$20,000 to $100,000 in ecosystem benefits annually into the future, then the ecosystem values would far outweigh the sale and resale value of the land. And although the individually purchased lots and the condominiums that were sure to spring up on them would continue to accrue value, the value of the destroyed resources and services would be lost forever. So in reality the governmental agencies got a great deal when they were forced to purchase the land. Taking ecological processes and functions into account, each year the land produces value far in excess of what the normal "highest and best use" valuation would have suggested. After all, this was nothing but swampland by most appraisals.
Ecological valuation can cut both ways. By increasing the actual recognized market value of healthy ecological areas, it can lead to better policy decisions about land and open space protection, although it may also drive up land prices, making land protection more expensive for conservationists. Still, if we know land has ecologically based economic value that may pay perpetual dividends once protected, compared to some comparatively short-lived tax base contribution if the parcel were developed, maybe market forces will begin to influence the way land is used for the better.
If not, if open acreage continues to disappear and ecological quality continues to fall, then both the health of humanity and its ability to use and enjoy the earth will become further impaired. The vast scale of the planet and our short lifespan on it prevents us from understanding the long-term impacts of our actions in any great depth. But at the very least we must take on the short-term impacts. Farmers, for instance, have to deal with the immediate cost of topsoil erosion, the contaminants included in that soil, and the effects downstream when it gets into our waterways, lakes, and estuaries. Because of our history of poor soil management, farmers are forced to invest thousands of dollars annually in soil amendments, primarily fertilizers to boost productivity and pesticides to combat pests. These stop gap measures are expensive, and yet they will not save the soil culture in the long run. We cannot continue to prop up ecological systems through the application of chemical surrogates because, like invader species, they don't respect the harmony of the ecosystem. Why should food production pollute our environment and threaten the health of our wildlife? That it pollutes us, through the high contaminant content of our own foods, is bad enough.
Unfortunately our economy is increasingly stressed from our having to clean up our own mess. When will this tired agriculture-based economic system get tossed? Hopefully it will be before the sediments and chemical contaminants washed from agricultural lands have completely fouled our rivers and lakes and coastlines. Once they have, once the capacity of these ecological systems to assimilate them is exceeded, the lakes will become unsightly, unsettling places. The only recourse then is to dredge and treat the water, a massively expensive process. In these situations we will begin to learn about the true costs of the inept "highest and best use" politics.
Our economies need to be shaped by our environmental policies. Perhaps someday we will measure our "best use" decisions against a gross environmental product (GEP) indicator, a kind of macro accounting that adjusts for all land-use decisions and takes into account human happiness and quality of life. Would people take these issues more seriously if they could reference "real use" costs on a wall-mounted ecosystem health indicator in their kitchens? Hopefully we don't need that kind of barometer to guide our ethical relationship with nature, but well-informed people do become better community members. As Leopold entreated us, let's make the land part of our community.
In some ways it is very difficult to define what it means to have a land ethic. Developers who strip 90 acres of forest but save a dozen trees could view themselves as having a land ethic. So, too, might an individual who shoots one duck less than
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