Tag Archive | "economics"

New Studies Highlight the Value of National Wildlife Refuges to Visitors and Communities

With visitation steadily rising each year – up to 45 million people in 2011 – national wildlife refuges are clearly popular destinations, but their value to visitors and the economy has remained largely unquantified.  Two new studies are helping to remedy that problem.

Last month, the U.S. Geological Survey released the results of a study that surveyed more than 10,000 visitors to 53 national wildlife refuges around the nation.  Approximately 90 percent of respondents expressed satisfaction with the recreational opportunities, services, and information provided at the wildlife refuges.  In addition, the survey measured visitor spending in nearby communities.  At Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, for example, average spending in the area by nonlocal visitors was $82 per day, while local visitors averaged $45 per day in spending.  These expenditures can add up.  According to the 2006 Banking on Nature report, visitors to the nation’s wildlife refuges that year contributed approximately $1.7 billion in sales to local economies.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to release an updated version of that report later this year.

A separate study released last week adds to a growing body of evidence that being located in close proximity to protected open spaces boosts home values.  Researchers from North Carolina State University focused on urban national wildlife refuges in three regions of the country and found that homes within one-half mile of those refuges were valued three to nine percent higher than those located further from a refuge.  Wildlife refuges included in the study were found to boost local property values by $122 million in the Southeast, $95 million in the Northeast, and $83 million in the California/Nevada region.  An upcoming report on ecosystem services will offer an additional measure of the economic value of America’s wildlife refuges.

Though these benefits are undeniably significant, the National Wildlife Refuge System has consistently lacked the congressional investment needed to reach its full potential.  Even at its highest funding level in FY 2010, the Refuge System received only $503 million – little more than half the $900 million that the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement estimates is needed for the agency to fulfill its conservation mission.  Unfortunately, as Congress looks to make good on the debt deal reached last summer, the Refuge System could see its appropriations slashed by 10 percent or more.  These cuts could force many refuges to eliminate recreation programs or close their doors entirely, and many of the demonstrated benefits that they provide to visitors and to local economies will be lost.

Posted in National Wildlife Refuges, Public LandsComments (0)

BP Restoration Opportunities Slipping Away in the Gulf

Restoration in the Gulf offers a huge opportunity to address an ongoing coastal wetland catastrophe while protecting key oil infrastructure and shielding New Orleans from storm damage.  As Louisiana and other Gulf states develop restoration projects for the first $1 billion of BP oil spill money, State and Federal Trustees will hopefully seize the opportunity to demonstrate the tremendous benefits from strategic use of restoration funds.   These benefits include wildlife and fish habitat, storm surge protection, and flood mitigation to name a few.

Louisiana has lost a fourth of its coastal wetlands and the benefits they provide to past oil exploration canals, subsidence related to past oil pumping, and to a system of Mississippi River levees that denied fresh water and sediment needed to maintain the wetlands.  Yet, the remaining 6,000 square miles of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands still offer the lion’s share of fish rearing and certain wildlife functions for the entire Gulf region.  Over 40% of U.S. wetlands occur in the Mississippi Delta area, but since the 1930’s, these wetlands have receded 20 to 30 miles.  Each mile and a half of this ongoing wetland loss to open water adds another foot of storm surge threat to the city and to the Delta’s oil pipe infrastructure.  The tens of billions of dollars potential restoration benefits related to fish and wildlife habitat are overshadowed by the much larger economic benefits coastal wetlands provide protecting a major city from storm surges and protecting the nation’s oil pipe infrastructure.

Yet, the “shovel ready” project lists drafted by Louisiana would spend about half of the initial $1 billion from BP on pumping sand onto existing islands and creating new ones where past storms have washed the sand away.  These proposed projects aim to protect a couple thousand acres of wetlands behind the islands receiving the sand and restore a few hundred wetland acres.  This modest wetland restoration roughly equals the Mississippi’s Delta coastal wetland losses that occur every month.

Louisiana’s longer term ideas for restoration funding include construction of wetlands and stream buffers to treat Midwestern farm nutrients entering the Mississippi drainage.   The Midwestern projects’ aim to reduce nutrient loads in the Mississippi River, thereby decreasing the size of the Dead Zone in the Gulf.  These wetland projects provide local wildlife benefits to bird watchers and hunters that might cover most of their several billion dollars of acquisition and construction costs, but their benefits from reducing the Dead Zone fall far short of the hundreds of billions of dollars in benefits from saving Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.  Farm programs provide billions of dollars of conservation funding each year to address agricultural runoff, which may offer a better alternative for treating nutrients from Midwestern farms than using oil spill money.

Project lists for BP oil spill funding need to include restoration of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.  This could be accomplished by reconnecting the Mississippi River to the Delta, as described by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana.  Rarely do the most urgent wildlife and ecosystem needs merge so completely with our energy needs and our needs to protect people and their homes and businesses.

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Protecting ranchers protects wildlife habitat – What?

Picture from the California Cattlemen's Association

Yes, it’s true. For generations, many ranchers have been managing their lands for wildlife on purpose and inadvertently. In California, private ranches contain unique and vulnerable habitats, such as vernal pools, grasslands, and oak woodlands. These ecosystems have been largely shaped over thousands of years to withstand and thrive under disturbances from fire, roaming buffalo, deer, and other ungulates. With the loss of these large herds and natural disturbances, ranchers have stepped in to mimic many of these disturbances through management of livestock. As Pelayo Alvarez says, Co-director of the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition, “They are ‘keystone species’ – you lose them and you lose the ecological integrity of the lands they manage.”

Defenders of Wildlife, along with the Coalition and some of their partners are working on keeping ranchers ranching by paying them for the ecological and socio-economic benefits they provide. Current conservation programs mostly pay ranchers for their practices, however there are groups working on moving beyond this form of conservation and paying ranchers for actual outcomes. These innovative conservation programs are taking shape in the form of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) programs and/or markets.

