Putting a Price on Nature

Rashika Verma entered her freshman Biology Honors class looking forward to learning more about medicine, the field that she wanted to pursue a career in. What she learned was something different, and just as important. Here, she tells her story.

Can you put a monetary value on nature?

For centuries, people have viewed the environment as having an intrinsic value; however,  understanding has done little to halt its disappearance. Across the world, many ecosystems are in a state of decline and while we have considered the cost of protecting the environment, studies into its monetary value have been few and far between.

Such was the basis of the research of scientist Steven Gray, currently an assistant professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Management at the University of Hawaii, and my ninth grade biology teacher, Kristina Nicosia. They wanted to measure people’s willingness to pay to restore the Barnegat Bay Watershed in New Jersey, an ecosystem that is currently in a state of decline.

In the first week of class in 2010, Mrs. Nicosia told us about the research project she was working on regarding the Barnegat Bay Watershed. I learned that the watershed, which is situated in a highly urbanized location, is in need of restoration. The watershed stretches for 40 miles (approximately six hundred sixty square miles) along the coast of central New Jersey and encompasses Barnegat Bay, Manahawkin Bay, and Little Egg Harbor. It is a popular fishing and recreational destination that has now begun to show the extent of damage done by humans: waste and chemical runoff has polluted the waters, fish and crab populations have significantly dropped because of pollution and overfishing, and construction has increased the rate of erosion within the watershed significantly. The Barnegat Bay is also an estuary (estuaries are places where saltwater and freshwater meet) and thus is home to a wide variety of marine animals, all of which have been negatively affected by deterioration in the watershed.

Together, my classmates and I embarked on a research project to study the damage done to the ecosystem and to determine which areas of the watershed needed restoring and just how much the people of Ocean County (where the majority of the watershed is located) would be willing to pay to help preserve it.

But first, we had to address such questions as, which ecosystem services needed restoring, what the cost of restoring those services would be, what method would best help us achieve our results, and how to obtain the money from the citizens to fund the restoration projects. As we collected information on the watershed, we discovered that many ecosystem services had deteriorated. However, it would be impossible to undertake a study involving a full restoration, and so we narrowed the list down to four vital ecosystem services: soil retention, water quality, habitat provisioning, and recreational use.

After we defined what needed to be restored within the watershed and calculated its approximate cost from the Barnegat Bay Partnership’s ecosystem restoration plans, a method to measure people’s willingness to pay needed to be determined. We studied several different approaches. In the end, we chose the Contingent Valuation Method (CVM), which determines the value of an ecosystem by asking people how much they would be willing to pay to restore or maintain specific ecosystem services in a hypothetical situation, because past studies revealed it to be an accurate and efficient method to measure willingness to pay. We also decided that the money to fund the ecosystem restoration would hypothetically be collected as an added cost on residents’ monthly water bills.

To develop an informed hypothesis, we conducted a thorough literature review of scientific journals and articles. Based on this research, we hypothesized that certain factors (i.e. age, gender, distance from the bay, education level, political affiliations) would influence willingness to pay for restoration. Incorporating these variables not only provided a basis for our hypothesis, but also allowed us to determine which ecosystem services the residents valued the most. We also considered the environmental plans and policies of the Barnegat Bay Partnership in the development of our hypothesis and we kept a strong line of communication open between us (the researchers), the community leaders, and the watershed managers.

With the background research complete, it was time to develop a means of collecting data- a survey. Together in class, we created a survey that would be mailed to 1,000 randomly selected Ocean County residents. To ensure that all recipients had a good understanding of our study and the ecosystem services, a brief informational letter accompanied the survey. The questions in the survey were created not only to measure people’s willingness to pay, but also to test how our hypotheses about how different characteristics of residents such as age, gender, distance from the bay, education level, and political affiliations affected their willingness to pay for restoration.

Once the surveys were typed and ready to be sent out, we faced the daunting task of labeling, stamping, and stuffing 1,000 envelopes. I remember coming into class and seeing boxes of envelopes and papers sitting on the lab tables. Several days and sore wrists later, the surveys were ready to be mailed. We kept the overall length of the survey short, attached a picture of all the students involved in the study, and included a return envelope and stamp to encourage more people to complete and return the surveys. The money for the stamps was provided by a National Science Foundation grant to Dr. Rebecca Jordan at Rutgers University.

Of the thousand surveys that were sent out, approximately 15 percent were mailed back. The net sample of completed surveys provided us with sufficient data to carry out the statistical analysis of people’s willingness to pay.

Once the results started to come in, we developed a logistic model to predict willingness to pay. In the final model, only the influences of age, gender, and bid amount (the amount of extra money people would be willing to pay on their water bill) were considered.  Our results showed that residents of Ocean County would be willing to pay about $11 per month—the price of a pizza, the cost of a couple of gallons of gas—to restore Barnegat Bay. If all households were to pay this amount, it would generate $29 million a year—a figure much higher than the estimated cost to do the restorations. We also found that women and younger people were more willing to spend money on the bay. The influence of awareness/attitude and demographic variables was found to be negligible and thus was not included in the logistical regression model.

All of these findings were put into a scientific paper that was written by my classmates and me and Mrs. Nicosia and informed by Dr. Gray and the members of the watershed partnership. Once the paper was complete, the science was submitted to the peer of scientists at Rutgers University.   It is now pending publication by Ecological Economics.

While conducting the study itself was an enlightening and enjoyable experience, learning how to translate action into words was my favorite part. There is an art to writing a strong scientific paper and being exposed to the way science is conducted and shared in the real world helped me realize just how the skills I learned in the classroom manifested themselves in the scientific community and in environmental decision-making.

And while this study was done at school, the guidance of Mrs. Nicosia and the experience of Dr. Gray, as well as exposure to previous ecological model valuation studies, allowed us to successfully participate in the scientific process not as individuals, but as a group.

Through this research, I learned that science is not done in isolation. This project involved the hard work and dedication of not only my classmates, but also of teachers, scientists in the field, university professors, and community leaders. And the opportunity to participate in a study that not only combined biological and ecological science, but also citizen and social science to solve complex real world problems, opened my eyes to the many ways in which science helps make our world make more informed decisions.

Looking back on this study, it has had a tremendous influence on the way I view the world. Not only did it provide me with my first glimpse into scientific research is conducted, but it has given me a greater appreciation for nature.



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