Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wetlands Value Determination

This is one of the still, hushed, ripe days when we fancy we might hear the beating of nature’s heart.  Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.  There is a love of wild nature in everyone, an ancient mother-love ever showing itself whether recognized or no, and however covered by cares and duties.”  John Muir, 1838-1914.
How do we value wetlands?  Let me count some of the ways.  Instinctively we list the goods and services that wetlands provide: wildlife habitat; cleaner water; recreation; lessened damage from floods and erosion; carbon sequestering; healthy economy-source of income; natural products (medicine, food, fiber, and fuel); culture; education; archeology; art; and ceremony. These are all obvious treasures that we take for granted and that are not easily assigned economic value (dollars).  Economic value is the coin of the realm and what is commonly used in wetlands policy formation and judicial determinations for permitting and compensation in wetlands development and conservation decisions. 
The chain of evidence from perception of a wetland to assignment of economic value is complex.  A common scheme is given in definitions.  We analyze processes which support biological production.  Next we define functions which are interactions of ecosystem processes.  Then we determine benefits which are goods and services derived from functions.  Finally we assign value based on the worth of benefits to society. This conceptual framework is logical and entails significant costs for value determination and risks for wetlands conservation.
Setting market value for wetlands may result in less wetland protection.  Market value of protected wetlands is low and protecting them elevates the costs for nearby developed land, distressing land owners and developers.  Conservation of wetlands distresses politicians and civic leaders because of loss for income, sales, and tax bases.  Developers and courts demand determination of wetland economic value.  Sources for  value determination include 1) estimates by economists based on one or two specific, isolated wetland functions and 2) non-economist estimates of “embodied energy” or replacement costs, neither of which are reproducible or defensible.  Economic estimates are based on willingness to pay (revealed, expressed, or derived).  A difficulty in this approach is that people generally don’t know the values of wetlands and their willingness to pay, making wetland dollar values not readily determined or defensible.  Another problem is that wetland services are generally linked with surrounding watersheds and cannot be isolated for value determination.  As alternatives for determining economic value, the amount that wetland permit seekers have to pay appears to be the most accepted value, followed by costs for attempted wetlands restoration. These alternatives are arbitrary and do not reflect the true costs and benefits of wetlands.  
Economic decisions about wetlands tend to favor wetlands destruction because of market failure, where the true cost of goods and services is not represented.  Wetlands services are generally given a zero price, but are of high value to human well being.  Factors contributing to market failure are 1) distribution of costs and benefits between private landowners and public, 2) tragedy of the commons, 3) missing costs, 4) cumulative effects of wetlands loss, and 5) limited understanding of wetlands science.  These factors must be addressed to ease market failure.  This remedy is expensive and few methods exist. 
The most economically efficient choice for wetlands is not necessarily the most socially and environmentally beneficial choice.  Economic cost/benefit analysis overlooks the multiple interactive benefits that wetlands provide for society.  The key to wetlands conservation appears to be public support of common resources.  To achieve this goal, we need clear explanation of wetlands function, interactions with watersheds, and benefits to society.  There is a need for long-term monitoring of changes in wetlands and their effects on ecosystems and society to expose the hidden costs of incremental degradation and loss through time.  Public involvement could be increased through education, culture, recreation, conservation, and wider economic accounting for the business community.  
Posted by michael

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