To help inform the formation of these innovative conservation programs in California, Defenders of Wildlife conducted a survey of ranchers, the first of its kind to focus on the supplier perspective towards PES programs or markets. The survey was designed to give insight into the demographics of ranchers; their knowledge and attitudes towards current conservation programs; their level of interest in participating in future PES programs or markets; and outlining the most important aspects of a potential future program with respect to administrator, level of payment, and length of contract.

Five key insights emerged from the survey’s results:

  • The threat of rangeland conversion in California is real and immediate and the time is ripe for a new approach to conservation
  • California ranchers’ high rate of participation in public conservation programs, coupled with their dissatisfaction with the perceived administrative hurdles associated with these programs, offers an opportunity to introduce more appealing conservation options.
  • California ranchers are strongly interested in PES programs, particularly those tied to wildlife habitat.
  • California ranchers recognize the importance of the environmental benefits provided by their land and want to improve these benefits with the right mix of assistance and incentives.
  • California ranchers prefer flexible program structures that are built on shorter contracts, larger payments, and non-profit organizations or private companies as administrators.

The report is still in its final stages and has not been released to the general public. A shorter report and blog post will be accompanied with the release of the final report within the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

Posted in California, Paying for ConservationComments (0)

A Community on Ecosystem Services

Ecosystem services are generally thought to be benefits that nature provides to humans. Things like clean water from healthy watersheds, clean air, climate regulation and protection from floods. As these services are diminished through over-exploitation and poor management, people discover that they are valuable, perhaps when it’s too late to reverse the damage.

Interest in ecosystem services as a new approach to resource management has grown dramatically in recent years, especially in academic and government circles. In December, a conference was held in Phoenix, called A Community on Ecosystem Services. It attracted over 400 scientists, economists, lawyers, nonprofits, businesses and federal officials and included over a hundred sessions on everything from measurements to markets for ecosystem services. Participants promoted their research, programs and new ideas.

Community on Ecosystem Services highlights
Rock Salt (yes, his real name) solicited assistance from the group to help the Army Corps of Engineers incorporate ecosystem services into the Corps’ decision-making framework – what to build, where, and how, given lots of competing demands and limited resources.

Amanda DeSantis from DuPont chided the United States for being so far behind the rest of the world in tracking environmental quality and preparing for widespread resource scarcity in the face of a growing world population that desires to consume as we do.

The best idea came from Shiprock Partners investment company managing partner Paul Brown, who pointed out that a ½ of 1% tax on the 30 trillion dollars in financial investments in the United States every year would purchase all of the carbon and other eco assets in the country.

University of Idaho law professor Dale Goble cautioned the group against taking too utilitarian and anthropocentric view of ecosystem services, and to continue using ecological risk assessment to determine impacts to the environment without confounding the results by including people’s preferences.

Defenders organized a panel on national policy options that highlighted the importance of addressing ecosystem services at the proper scale, working across agency boundaries, using consistent measurements and establishing clear ecological goals. Speakers proposed engaging utilities in programs to finance the protection of ecosystem services through ratepayers, and creating eco-enterprise zones for pilot programs.

Many sessions summarized ongoing efforts to assign dollar values to ecosystem services, using a variety of methods. Studies comparing the costs and benefits of using natural systems (like protecting forests, restoring floodplains and wetlands) instead of concrete and steel structures to retain floodwaters and improve water quality are among the most compelling.

A town hall meeting was held to invite feedback on a proposal to establish a National Ecosystem Services Partnership, initially housed at Duke University at the Nicholas School.  I am on the steering committee, so share your ideas on the topic with me. View A Community on Ecosystem Services presentations and abstracts.

Posted in Paying for Conservation, UncategorizedComments (1)

Biodiversity as an ecosystem service: what to measure, how, and why?

The G8+5 recently released a report titled “Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature” that argues that the current financial system is fundamentally flawed – not because of the recent meltdowns, but because it does not account for the provision, use, or loss of ecosystem services such as clean air and water, flood mitigation, and natural pollination. It predicts that failing to address this problem will continue to harm not only ecological but also economic and social systems. The emerging ideas of ecosystem services and ecosystem markets represent interesting new thinking about the benefits provided by natural systems, how those benefits are represented in economic systems, and what kinds of policies and economic tools might be used to make sure they persist into the future.

One of the first and most significant challenges in this area lies in quantifying the services being provided. The sub-field of environmental economics has produced some innovative approaches to valuing ecological services, but assessing the value conservation land adds to local economies through property values or spending on recreation falls far short of describing what we lose when a natural area is degraded or destroyed. Emerging markets in water quality and carbon have helped to pave the way, but quantifying the value of biodiversity and other unregulated resources lags far behind.

As a result, a small cottage industry has sprung up recently around the creation of environmental metrics, tools for quantifying the ecological values provided by a particular area of land. We have participated in a few of these efforts, including the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, which aims to develop environmental and social metrics for agriculture and food processing and distribution systems. We are also working on an effort to create metrics that efficiently and effectively quantify the biodiversity outcomes of conservation lands. These metrics should be useful in efforts to integrate ecosystem services into market values, but it may also be used more immediately to describe the impact of conservation incentive programs or to measure the biodiversity value of lands being placed in conservation or affected by development.

Developing metrics for ecosystem services is a small step toward the fundamental shifts in economic systems that are described in the G8+5 report, but it may prove to be a significant step in improving the outcomes of conservation efforts on the ground. The ability to reliably measure the impacts of development and the outcomes of conservation actions can help make sure we gain the best results from every dollar spent on conservation, whether that dollar comes from government incentive programs, mitigation for development, or private investment.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.

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