Price-tagging America's wetlands could help fend off the bulldozers

If a bird in hand is worth $2 in the market, how much are two birds in the bush? And, for that matter, how much is the bush?

Stamping a price tag on nature has stumped economists for years, yet environmentalists are turning a dollar-sign appraisals to defend wilderness against encroaching bulldozers and asphalt.

"Under tight fiscal conditions, we will be asked to put a value on things we thought you couldn't put a value on," US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) economist Bart Ostro states.

Ocean-bottom worms? Six cents a piece. A wood duck? $31.

And perhaps no where is the what-price-for-a-duck argument more at loggerheads than in preserving the nation's bogs, swamps, fens, marshes, and other soggy sod known as wetlands.

Republican leaders in the upcoming Congress have vowed to change the 1972 Clean Water Act to reduce the power of the US Army Corps of Engineers to deny permits for filling and dredging wetlands connected to navigable waterways, whether inland or coastal. And President-elect Ronald Reagan's budget managers say they will demand more cost-benefit analyses of environmental programs.

Also, the question of how much a plant or animal can fetch in the wilds is headed for the US Supreme Court in a $6 million case involving the worth of mangrove swamps, fiddler crabs, and sea worms destroyed by a Puerto Rican oil spill.

The US Justice Department, in a legal case settled out of court this year, was able to obtain damage money from a shipping company after one of the company's tankers spilled oil in Chesapeake Bay, killing an estimated 30,000 whistler swans, blue herons, wood ducks, scaups, and other wetland waterfowl. The government, in representing the animals, argued that hunted species were worth $31 to the economy, while nonhunted species had a value of $15 each.

About 40 percent of the nation's wetlands have already been lost, estimate EPA officials. Once thought a rancid nuisance fit only for draining, however, wetlands are beginning to prove their worth in their total ecological impact.

In Massachusetts, for instance, developers have discovered they can buy the "unusable" wetlands for a cheap price, build homes and offices around them to increase their value, and then deed them over to a town as a tax break. After discovering how wetlands act as natural sponges in holding back floodwaters, the US Army Corps of Engineers bought 9,000 acres along the Charles River rather than taking the more expensive step of building dams and cutting channels. A chemical spill near Hopkinton, Mass., recently was effectively neutralized by a nearby wetlands, a process scientists still do not quite understand.

Just how well muck absorbs toxic metals, for example, is currently under study. Wetlands do eat up nitrates and phosphates, and they could help prevent the effects of acid rain and pesticides, environmentalists contend.

Thus, several ways of pricing wetlands in general are now in use by those fighting for their preservation, although specific sites are more difficult to gauge in value. Dollar figures are obtained, for instance, by judging the cost of replacing wetlands with equally valuable substitutes, such as flood control structures or water treatment plants. More traditional methods include calculating the income that wetlands bring in from hunting or recreation, or simply their cash value on the real estate market.

"Environmentalists are quite divided. Some feel wetlands are just valuable, period. Others think we must rank them by monetary worth so that at least some can be saved," says Wendy Smith of the Environmentalist Law Institute.

In addition, classical economists scoff at the idea of pricing something not subject to the law of supply and demand in the marketplace.

The leading advocate for monetary appraisal of wetlands, ecologist Eugene Odam of the University of Georgia, contends that nature and economics both rely on one basic component -- energy flow. In addition to the other products (ducks) and services they provide (clean water), healthy wetlands have "embodied energy" just like a potato crop and, on the average, can claim a public worth of about $4,000 a year per acre.

"Most economists do not recognize the work of nature; a square foot of Manhattan is considered more valuable than a square foot of swamp," says Dr. Odam. Yet, he adds, economists must begin to regard nature's finiteness as part of the marketplace.

Even if wetlands are proved to have cash value, they may be allowed to be destroyed if another site is made into wetlands, say some environmentalists. Such wetlands "creation" is being tested by the US Army Corps.

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