What is a Forest Worth – Explicitly?

How much is this worth? Photo: Tripp Burwell

By Tripp Burwell

A major focus in the conservation world today is finding (and perhaps creating) economic incentives to perform acts of conservation.

This method has its detractors, but proponents assert that if we can find additional motivations for conservation, that can only help the conservation effort.

If you follow conservation news, or even the Pope’s encyclical on climate, you may have heard of ecosystem services.

Essentially, functioning ecosystems provide positive benefits to people. To name a few services: healthy ecosystems sequester carbon, stop erosion, and purify air and water.

People frequently cite water purification as one of the most economically valuable aspects of ecosystems services. Water that passes through a healthy ecosystem is less contaminated, and it thus costs less to treat.

People are also willing to pay for water.

The best known case of an economically motivated land conservation action to purify water occurred when New York City opted to restore watersheds in the Catskill Mountains rather than build a new multi-billion dollar filtration plant in the 1990’s.

It was generally understood that land restoration in the headwaters would be cheaper than the cost of the plant.

How much cheaper though? How great were the benefits of conserving forest compared to the cost of treating water?

New York City headwaters. Photo: Tripp Burwell

These questions are difficult to answer for a variety of reasons, but mostly because these benefits are hard to quantify.

However, as some have recently noted, we are entering “the cost-benefit state” – and knowing these precise values is becoming more and more important.

Previous researchers who have tried to examine exactly how beneficial healthy forests are for water purification, however, have mostly focused on the effect of the quality of the water going into —> Read More