How Much Is a River Worth?

Here’s an article about some amazing work being done to help save Mama Gaia.

Since 1991, Dr. Daily, 46, has made frequent trips to this Costa Rican site to conduct one of the tropics’ most comprehensive population-level studies to monitor long-term ecological change.

“We are working to very specifically quantify in biophysical and dollar terms the value of conserving the forest and its wildlife,” she said.

In recent years, Dr. Daily has expanded her research to include a global focus. She is one of the pioneers in the growing worldwide effort to protect the environment by quantifying the value of “natural capital” — nature’s goods and services that are fundamental for human life — and factoring these benefits into the calculations of businesses and governments. Dr. Daily’s work has attracted international attention and has earned her some of the world’s most coveted environmental awards.

I admit that, at first, my reaction, as a member of a Nature Religion, was that Dr. Daily must be mad. You can’t put a dollar value on nature, on wilderness, on preserving biodiversity. You can’t put a dollar value on my relationship with my landbase or the loss that people feel when their landbase is raped. How much money is Muir Woods “worth”? How much money would someone need to be able to make off of destroying the Potomac River to make it OK to do so? How much money were the buffalo “worth” to Native Americans?

But the project actually sounds as if it has the potential to do a lot of good.

It aims to transform traditional conservation methods by including the value of “ecosystem services” in business, community and government decisions. These benefits from nature — like flood protection, crop pollination and carbon storage — are not part of the traditional economic equation.

“Currently, there is no price for most of the ecosystem services we care about, like clean air and clean water,” said Stephen Polasky, professor of ecological/environmental economics at the University of Minnesota. He says that because economic calculations often ignore nature, the results can lead to the destruction of the very ecosystems upon which the economy is based.

“Our economic system values land for two primary reasons,” said Adam Davis, a partner in Ecosystem Investment Partners, a company that manages high-priority conservation properties. “One is building on the land, and the second is taking things from the land.”

“Right now, the way a forest is worth money is by cutting it down,” Mr. Davis said. “We measure that value in board-feet of lumber or tons of pulp sold to a paper mill.” What has been missing, he says, is a countervailing economic force that measures the value of leaving a forest or other ecosystem intact.

And it’s already having positive effects. For example:

After deforestation caused extensive flooding in 1998, China committed $100 billion to convert vast areas of cropland back into forest and grassland. The government is building on this success by helping to develop and test the [project’s] software to put in place a new reserve network that is projected to span 25 percent of the country. The reserves will help with flood control, irrigation, drinking supply, hydropower production, biodiversity and climate stabilization.

I imagine that ecologists could have lobbied forever and not gotten China to commit to turning 25 percent of its land into forest reserves.

Dr. Daily does appear to understand that nature’s intrinsic value can’t be quantified.

Because the natural capital concept is anthropocentric, Dr. Daily sometimes is asked whether quantifying ecosystem services runs the risk of ignoring nature’s intrinsic worth or overlooking difficult-to-measure aspects of the natural world, like aesthetic or spiritual benefits.

Dr. Daily acknowledges that certain properties of nature defy quantification. “The beauty of the natural capital approach is it leaves the vast, immeasurable aspects of nature in their own realm while focusing in a very practical way on environmental benefits that we can and should incorporate into our current decisions.”

Of course, the danger is that, often, its only what’s quantifiable that matters. I’ve no doubt that, especially as population continues to explode, there will come a day when the money to be made by cutting down Muir Woods and putting up condos will exceed “the environmental benefits that we can and should incorporate into our current decisions.” But Muir Woods should never be cut down. And the model suffers from the fact that (as near as I can tell) it doesn’t take future generations into account. If the value in today’s dollars of cutting down forests exceeds the environmental benefits, the model makes it “justifiable” for people to cut down the forests.

Dr. Daily seems to get that, as well:

“The loss of earth’s biodiversity is permanent,” Dr. Daily said. “And it is happening on our watch. We need to convey with compelling evidence the value of nature and the cost of losing it. I find it stunning that until the next asteroid hits the planet, it is humanity that is collectively deciding the future course of all known life.”

I’m adding several of her books to my reading list.

George Pope Morris may have said it best:

Woodman, Spare That Tree

WOODMAN, spare that tree!
Touch not a single bough!
In youth it sheltered me,
And I’ll protect it now.
‘Twas my forefather’s hand
That placed it near his cot;
There, woodman, let it stand,
Thy axe shall harm it not!
That old familiar tree,
Whose glory and renown
Are spread o’er land and sea,
And wouldst thou hew it down?
Woodman, forbear thy stroke!
Cut not its earth-bound ties;
O, spare that aged oak,
Now towering to the skies!
When but an idle boy
I sought its grateful shade;
In all their gushing joy
Here too my sisters played.
My mother kissed me here;
My father pressed my hand —
Forgive this foolish tear,
But let that old oak stand!
My heart-strings round thee cling,
Close as thy bark, old friend!
Here shall the wild-bird sing,
And still thy branches bend.
Old tree! the storm still brave!
And, woodman, leave the spot;
While I’ve a hand to save,
Thy axe shall hurt it not.

Hat tip: I think that Richard Louv (@RichLouv) tweeted about this article a few days ago. I saved the link until I had time to read the article and write about it, but failed to save my source.

Picture found here.

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