Water As A Limitation on Development
In Grand Junction, Colorado, and in Douglas County, Colorado, the local municipal water agency frequently has more power in land use decisions than zoning officials. The supply of drinking water is modest and getting approval for a tap for a new structure is often more of a barrier to development in these places than what is legal to build in an area.
Access As A Limitation on Development
Another way too control development is by limiting access.
On public lands, Bill Clinton's famous "roadless rule" is designed to work that way (the "roadless rule" was gutted in the Bush Administration, but appears to have been reinstated by a court finding that the revocation was not done using the proper procedures).
Another example is the controversy in Bells Bend, Tennessee over a proposed second downtown called "May Town Center" on what is now agricultural land. Lack of access has protected the land from development so far, and opponents of the project prefer this approach to the open space greenbelt that the developer has suggested.
The current proposal is "to build at least two (and probably three) bridges to haul traffic in and out of currently remote and inconvenient Bells Bend." Planners favored the proposal stating:
Staff has evaluated May Town Center’s substantial economic impact, its aggressive land conservation plan, and its developers’ commitment to constructing public roads and bridges over the life of the project to manage off-site traffic impacts.
Opponents complaint that:
[The] chief planner seems to assume--naively defying all past rezoning realities--that a mere belt of undeveloped green space around May Town Center will insure open space conservation in Bells Bend better than the bridgeless Cumberland itself. Where did he get the notion that greenbelts provide anything but token resistance to greenbacks? Engineered open space would hardly be a match for the avarice folded into high returns on cheap undeveloped land and the developer-friendly tendencies of the Planning Commission.
Sacred Groves And Environmental Protection
These cases also bring to mind a study done by one of my father's environmental science students in another country (IIRC, India). The study found that in country where the local area was largely undeveloped, compared open space preservation in "sacred groves" protected by locals on religious grounds, with little government involvement in the preservation effort, to public land preserves where harmful uses were subject to government regulation and abuses were subject to criminal sanctions.
The sacred groves ended up being preserved from an environmental perspective better than the public land preserves. This happened despite the fact that the sacred grove rules, which were religious in nature, weren't expressly set out to preserve open space, plants and habitats. Some commentators even describe sacred groves as biodiversity hot spots where otherwise extinct specifies are found.
A quick search finds a study on sacred groves and environmental protection in Ghana and in Southeastern India. Ongoing inquiry of similar situations in Tanzania is being conducted.