and the need for investment was clear. Mat-Su stakeholders began to push for trails and parks to be on the ballot, and Earth Economics continued to be part of the outreach efforts over the year. In March, Executive Director Dave Batker presented to the Mat-Su Borough Assembly about its recreation economy, and in May, Project Director Lola Flores shared the study results with attendees of the annual Alaska Trails conference.

This bond’s passage is an exciting development for Mat-Su’s public lands. The Mat-Su is growing rapidly, and this funding will support recreational opportunities that ensure a better quality of life for all residents. Not only that, but protecting trails and parks also means protecting the health benefits, ecosystem services, and outdoor recreation industry associated with public lands.

More than 40 miles of trail improvements and other recreational facilities will be supported by this funding. The $22 million bond is the largest recreation bond in Alaska’s history, according to Mat-Su recreation manager Hugh Leslie.[i] The average taxpayer will pay only about $4 a month for the entire bond measure – just about the price of a coffee and a donut. At that price, isn’t it well worth the investment?

Photo Credit: Cecil Sanders via Flickr