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Environmental economist studies a shrinking Louisiana

STARKVILLE — Louisiana is shrinking. According to new information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 25-35 square miles of land off the coast of Louisiana disappears into the water every year.

Mississippi State University environmental economist Daniel Petrolia understands how important the disappearing wetlands are to commercial fisheries, storm surge protection and wildlife.

“Louisiana has about 40 percent of the nation’s wetlands, with about 90 percent of the nation’s losses, sort of the epicenter of wetland loss,” Petrolia said. “Wetlands provide a variety of benefits, and so when these wetlands go, so do these benefits.”

Petrolia, an associate professor in agricultural economics and Louisiana native, recently completed a national survey on Americans’ willingness to pay for restoration of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.

He said finding out how much people are willing to spend reflects how much they value the benefits provided by environmental restoration projects. This figure is then compared to the cost of the project to determine if the project is worth executing.

The study was designed to estimate survey respondents’ willingness to pay for large-scale restoration projects in the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary in coastal Louisiana. The estuary encompasses 4.2 million acres of wetlands, ridges, forests, farmlands and communities between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basins in southeast Louisiana.

More than 80 percent of the land in the estuary is wetlands, swamps, marshes and barrier islands. The estuary is home to more than 500,000 people and provides habitat for 735 species of birds, finfish, shellfish, reptiles, amphibians and mammals.

The estuary also provides storm protection for over 1 million people, including residents of New Orleans.

Petrolia and Matt Interis, assistant professor in agricultural economics, set out to answer two questions in the national survey. First, how much money are households willing to pay to restore Louisiana’s coastal wetlands? Then, what specific ecosystem services provided by the coastal wetlands drive the willingness to pay?

“The survey format used in this study is quite complex but extremely important, as it measures people’s preferences,” Interis said. “The survey is designed so that people understand how vital their inclinations truly are in this situation since the wetlands affect their fellow citizens.”

The survey proposed one or more wetland and barrier island restoration projects and asked respondents if they would hypothetically be willing to pay a specified amount to implement one of the proposed restoration programs.

“We first explained why the wetlands and barrier islands were being lost, for example, natural erosion, sea-level rise, sinking of land, winds, tides, and major storms as well as human development,” Petrolia said. “We then asked respondents to consider, evaluate and indicate their preference for a set of proposed projects that would restore roughly 50 percent of the land lost since 1956.”

Petrolia and Interis developed two versions of the survey. In the first survey, participants were given the choice to pay for either a single restoration project or no restoration at all. Forty-three percent of respondents were willing to pay for some type of restoration. As expected, the proportion of votes for the project decreased as the cost increased.

The second version of the survey proposed two different restoration projects which would result in different outcomes related to wildlife habitat, storm protection and fisheries production. Respondents also could opt to do nothing which would incur no cost and allow land loss to continue.

More than 60 percent of those given the second version of the survey were willing to pay for coastal restoration.

The study also revealed these opinions:

— Respondents ranked restoration projects for increased fisheries production as most important, followed by storm surge protection, and then wildlife habitat.

— Respondents who had made lifestyle changes for environmental reasons were more likely to support restoration.

— Ninety-three percent of respondents had neither visited nor lived in the study region. Only 32 of the more than 3,400 respondents were Louisiana residents. Those who did live in or visit the area were more likely to support restoration.

The study found that respondents were willing to pay between $909 and $1,751 per household. This represents a total project value between $105 billion and $201 billion, which exceeds a recent $100 billion restoration cost estimate.

“While the survey will not restore the coastal disappearance in the estuary, I believe it does let policy makers and others know that Americans understand the importance of Louisiana’s wetlands,” Petrolia said.

The Northern Gulf Institute and the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station funded the study.



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