What Is Nature Worth?

‘Poor Asset Management’
By Robert Naeye

Fall in Sun Country 
Photo: Nathan merkel. Fall in Sun Country Photo: Nathan merkel. What is Dauphin County’s natural environment worth?

Keystone Conservation Trust president John Rogers provided some answers during an Oct. 24 Manada Conservancy meeting at the Perking Point Coffee House north of Hershey. Rogers is an environmental consultant who has worked over 40 years for government and business.

Because we live in an economic age, Rogers says putting a dollar value on the environment can help the public understand its importance. It’s difficult to have a strong economy without a clean environment and plenty of open space. But what is the value of clean air, clean water and open space?

“If we know the value of open space and nature, it will allow us to make much more informed decisions on transportation, land use, tourism, economic development, infrastructure planning and recreation,” Rogers said.

But Mother Nature doesn’t write receipts, so it’s an invisible economy whose benefits are generally overlooked or undervalued. For example, vegetation and forests filter toxic chemicals out of the air and water. Cutting down plants and trees to accommodate sprawl forces society to spend money on filtration.

Forests also absorb stormwater, minimizing floods. When developers cut down trees and replace them with lawns and pavement, municipalities have to spend taxpayer dollars to install culverts and retention basins to manage stormwater.

“When we throw off the balance of life, we have to pay to re-create those services,” Rogers said. “Taxpayers have to pay for controls that nature did for free. And in many instances, nature does a better job.”

According to Rogers, studies by the Trust for Public Lands show that for every dollar a municipality takes in from residential development, it pays $1.16 to provide services for that community. But that does not include the loss of natural services once provided by trees and other environmental resources.

“Losing millions of dollars per year to sprawl and doing nothing about it is just poor asset management,” Rogers said. “We need some tools to do a better job.”

Rogers summarized his methods for estimating the dollar value of natural resources in an approach called Return on the Environment (ROE). In studies of six Pennsylvania counties, the ROE value was nearly $1 billion per year.

For example, preserving land for outdoor recreation encourages people to exercise, leading to improved fitness that lowers healthcare costs. Studies have also shown that healthy employees are more productive and take fewer days off, bringing economic benefits to their employers. Outdoor activities also create jobs.

For Dauphin County, Rogers estimates that the total economic benefits of preserving nature for outdoor activities comes to about $359 million in revenue per year.

In another example, studies of housing prices show that properties near open spaces have more resale value than those in crowded locations. This allows Rogers to estimate that Dauphin County’s open spaces are worth between $37.4 million and $50.6 million.

Preserving natural system services saves Dauphin County $590 million per year. And preserving natural air quality services saves the county about $9 million per year.

“These are estimates, but I think these numbers are extremely conservative,” Rogers said.

The major challenge is balancing growth and open space.

“We need growth, but we can change the pattern of the growth,” he said. “New development can preserve and expand existing open space and connect stream corridors with forests to ensure sustainable populations of wildlife and a more sustainable economy.”

Sally Zaino, Manada Conservancy’s Director of Preservation, says her organization is using Rogers’ study to help with strategic planning and prioritizing land acquisition.

“We think this data will make our conservation planning even more effective,” she said.

Rogers emphasized that we cannot afford not to protect Dauphin County’s open spaces.

“We can’t rely on a few responsible people. It has to be a joint effort of policymakers, businesses, and residents to protect the environment for this generation and for the next generations to come,” he said.

Near the end of Rogers’ talk, he complimented The Hershey Company for ranking third in the nation for sustainable corporate environmental performance.

“The company cares very much about the environment and providing good environmental stewardship,” he said.

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