Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution, a conservative and libertarian public policy think tank, asks: From whom is open space being “protected” and “saved?” An interesting question from the standpoint of why some in our society question the need for land stewardship, yet do not ask the “protected and saved from whom” question regarding clean air and water.

This is not to deny that debates continue over what constitutes clean air and water. Bay Journal readers are very aware of this. Recently, for example, the conservative American Enterprise Institute’s Joel Schwartz argued—although most health experts would disagree—that more air quality regulations are not warranted. His conclusion is largely based upon a narrow cost-health benefit perspective.

But the idea that one person can pollute air and water without affecting us all has largely been supplanted by a more enlightened view—one that recognizes that protecting air and water benefits all of us.

Unfortunately, many have not applied this same wisdom to land; even though air, water and land affect and are affected by each other, e.g., acid rain.

Sowell’s question, and the answer he provides, are very revealing.

His answer: Open space has a harmful effect on the housing market—less land causes higher land prices—becomes strictly one of economics (and here only in a limited sense as he doesn’t even discuss the subsequent economic costs incurred from schools, utilities, roads, etc.). It fails to consider the ecological value of land. His answer becomes ensnared in the mythical free marketplace.

When the question of ecological value is inserted as it should be, the “from whom is open space being protected and saved” question becomes the easily answerable “for whom is open space being protected and saved?”

The answer: for all of us, including those who only view land in economic terms, as well as for future generations. Protection of other forms of life, along with clean air and clean water, that together sustain the land, ensures us a healthy and economically prosperous life. Land is not just an economic commodity on which to build houses and businesses.

Research scientists are documenting the effects of land abuse. David Pimentel, author of a March 2006 Cornell University study, states: “Soil erosion is second only to population growth as the biggest environmental problem the world faces.” To cite only one statistic from this illuminating report, the United States is losing soil 10 times faster than the natural replenishment rate. Worldwide cropland, which produces 99.7 percent of human food, is shrinking by almost 37,000 square miles a year from soil erosion alone.

A similar warning is found in the July 22, 2005, issue of Science. “Short of a collision with an asteroid, land use by humans is the most significant impact on the world’s biosphere,’’ according to Jonathan A. Foley, lead author of the paper. The paper’s co-author, Terry Chapin, noted that all local land use changes—whether to meet local needs or create economic profits—have global consequences. He is not advocating that there be no land use change, but instead that there be recognition of both short– and long-term needs from an ecological as well as an economic perspective.

Most recently, a National Science Foundation report, “Frontiers in Exploration of the Critical Zone,” released in August 2006, states, “Converting some of the best land around the world into buildings, roads and concrete has implications for air and water quality and biodiversity, and over time could put pressure on our ability to produce food.”

As more farmland is lost across the United States, I begin to wonder if we are not setting ourselves up for a crisis similar to oil. As food-producing land is eliminated in the United States, land elsewhere is converted to farmland. One place where this is happening, South America, is close to supplanting the United States as the world’s breadbasket. In some months, the United States. is already importing more food than it exports, although the yearly figure of food imports to exports is fairly even. (And yet we are looking for this same cropland to meet the demands of the biofuel industry!)

An additional concern is climate change. In 2002, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration-funded study argued that human-caused land surface changes in places like North America redistribute heat regionally and globally within the atmosphere and may actually have a greater impact on climate than that of anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

Land’s fixed boundaries allow for greater “individual control” than that found with air or most water bodies. This cannot be forgotten in land use planning. But efforts to eliminate all land use planning, which is occurring in some states, threaten our well-being.