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The Bird And The Bush

With a bird, we can move people to the bush. From the bush we can move to the trail, from the trail to the park, from the park to the forest. With a bird, we have a beginning. Without a bird, we have only an end.

Green Jay, Laguna Atascosa NWR, 26 Jun 2010

What’s a bird worth?

Angry Birds is worth $1.2 billion. Scarlet macaw chicks stolen from nests on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica fetch as much as $1,500 apiece. Chuck Hagner of Birdwatching also reports that a judge in Indiana assessed a fine of only $1 for the 2009 shooting of a whooping crane. Duck Stamp revenue averages $1.35 for each wetland bird harvested each year by hunters. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

What’s a bird worth?

Birding places value on rare birds. Birders will invest in seeing the oddballs, the curiosities. For a hunter a common crane cost no more than a sandhill. But to birders the one often overshadows the many. To birders a common crane is exceptional, while sandhill cranes are routine. A green jay is routine in South Texas, but exceptional anywhere else in the country. What’s a green jay worth?

And what’s the bush worth? Why are birds in a bush worth less than in the hand? Didn’t that bird that you are now handling come from the bush?

The United States Forest Service is the agency that administers the nation’s 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands, encompassing 193 million acres. The Forest Service grows bushes and birds. But rather than focus on the inestimable value of a bird, let’s look past the bird to the value of the forest.

Waterfall, Sproul State Forest, PA

The President’s proposed 2012 budget includes the following for the Forest Service,

$5.1 billion in discretionary appropriations, a decrease of $178 million from the FY 2011 Budget Estimate. According to the Forest Service, our budget responds to the public’s desire to make smart investments that will pass on to future generations clean water, wildlife, and natural resources from our Nation’s forests and grasslands.

But I would like to see the offsetting values for this $5 billion investment. Can’t we quantify the benefits that correspond to the taxpayers’ investment?

Let’s start with recreation – birding, hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, et.al. During the Clinton administration the Forest Service estimated the annual economic impact from recreation on their lands and waters as around $111 billion. During the Bush administration the Forest Service slashed the $111 billion to $11 billion. Oops. To be honest, I do believe that the smaller number better reflects reality. Let’s be conservative and use the $11 billion estimate from the Bush years.

What about water? The Forest Service lands protect many of the nation’s watersheds. According to a recent analysis,

National forest lands are the largest single source of water in the United States and contribute water of high quality… Excluding Alaska, about two-thirds of the Nation’s runoff comes from forested areas. ..National forest lands contribute 14 percent of the total runoff… The [USDA Forest Service] calculates the marginal value of water from all national forest lands to equal at least $3.7 billion per year.

Sequoia National Forest

Recreation generates $11 billion per year. Add to that $4 billion or so for water. What about air quality? What about biodiversity and wildlife benefits? What about carbon sequestration (for example, afforestation of crop or pasture land is estimated to have the potential to sequester between 2.2 and 9.5 metric tons of CO2 per acre per year)? What about storm water retention? What about timber? Timber harvests generate around $150 million a year, not remotely the impact of recreation but hardly chump change. What about energy development within our forest lands?

So why is the Obama Administration cutting the budget? Doesn’t the Forest Service actually return a sweet return on our investment?

What is a bird worth? The bush and more. Birds are a metaphor for the public lands we cherish and the ecological services our lives depend on. If birders can’t see the bush for the bird, what about a public that sees neither? What about a political system that places little or no value on public lands that supply services as basic as air and water?

With a bird, we can move people to the bush. From the bush we can move to the trail, from the trail to the park, from the park to the forest. With a bird, we have a beginning. Without a bird, we have only an end.

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