Economics of Natural Resource Decisions: Gardner Brown

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How do you put a price tag on a duck?

"Very gingerly," might be your answer--but the question is not meant physically. Rather, how can the economic value of wildlife be assessed? What is the economic value to society of preserving endangered species? How can damage to the environment be estimated in dollar terms? Those are the kinds of questions that UW economics professor Gardner Brown has spent his career trying to answer.

Since arriving at the UW in 1965, Brown has made it his specialty to study methods for estimating the dollar worth of natural resources. Among his most famous efforts was a study to put a value on ducks and associated hunting activity. His $30 price tag eventually was adopted by state and federal fish and game agencies for determining the value of waterfowl kill and for estimating the benefits of habitat purchases.

Brown studied at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a Ph.D. in a subdiscipline called natural resource economics. At the UW, he served as chair of the economics department from 1985 to 1990.

Brown has wrestled with the difficult question of how economics can estimate a value for endangered species, especially those with no commercial value. An example is a type of "non-marketable" marine life: beach fleas. One approach is to establish the biological contribution of the non-marketable species to "marketable" organisms in the food chain.

In another study, Brown devised an approach to attribute a dollar value to the opportunity cost or economic loss associated with declines in endangered species, in this case, elephants. He derived an estimate of economic activities lost if we no longer had elephants--that is, the "viewing value" of elephants.

Brown notes that his methods are not attempting to attribute an absolute or philosophical value, in the subjective sense, to a species or organism--after all, some people would argue that Nature's creations are priceless. Instead, his methods provide a way for decision-making to occur in government and in the judicial system relating to non-market or intangible goods--things that don't readily translate into dollars and therefore couldn't be handled otherwise. For example, he became involved in estimating some of the ecological and recreational damages in the Amoco Cadiz oil spill in the mid-1970s.

Since that time, he has estimated damages or reviewed the estimates for about a dozen hazardous waste or oil spill events, including the Exxon Valdez. He has reviewed the regulations that establish damage assessment procedures for the U.S. Department of Interior.

Brown was the economist asked to write the basic overview essay on the economics of natural resource damage assessment for the seminal book on the subject, entitled Valuing Natural Assets, published in 1993.

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