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From Beaches to Pine Barrens, a Study Puts Values on New Jersey’s Natural Assets

By PAM BELLUCKNew York Times, May 21, 2007

The New Jersey Pine Barrens are known for a lot of things: ghostly legends of a bat-winged Jersey Devil; weekend canoeing among mossy bogs; a place where Tony Soprano and company like to dump their dead.

The Pine Barrens, it turns out, also have an environmental value of about $1,476 an acre a year, based on their ability to provide the earth with water, animal habitat and pollination, according to a report being released today.

The report, by economists commissioned by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, tries to put a dollar value on the state’s natural resources, from the Jersey Shore to the Kittatinny Mountains, to places like, well, Weehawken.

Beaches like Sandy Hook and Sea Girt, with their environmentally essential sand dunes, had the highest value per acre per year, about $42,000.

New Jersey’s cities, which occupy more acreage than almost any other topography in the state, had no environmental value, except for parks, playgrounds and other occasional green spaces. Neither did the rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike. v The report grew out of an environmental theory that is controversial in some quarters, but seems to be gaining some mainstream adherents. In recent years, number crunchers have been putting dollar values on peat bogs and coral reefs around the world.

Wetlands in Florida, another recent study reported, are worth $11.3 billion each year, or about $3,190 per acre, just for storm protection. In New York, where wetlands are much scarcer, the total is $271 million, or about $20,691 per acre per year. Advocates of the study of “natural capital” or “ecosystem services” — imagine Adam Smith running the Sierra Club — say it is a way to give greater legitimacy to environmental arguments, and make people realize more fully what they give up if they sacrifice nature.

“It’s kind of making it clear that these are valuable assets and need to be stewarded for the public good,” said Robert Costanza, director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont and one of the foremost advocates of this approach.

The New Jersey study was done by Dr. Costanza and others at the Gund Institute, including Matthew Wilson and Austin Troy, as well as staff members at New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection. To finance the study, the state received $200,000 in grants from two foundations.

The researchers analyzed studies of wetlands, forests and other aspects of the environment. They also assessed the cost of providing artificial equivalents of services the natural world provides, like flood protection. The study also considered the costs necessitated by damage to the environment and the price people would be willing to pay for outdoor recreation.

By putting price tags on features of the natural world, Dr. Costanza and others reason, polluters can be fined more accurately for the damage they cause. Should an oil spill ruin New Jersey’s entire coastal shelf, for example, state officials might cite the report’s estimate of an environmental value of $1,299 per acre per year as they tried to recoup damages from those responsible.

New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation, filled with car-clogged shopping malls and cursed with the pungent perfume of oil refineries and chemical companies.

It is also, of course, graced with refuges like the Delaware River Valley and the Pine Barrens, which lost 14,000 to 17,000 acres of trees and brush last week in a fire started by a flare dropped at a military firing range. v The researchers calculated values for each type of natural resource, like freshwater wetlands ($11,568 an acre a year), croplands ($866), grasslands ($77) and what the report called urban green spaces ($2,473).

In general, the coast and far southern reaches of the state tended to have the most environmental value, the report said, exceeding $8,000 an acre a year in some areas. Economists in this field calculate each value on a per-year basis, as opposed to its value right now, which Dr. Costanza likened to renting a property versus owning it.

The present value, Dr. Costanza said, can be calculated by dividing the annual value by 0.03. So beaches, at $42,147 per acre per year, would be worth $1.4 million per acre in today’s dollars, and forests, at $1476 per acre per year, $49,200, he said.

Environmentalists and regulators plan to use such figures as ammunition against developers aiming to build in forests, or to bolster arguments for environmental regulations or preservation money from state legislatures.

“One of the most significant challenges we constantly face here is the idea of sprawl,” said Lisa P. Jackson, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection. “I think it is important when we deal with people on the economic growth side to be able to use the common language of dollars and cents when we talk about the land we’re trying to save.”

Dr. Costanza and the other researchers concluded that New Jersey’s total natural capital is worth about $18 billion per year. Nature, he says, turns out to be about as economically valuable to New Jersey as the state’s construction industry.

“Developers on one side are doing studies showing that development brings jobs and economic growth, and municipal officials are eager for anything that could keep property taxes down,” said William J. Mates, a project manager with the Department of Environmental Protection, who worked on the report.

He continued: “What’s been lacking on the other side is a quantified picture of natural resources. We can make the case qualitatively till the cows come home, but now we can say, ‘Hey, there are economic losses if we convert farmland to housing.’ ”

Some economists feel that putting a price on the environment is meaningless. Some environmentalists shudder at expressing nature’s worth in numbers.

“To approach the issue of biodiversity as if it were an exercise in global bean-counting is fundamentally wrongheaded,” wrote Timothy C. Weiskel, an environmental ethicist, in an essay while he was director of Harvard’s environmental ethics and public policy program.

Mark Sagoff, a philosopher specializing in environmental policy at the University of Maryland, said the approach was “just a politically correct exercise.”

The benefits that nature provides either “can’t be cut and divided,” are “already priced by the market, like timber and farmland,” or “are too cheap to measure, like wind,” he said.

Such an approach will backfire against environmentalists if they argue against development by saying a wetland or forest is economically valuable, Dr. Sagoff added. That will only cause a private landowner to demand more money for the land, money the government cannot afford to pay.

The state has a trust fund to buy land for preservation. But just last week, Gov. Jon S. Corzineworried some environmental advocates when he said he would not support a referendum on borrowing $1.75 billion over the next 30 years to replenish the fund. The governor said he preferred to add to the fund by selling off state assets like toll roads and the lottery, rather than borrowing.

Patrick J. O’Keefe, chief executive of the New Jersey Builders Association, said attaching economic value to natural resources was “valid” and “meritorious,” but could increase the cost of available land and reduce the acreage that could be developed.

“If our policies to reduce flood hazards are accomplished in ways that increase the cost of housing,” Mr. O’Keefe said, “those who are priced out of the housing market therefore have to find shelter in circumstances that may be less healthful and less safe.”

Dr. Costanza is comfortable pushing the envelope. In 1997, he and other researchers created a stir by estimating that the total value of the natural world averaged $33 trillion a year, nearly twice what was then the world’s gross national product of $18 trillion.

This year, he and others formed a corporation called Earth Inc., which will, among other things, produce “earth shareholder reports” that will put dollar values on everything from rain forests to snail darter habitats.

Dr. Costanza also helped draft legislation in Vermont to establish a trust to collect fees from polluters. The money would be used, among other things, to pay the owners of private land to keep it forested.

A similar agency exists in Costa Rica. It collects money from urban water users and hydroelectric dams and uses those fees to pay landowners to grow trees instead of raising cows.

Still, even eco-friendly Vermont is not quite ready for such a proposal, said the bill’s sponsor, State Senator Hinda Miller.

“There were some people who said, ‘I really like this idea,’ ” Ms. Miller said. “ ‘Not today, not this moment, not this session, but I really get it.’ ”

Copyright 2007 | The New York Times Company


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