What's a forest worth? Disaster assistance (finally) accounts for nature

A rim fire in the Stanislaus National Forest in California that began on Aug. 17, 2013.
FlickrU.S. Forest Service
A rim fire in the Stanislaus National Forest in California that began on Aug. 17, 2013.

If a tree falls in the forest, what does it cost?

From the perspective of federal disaster assistance, the answer traditionally has been “not much.” But now — thanks to improved number-crunching — the federal government is taking nature into account when it tallies the cost of disasters.

And, even more importantly, it is recognizing the value of nature — forests, wetlands, parks — in preventing or mitigating disasters.

Remember the Rim Fire, which incinerated a 400-square mile swath of California near Yosemite in 2013? When the state of California first asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for a “major disaster” declaration, it was turned down. Why? Because most of the damage was inflicted on forests, rather than man-made structures — and there was no way to put a price-tag on that loss.

Just think: a backyard shed gets destroyed by fire, that’s a $2,000 loss.

But when 77,000 acres of Yosemite National Park are reduced to smoking embers? Nada.

Enter Earth Economics, an independent non-profit that helps decision makers assess the financial value of natural systems. The group’s economists looked at the services the forest provided — filtering drinking water for the City of San Francisco, preventing floods, sequestering carbon, providing recreational opportunities — and calculated the dollar value of what was destroyed by the fire.

Armed with those numbers, Governor Brown appealed FEMA’s decision — and won.

Fast forward to 2016. The once-radical notion of valuing nature’s services is now more widely accepted by the federal government. Recently, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded $1 billion to 13 communities through the National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC) — and actually required applicants to calculate the value of nature and other non-traditional benefits in their proposals.

The competition asked applicants to use a holistic benefit-cost analysis developed by Earth Economics with support from The Kresge Foundation, which incorporates natural ecosystems’ value and services, long-term environmental sustainability, and community benefits such as health and employment. Earth Economics provided training, tools, and resources throughout the competition to help applicants calculate those values.

“The Earth Economics team helped us to capture the full range of benefits of the Community and Watershed Resilience Program, including the tremendous ecological benefits that it will provide not just to Tuolumne County, but to the State as a whole,” said Louise Bedsworth, Deputy Director of the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.

The winning proposals all make use of natural systems to build resilience to climate change impacts and other disasters. For example:

  • A California county that was devastated by the Rim Fire received an NDRC grant to restore the health of its forests and watershed, generate energy and support the rural community.
  • Lower Manhattan, which was inundated by Superstorm Sandy, got funding to construct a coastal protection system that includes much-needed green space.
  • In Hurricane Katrina-pummeled New Orleans, the Gentilly neighborhood won a grant to restore coastal wetlands and build water-absorbing parks and green streets.

Recognizing the value of nature and other overlooked social and economic benefits simply drives better decision making, according to David Batker of Earth Economics, who helped coach a number of the NDRC’s winning applicants.

“Benefit-cost analysis that includes nature helps us make smarter investments at federal, state, and local levels,” said Batker. “We owe it to ourselves and future generations to use this tool to identify the best, most robust and resilient investments.”

Indeed, investing in nature produces a bigger bang for the buck. For example, on a good day, the Lower Manhattan greenway is a park and bike path; on a bad day, it protects the city by absorbing potentially deadly storm surges. That is more than you can say for most single-purpose “gray” infrastructure, such as concrete levees.

Investing in natural infrastructure is a good way to get the most from taxpayers’ money, says Harriet Tregoning, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development.

“We are learning together about how to encourage a broader range of benefits from every federal dollar that gets expended,” Tregoning said during an announcement of the NDRC winners.

Valuing nature may seem like a no-brainer to many; the majestic forests of Yosemite obviously have tremendous value. But, too often, our public policies are structured by rules developed back when natural resources seemed inexhaustible. As the economists say, “you get what you measure.”

When we fail to measure the economic value of nature, we treat it as expendable. That is why the United States — one of the most resource-rich countries in the world — is now running an ecological deficit, according to the Global Footprint Network.

So, nature counts for more than pretty postcards and vacations. New tools to measure the dollars-and-cents impact of nature help planners, officials and taxpayers make the wisest choices for both the planet’s people and the natural systems that support them.

Laurie Mazur is the editor for the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation.

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