Regarding the Georgia and Florida swamp and pine fires, one of the main questions is at what point does preservation offer greater economic gain than resource extraction. Looking at the big picture brings out two points:
ActionBioscience.org: The figure "$33 trillion" was once projected as the value of ecosystems globally. What do you think of this type of economic analysis?
Polasky: The $33-trillion figure refers to one of the earliest studies that was done on the value of ecosystem services. The lead author was Robert Costanza. He and his coauthors tried to get at the notion of how we can establish on a global basis what the value of ecosystem services is. They came up with a number 33 trillion [USD] plus or minus a few trillion. There are a number of problems with the study. The most basic one is the question of what you are talking about when you consider all the ecosystem services of Earth. The entire system is our life support system. So what is our life support system worth? You don’t really have to have a scientific study in order to answer that question. The real value of the study was not the $33-trillion figure, which who knows what that means, but that it spurred people to focus on these issues.
Such values can be big, and the dollar value isn’t the only consideration. There is a bit of risk in that we can’t do without the biosphere, and some risk management is in order. Even beyond that obvious non-dollar value, there are further questions of species diversity and esthetics. Do we really want to kill off an ecosystem when we don’t really know what it’s doing for us, and do we all want to live surrounded by concrete?
Speaking of concrete, it is possible to place a dollar value on particular groups of trees, such as those in Manhattan, which the city now values at $122 million:
..for every dollar spent on a street tree in the city — the Parks study counted 592,130 — New York receives $5.60 worth of benefits, including shade, improved air quality by absorbing pollutants, and impact on local property values.
That comes out to about 3 trees per acre, by the way, which would seem to show that even in New York City not everybody wants to be surrounded completely by a manmade environment.
In Georgia and Florida, people put values on trees all the time; after all, the Langdale Company of Valdosta, Georgia is the largest private landowner east of the the Mississippi, and most of that land is timber plantations. But pine trees aren’t much good for saw timber or pulpwood if they’re burnt crispy by too-hot fires. A good burn is like the one pictured above: low to the ground, consuming grass and undergrowth, and not pine trees. What’s happened in those recent fires has been more like that to the right of trees on Sweat Farm Road near Waycross, Georgia on 29 April 2007: burned right up to the tops of the pine trees. Many of those trees aren’t any good for pulpwood for paper, or even toilet paper.
That fire was next to the Okefenokee swamp, and the nearby landowners noticed this problem back in 1989:
Fire has always been an influence and threat in the Okefenokee Swamp area. Every year wildfires burn countless acres of valuable commercial timberland. However, these same type fires are of significant benefit to the Okefenokee Swamp. Balancing these opposing needs in an efficient and cost effective manner was one of the driving forces in developing the GOAL organization. The Shorts Fire in 1989 stretched the resources of state and federal agencies, industry, and private landowners. During the Gnatcatcher Fire in 1993, an effort was made to increase communications and coordinate all firefighting efforts. After the Gnatcatcher Fire, informal meetings began in attempts to develop an organization.
— Greater Okefenokee Association of Landowners (GOAL), accessed 24 May 2007
The resulting organization, Greater Okefenokee Association of Landowners (GOAL), involves timber companies (Langdale, Rayonier, and others), Georgia and Florida state Forestry organizations, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, other local, state, and federal agencies, and other private landowners. Collectively they represent over two million acres in south Georgia and north Florida. They study everything from black bears and wild hogs to helicopter dip sites.
All well and good, but whatever they’ve been doing didn’t prevent the too-large fires that are still burning, and their web pages don’t say about any fires since summer of 2006. There’s room for improvement.
It would seem like good risk management to me for somebody to be studying what can be done and planning measures to deal with the problem.