03/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Once-In-a-Generation Conservation Opportunities, From Cities to the Wilderness

Recently we learned that housing prices might finally be bottoming out. But it is going to take a while for the real estate market to find a solid footing, and in the meantime land conservation is gaining ground.

Prized conservation lands--farms, forests, wildlife habitat, and watersheds--are available at once-in-a-generation prices. News stories throughout the last two years have hailed this trend as the "green lining" of the real estate collapse.

Another story in December detailed a centerpiece conservation success in California's northern Sierra foothills--more than 2,500 acres along the Bear River. On the market in 2007 for $30 million, conservationists expect to protect most of the ranch for $13 million. This important conservation project just didn't pencil out before the real estate downturn.

While most of the coverage has focused on large, outlying landscapes, the downturn has been just as beneficial to protecting land in and near cities--projects that touch a lot of people's lives.

Along Jamaica Bay in Queens, New York, my organization last week acquired just more than an acre along the waterfront slated for development of 20 homes. A conservation solution made sense because right next door a nearly identical development of twenty homes remains mostly vacant. This in a community with barely one acre of parks for every 1,000 residents.

The land was purchased with funds the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey authorized in 2001 for their Hudson-Raritan Estuary Resources Program. Donated to the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, the land will become a new park with 500 feet of frontage on Jamaica Bay. More than 2,400 people who live within a quarter-mile of the parcel will now have a new place to visit, fish, picnic, and play along a mostly inaccessible waterfront.

Both projects are important - and the number of acres doesn't tell the whole story. We often measure the ecosystem and public outdoor benefits by the size of larger conservation properties, but a small new local park can have a big impact on so many nearby families.

The down economy is also bringing challenges to conservation--chief among them a drop in public funding and philanthropic support. In the meantime, the dollars we choose to spend today are going a lot further than they would have only two years ago, helping us protect parks and open space that will benefit communities for generations. These may be tough decisions in this tight economy, but these sound investments will be paying quality of life dividends for a long time to come.