January 29, 2013 Print

Thurston County asks, “What’s nature worth?”

Taxpayers in Thurston County are now the proud owners of a report--they paid for it, at least--claiming to offer an “ecosystem service valuation.” The report, by Tacoma-based Earth Economics, is titled “The Natural Value of Thurston County,” and claims to put a price tag on things like meadows, streams, and beaches.

The final answer? Somewhere between $14 billion and $619 billion … give or take … maybe more … almost certainly a lot more … or maybe less.... With an answer like that and a range greater than an order of magnitude, county taxpayers may wonder just whether they got their money’s worth. (To put it another way, the result could have been expressed as $316.5 billion plus or minus $302.5 billion.)

Worse than this vague-to-meaningless answer are the flaws in the methodology used by Earth Economics. They prepared their report by classifying different kinds of land (agricultural, forest, urban green space, etc.), distinguishing the “services” provided by each classification, finding academic literature that claims to show the value of the particular service, and then adding it all up. Trouble is, economic values (prices) are determined by two things: supply and demand.

Supply and demand are on-the-ground realities unlikely to be captured by academic studies conducted in other communities. They change from place to place and time to time--just ask local homeowners, not to mention real estate investors from places like Las Vegas and Miami.

Thurston County commissioners want to defend their decisions that restrict what local landowners can do with their own properties. The commissioners have made many residents poorer. They went to fellow travelers at Earth Economics to help them craft an argument supposedly based on economics and numbers. The outcome was predetermined.

Yet if turning many local properties, or parts of properties, into preserves or parkland is really worth billions of dollars … why doesn’t Thurston County just buy that land?

In the end, the best rebuttal against Thurston County and Earth Economics is that they will never put their own money down, or even ask taxpayers generally to pay the cost of their environmental agenda. Their environmentalism is on the cheap.


Trent England

Executive Vice President

Email | Facebook | Twitter

blog comments powered by Disqus