Are Hikers the Key to Saving Nature?

Two years ago, a major survey revealed trouble in ecosystems of the United Kingdom (U.K.). A third of their functions—such as providing habitat for wild species and clean water for people—are declining. Now the same researchers show that protecting these ecosystem functions, and in particular outdoor recreation, significantly boosts the economic value of land. But putting those protections in place nationwide would be tricky.

The 2011 UK National Ecosystem Assessment was the most comprehensive attempt to describe the state of a country's ecological systems. Led by Ian Bateman of the University of East Anglia in London, and Georgina Mace of University College London, a team took data from this survey and created a computer model of the economic value of natural land-uses in Great Britain. They compared the economic impacts of maximizing agricultural production versus preserving land for recreation over the next 50 years, as well as the effect on the diversity of wild birds.

If agriculture is the top national priority and environmental regulations made more flexible than they are today, the annual revenue from the land increases by $1.4 billion over 2010. But if outdoor recreation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions are made top goals, then the value of land increases by $29 billion a year. That more than covers the $1.5 billion cost of protecting land that is rich in biodiversity. "It costs money to save biodiversity, but it's not as much as you'd think," says Bateman. "That's pretty good news." The findings are published today in Science.

Stephen Polasky, an environmental economist at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul, says that the new study improves the accuracy of this kind of economic analysis. "We are getting to the point where we're getting numbers that are roughly correct," he says. "This is the kind of work that has to get done to prove the concept."

While clear in principle, strategies like those examined in the study would not be easy to implement. For example, Europe's current agricultural policy is quite rigid, Bateman says, and there would need to be a way to transfer payments from land where agricultural profits are boosted, to places where revenue is foregone to preserve recreation or biodiversity. Polasky adds that these findings apply to the developed world, where food is already plentiful and where recreation is prized.

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