New study says Maine’s natural areas worth far more than most people think

Posted June 18, 2012, at 10:53 p.m.
Last modified June 19, 2012, at 8:58 a.m.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — Most people have their own criteria for determining the value of nature, ranging from “it’s heaven” to “there are bugs out there,” but a recent study by the Manomet Center for Conservation Science assigns a dollar value.

In Maine, the value of Mother Nature, not counting tourism dollars, natural resource-based businesses or other revenue derived from the outdoors, accounts for more than $14 billion per year. Many of those values were derived with an eye toward the future, particularly as it relates to things like quality of life and the availability of clean drinking water. For example, recognizing the value of a forest that filters and slows runoff from rain will pay dividends later, according to the study.

“We’re trying to start a conversation about these uncaptured values,” said John Gunn, a forest ecologist and senior program leader with Manomet who is based in the organization’s Brunswick office. “Nature plays a huge role in our economy. When we make decisions in Maine, we need a better way to incorporate the value of natural resources.”

The study, titled “Valuing Maine’s Natural Capital,” was conducted in collaboration with a Vermont-based consultant group called Spatial Informatics Group, LLC. It measured factors such as scenic beauty, natural flood control capacity, the ability of forests to capture greenhouse gases, wildlife habitat, ability of wetlands to filter water, pollination system, recreation opportunities and underground water tables.

Gunn said respecting and protecting natural environments now — even if that means leaving them untouched in the face of pressure from the real estate market and economic development activities — could pay huge dividends in the future if it prevents super-expensive projects like installing public water filtration systems or repairing wide-scale flood damage.

Study author Dr. Austin Troy agreed.

“We may never know the exact price of our natural resources,” said Troy. “But assigning some value to natural capital is clearly more accurate than assigning none, as is currently the norm.”

The study ranked all of Maine’s natural areas, whether they’re in the wilds of northwestern Maine or in urban centers such as Portland, and came up with dollar values of what those areas contribute to the state per year. Cumberland County’s natural areas ranked the highest, at between $1,000 and $2,500 per acre of value per year. Franklin County ranked the lowest at between $500 and $550 per acre per year, which is mostly because much of that county is sparsely populated, said Gunn.

Washington and Penobscot counties also ranked high with per-acre, per-year values of between $700 and $1,000.

While the $14 billion in uncounted value researchers identified may not seem like much to some, the study points out that the state derives about $6.5 billion per year from forest-based manufacturing, recreation and tourism.

“That beauty is skin deep,” states the study. “There is far greater value to Maine’s natural abundance and wildlands than aesthetics and recreation.”

Traditionally, the conversation around the value of the environment, particularly when it involves a group vying to create a conservation easement, is how much the land would be worth for housing or business.

“Doing that calculation begins to capture some of these other values,” said Gunn. “The development values may be limited but some practices might potentially have negative impacts on those values.”

Included in the value of the environment is a forest’s capacity to capture greenhouse gases — which helps fend off the expensive effects of global warming — and natural water filtration systems that help provide one of the necessities of life on Earth.

“What this report shows is that, more than most people realize, society relies on well-functioning natural systems, too,” states the study. “We take [the value of nature] for granted. … Without that dollar price, nature’s benefits have historically been undervalued or deemed to be zero. The result of that approach isn’t good.”

The study also estimates that about 60 percent of the world’s natural ecosystem benefits have been degraded or used unsustainably over the past 50 years, and the problem will only get worse as the population grows. Receiving the highest per-acre values were coastal and noncoastal wetlands and urban and suburban forests.

One example in the study is Sebago Lake, which provides drinking water that’s clean enough not to be filtered before it is piped to the 200,000 customers of the Portland Water District. The study estimates the EPA’s filtration waiver — based on the cleanliness of Sebago Lake — has saved taxpayers at least $146 million, which is the approximate cost of a new water filtration plant. But that expense could come home to taxpayers if the watershed upstream of Sebago is degraded too much to provide adequate protection. The study suggests increasing forest sustainability practices and improving buffers along streams and rivers that cost less than half of what a new filtration plant would cost to build.

Gunn said he hopes the study will help people realize their actions today have consequences that will be felt in the future.

“Since I’ve been with Manomet, which is about four years, we’ve started looking at the carbon marketplace and what needs to be in place to get landowners engaged in that marketplace,” he said. “We wanted to take a step back from that and look more broadly at these other values that we know are out there and are being provided by Maine’s nature, and nature everywhere.”

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