If the two aging dams on the Elwha River in Washington state come tumbling down, salmon will return to 70 miles of the river for the first time since 1911.
What's that worth in dollars and cents? You
can't put a price tag on Mother Earth - or can
John Loomis, an economist at Colorado State
University in Fort Collins, quantifies such intangibles. His
estimate of the Elwha River-restoration project's "nonmarket"
benefits: $3.5 billion a year.
That's how much
the American public appears willing to pay to restore the Elwha
ecosystem and to know that future generations may enjoy a
free-flowing river, according to Loomis' recent study contained in
the first of two environmental impact statements on the river.
The first EIS, issued July 27, says removing the
Elwha River and Glines Canyon dams is the best way to restore the
Elwha's once-legendary salmon runs; 85 percent of 600 comments on
the EIS called for dam demolition. A second EIS, due out next
spring, will address mechanisms for taking out the dams.
Environmental conflicts often pit commodities
with monetary value - timber, oil, hydroelectric power - against
things that aren't bought and sold in the marketplace - wildlife,
scenery, ecological balance. But there's no yardstick, no obvious
basis for comparison.
Loomis and other economists
combine public-opinion research and statistical analysis to reduce
such conflicts to a common denominator. They translate the values
people associate with a quality environment into cold, hard cash.
What they do is called "contingent valuation," and it's more than
an academic exercise.
It was used to help
calculate damages to Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez
ran aground. It played a role in the Interior Department's decision
to reintroduce endangered gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park
and central Idaho.
It could keep removal of the
Elwha dams afloat. With estimated project costs at around $100
million, Shawn Cantrell of Friends of the Earth worries that as
more money is needed, sticker shock will set in. Congress allocated
$6.6 million for the project for fiscal year "96, but at least $25
million will be needed annually for the next three years, says
Cantrell. So far, he's "cautiously optimistic" that Congress won't
cut funding and effectively halt the project.
Never in U.S. history has a dam been torn down
for environmental reasons. If the Elwha River projects survive
budget cuts, they could be the first.
dams generate a small amount of power and it all goes to just one
customer, a Port Angeles pulp mill.
fish ladders, the dams block all but five miles of the Elwha to
salmon. The habitat above the projects, in Olympic National Park,
is among the most pristine in the country.
1992, Congress authorized the Interior Department to buy the dams
and remove them, provided the agency first determined demolition
was the best way to restore the Elwha's salmon
Endorsed by Interior Secretary Bruce
Babbitt in 1993, the project has support from environmentalists,
the pulp mill, the dams' owner, the Lower Elwha S'Klallam Tribe and
don't enjoy universal acceptance among economists. Still, Loomis'
study could become a weapon for environmentalists in the unfriendly
world they now face in Washington, D.C. In almost every case,
economists say, contingent-valuation studies have shown people
place a high dollar value on preserving or restoring the
environment, a value that easily surpasses the
Based on surveys sent to 2,100 randomly
selected households in Clallam County, where the dams are located,
as well as the rest of Washington and the nation, Loomis found that
people were willing to pay from $3 to $190 per household yearly to
tear down the dams and restore salmon runs.
U.S. House of Representatives recently passed legislation that
requires rigorous cost-benefit analysis before new environmental
regulations are adopted. "They may be opening a Pandora's box and
not knowing it," Loomis says. "If they were aware people come up
with values of $60 or $70 per household to remove dams, or $20 or
$30 to reintroduce wolves, Newt (Gingrich) and the gang would go,
"No, no, no!" "
Though studies such as Loomis'
reinforce the belief that the public is on their side,
environmentalists also find something troubling about reducing the
value of a river or a forest to legal tender.
one level I like what John's done," says Cantrell. But studies such
as Loomis' also suggest the Earth is for sale, he says.
Jack Knetsch, an economist at British Columbia's
Simon Fraser University says another problem with
contingent-valuation is that people often aren't willing to pay the
money they promise in surveys.
true, Loomis concedes, but the fundamental message remains. "People
are saying, "Darn it, there's a positive value out there."
* This story is adapted
with permission from a report by Eric Pryne in the Seattle Times.
A shortened version of
Loomis' study is available from John Loomis, Department of
Agriculture and Resource Economics, Colorado State University, Fort
Collins, CO 80523.
For a copy of the July 27
environmental impact statement on Elwha River Ecosystem
Restoration, contact the Elwha Project Coordinator in Olympic
National Park at 360/452-4501, ext. 264.