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December 03, 2016
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Valuing nature’s services: priceless

By Susan Beecher

I recently read an interesting report titled “Valuing New Jersey’s Natural Capital: An Assessment of the Economic Value of the State’s Natural Resources.” The concept behind the study is that various naturally occurring systems provide economic value over an extended period, and the benefits include both goods (commodities such as timber or mineral deposits) and services (ecological functions such as flood protection, soil erosion control and wastewater treatment). As it turns out, New Jersey’s natural assets are worth big bucks.

Overall, the state’s ecosystems were found to be much more valuable as providers of services (annual value estimated at between $8.6 billion and $19.8 billion/year) than as sources of harvestable goods (annual value estimated at between $2.8 billion and $9.7 billion/year). So leaving some land in its natural state makes for a great investment in a community’s future, and can actually save money in the long run by maintaining functioning natural systems instead of building infrastructure projects or undertaking costly clean-up efforts to replace lost eco-services.

New Jersey isn’t alone in acknowledging the value of natural systems. Cities worldwide know the worth of protecting forest lands in providing residents with clean and plentiful drinking water. Consider the case of New York City. Faced with the prospect of building a multi-billion dollar water filtration plant to keep its water supply safe, the city chose instead the much cheaper option of protecting the 2,000-square-mile watershed—a natural storage and filtration system—that surrounds its reservoirs. Wetlands and floodplains provide vital services of filtering pollutants, soaking up storm-water runoff and storing flood waters. Just think of the billions of dollars spent in this country on flood-control projects and flood clean-up that would not have been necessary if floodplains were less developed.

Add to the picture the far-reaching economic impacts of hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing and other outdoor recreation pursuits and the fact that some types of development demand more in service costs than they generate in revenue, and you have great incentives for a comprehensive land conservation approach that strategically protects regional landscapes and associated water resources that sustain us.

In their book “Green Infrastructure: Linking Landscapes and Communities,” authors Mark Benedict and Edward McMahon approach planning to protect natural lands and processes on the same level as planning for other types of public infrastructure, such as roads, sewers and storm-water systems. Green infrastructure is defined as an interconnected network of land (including natural areas and features, public and private conservation lands, working lands and other protected open spaces) that is planned and managed for its natural resource values and for the associated benefits it confers to human populations. Benedict and McMahon argue that green infrastructure is just as deserving of investment of public funds as traditional infrastructure projects. They cite compelling examples of the many ecological and economic benefits provided by green infrastructure that most people take for granted.

Here in the Upper Delaware region, we can draw similar conclusions about the value of services provided by natural resources. Natural lands and the services they provide are not just a “nice-to-have” amenity, but are rather a “must-have” necessity that affords diverse and valuable social and economic benefits—an irreplaceable life-support system for both people and nature.

[Susan Beecher is the executive director of the Pike County Conservation District.]