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Protecting environment pays off, experts say
By Gary Wisby, Environment Reporter
Chicago Sun Times
Published March 21st, 2005


What is a honeybee worth? A wetland? A fish or a bird? A human life?

Ecologists and health advocates are assigning dollar values to the environment as they argue for its protection and enhancement. Budget-minded governments make this a practical approach, if sometimes a distasteful one.

"You can't have a healthy economy without a healthy environment," says John Kostyack of the National Wildlife Federation. He cited recent studies showing that "an investment in conservation today really pays off in the long run -- and the payoff is in terms of both quality of life and dollar and cents."

Why pay $9 million for a barrier in the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal to keep Asian carp out of Lake Michigan? To protect the Great Lakes' annual $4.5 billion fishing industry, environmentalists say.

It makes economic sense to restore wetlands to trap and store rainwater because flooding on the Des Plaines River alone costs local governments and property owners an average of $20 million a year, according to the Biodiversity Recovery Plan of Chicago Wilderness.

The 3 million people who watched birds and other wildlife pumped $1.6 billion into the Illinois economy in 1996, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimated. A 2001 survey by the Lake Michigan Federation and University of Illinois at Chicago showed that Chicago area residents would part with more than $3 billion to preserve 20 species of birds and fish.

$20 price tag on honeybee

Pati Vitt of the Chicago Botanic Garden and her volunteers hand-pollinate rare white-fringed prairie orchids to substitute for the equally rare hawk moth. She's in awe of another pollinator, asking, "Who would think that a single honeybee would be worth $20?"

That's its value in propagation of the rabbit-eye blueberry out West, says Utah State University researcher James Cane.

Hanging price tags on the environment took off after the 1997 publication of a controversial report in Nature magazine that figured the contribution of ecosystems worldwide at $33 trillion a year or more -- or about double the combined gross national product of every country in the world.

Some have tried to establish a dollar value for even a human life. Two years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came up with $6 million. But when analyzing the Bush administration's proposed Clear Skies Act, which would have mainly benefitted older people with breathing disorders, the EPA discounted the lives of people over 70 by 37 percent.

Some find such calculations offensive. "How much would you pay for your kid to avoid an asthma attack or for your grandmother to live an extra 15 years?" asked Rebecca Stanfield of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group. "These are questions that are impossible to answer for real human beings."

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