Skeena Watershed Ecosystem Valuation

Northwest BC has had no shortage of proposed industrial projects in the past few years. Proponents of coalbed methane, pipelines, mines and power projects claim that their projects will bring jobs and prosperity to the region. The reasoning implicit here is that oil, ore and timber are economic goods that are valuable because they can be extracted and traded in the marketplace. This is the conventional way of looking at economic development. Things that are hard to value tend to get left out of the equation.

Click here to read the March 31st 2015:
Skeena Watershed Ecosystem Valuation Project
Visioning and Strategic Planning Workshop
Final Report on Grant 2014-137

At SWCC, we figured that these notions might be worth challenging. The Skeena is one of the great wildrivers of North America - which is definitely worth something! - yet has become a hotbed of proposed development. Many people think we're wealthy because of what we have in terms of our cultures and natural environment. Some people think things could be a lot better. We're thinking that a large-scale ecosystem valuation project in the Skeena could help set the record straight. We think it could help us, as a region, get a better sense of the real value of what we have, as well as understand the true costs that might be involved in industrial development.

In this project we’ve brought together a team of great minds to look at how we might conduct this kind of research in the Skeena, figured out what aspects of which ecosystems make most sense to look at and discussed how we might begin to assign values to important things that are difficult to measure. The
groundwork has been laid and we hope to have some concrete results this year.

How do we decide what counts?
In a world of finite resources, everything we do results in trade-offs. Overall, people have a tendency to play up the benefits of human activities without considering the economic benefits provided by undisturbed ecosystems. Over the next few months, SWCC and a team of advisers will look at ecosystem services and natural capital in the Skeena Watershed and determine how we could determine their value.

For example, the standing trees along the tributaries of the upper Skeena prevent erosion and help maintain the high quality of water that salmon fisheries depend on. Downstream communities depend on sport and commercial fisheries for a large portion of their income, therefore the trees clearly deliver economic benefits without being cut down and sold. What is that value? Hmm. Similarly, intact mountainsides that attract tourists to the region bring economic benefits even in the absence of mines. Which industry actually delivers the greatest benefits for the least cost to the public? How do we place a value on clean water and aesthetics? Hmm.

Economist have pondered questions like these and more. They have named the value in being able to ensure your children and grandchildren enjoy the same natural amenities you do (bequest value), the value of retaining the possibility of using a resource at some future time (option value) and the value of the pleasure that lies knowing that the Sacred Headwaters are still pristine, even though you may never go there yourself (existence value).

These kinds of values are slippery as salmon: how exactly do we determine what these things are worth to us? Over the years, scientists, economists and conservationists have scratched their heads trying to figure this out. It’s generated quite a bit of controversy. Some conservationists argue that by coming up with economic values for what are essentially priceless and irreplaceable natural systems, we run the risk of discrediting arguments that call for protecting wild places and endangered species simply because they are precious and irreplaceable. Meanwhile, those in favour of the process argue that in a world driven by economics, when we call ecosystems and their associated services "priceless" we’re actually giving them a default value: $0.

At SWCC, we figured that these tough questions might be worth looking at more closely. The Skeena is one of the great wild rivers of North America - which is definitely worth something! - yet has become a hotbed of proposed development. Many people think we're wealthy becase of what we have in terms of our cultures and natural environment. Some people think things could be a lot better. We're thinking that a large-scale ecosystem valuation project in the Skeena could help set the record straight. We think it could help us, as a region, get a better sense of the real value of what we have, as well as what kind of costs might be involved in industrial development. Over the next few months, we’ll bring together a team of great minds to look at how we might conduct this kind of research in the Skeena, figure out what aspects of which ecosystems make most sense to look at and discuss how we might begin to assign values to important things that are difficult to measure.

To see the new June 2013 Skeena Watershed Ecosystem Valuation Project Plan in place click here

To learn even more about ecosystem valuation, check out the links and resources below. Thanks for your interest!

Links to More Information:

Ecosystem Valuation - An excellent, straightforward site that describes the nuts and bolts of ecosystem valuation, how it's done and why you'd want to do it.

Genuine Progress Indicators - When policymakers start measuring what really matters to people, economic policy will naturally shift towards sustainability

Ecosystem Valuation Reference Inventory - A searchable storehouse of empirical studies on the economic value of environmental benefits and human health effects.

Ecosystem Marketplace - A clearinghouse of information on environmental markets

Nearshore Natural Capital Valuation - The tenth publication by the David Suzuki foundation to study natural capital and ecosystem services in Canada's major urban centres


This project was made possible thanks to financial support from the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia