Canada’s wetlands provide billions of dollars of economic value to communities every year. That’s billion, with a “b.” From flood and drought mitigation to carbon storage to water purification and protection from sea-level rise, wetlands deliver important infrastructure functions, naturally. But the worth of these important ecosystems fails to hit provincial and municipal balance sheets. It’s an oversight that will prove more and more costly as the effects of climate change grow.
As someone with a background in finance, I appreciate that it’s difficult to assign a dollar figure to a marsh in the same way you would a water treatment plant. As a conservationist, however, I strongly believe that if we don’t find ways to clearly demonstrate—in dollars and cents—the value of our natural areas, we risk losing them. And we can all agree the economic repercussions of that would be catastrophic.
There’s no doubt that a lack of monetary measurement has contributed to widespread habitat destruction.
A common misconception is that wetlands are “wastelands” when viewing the land’s value simply in terms of what can be harvested, developed or extracted. Today, up to 80 acres of wetlands are lost every day in Canada. This leaves landscapes vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather. But if land-use planners and developers knew that the quiet, cattail-lined pond on the outskirts of town was protecting a bridge from being washed out or streets from being flooded (things that would cost millions to repair), they might think twice before draining or filling it in. They might consider it an asset worth protecting.
The idea that ecosystems like wetlands should be classified as “natural assets” within fiscal management is relatively new. But habitat organizations like Ducks Unlimited Canada have long been striving to make a business case for conservation. For decades, we’ve been partnering with many forward-thinking communities and industries tasked with finding creative ways of stretching infrastructure budgets and that are dealing directly with the impacts of extreme weather on their populations.
Our partnerships are focused on developing nature-based solutions, which is a term that’s taken hold to describe the sustainable management and use of natural features and processes to tackle socio-environmental challenges. As examples, we map and identify existing wetlands and create best management practices to help ensure that development around them takes place sustainably. We create naturalized stormwater retention ponds that capture precipitation runoff in urban neighbourhoods. We restore coastal salt marshes to buffer rising tides and storm surges. We’ve even decommissioned an old sewage lagoon, a process my colleagues in our science department call phytoremediation, into a beautiful functioning wetland that’s become a community attraction and a hotspot for birdwatching.
So, how do we scale up these nature-based solutions to build climate resiliency? Again, I believe they need to be worth something.
Establishing value starts at the top, with government policy. Conservation organizations like ours are working with provincial governments to establish effective policies to protect existing wetlands and mitigate the loss of those that are degraded. From there, it continues down the line with businesses and industry adopting strong sustainability practices—and acting on them. And finally, it rests with all of us as individuals and consumers in the choices we make every day.
In the face of today’s rapidly changing climate, we know this to be true: nature is embedded in our economy, not external to it. Dramatic evidence exists in every corner of the country. Look no further than the flood-ravaged communities on both the east and west coasts or to the farmers and ranchers in Prairie Canada who are still feeling the financial sting of this summer’s drought.
We also know that redefining the relationship between nature and economics will be challenging. But that’s precisely the reason why we must tackle it. We must measure and manage wetlands and other natural areas with an eye for economic, environmental and societal prosperity. While no one can put a price on nature, history continues to show that we ignore its value at our peril.
Larry Kaumeyer is the CEO of Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC). There are currently 6.6 million acres of wetlands and associated natural habitat under DUC’s care, which are estimated to provide more than $5.66 billion in economic value every year.