A new report by the David Suzuki Foundation puts a finer point on something most of us in the Sea to Sky already know: Howe Sound is of tremendous value to the region.
The study, released last week, found that Howe Sound's watershed provides an estimated $800 million to $4.7 billion in natural services to the region each year.
The report's author explained how those figures were attained: "We look at the function of impact ecosystems, and what we basically ask is if they're degraded, if they're lost, how much does it cost us to artificially replace those services?" said Michelle Molnar. "So if we remove all of our wetlands, how much would it cost for us to do that artificially with a waste treatment plant?"
Molnar said the wide range in value is "a ballpark figure" attained by comparing the sound to similar ecosystems.
The report estimated values for 11 of Howe Sound's ecosystem services, including climate stabilization, natural disaster protection and outdoor recreation space. The highest valued natural services were tourism and recreation, valued annually at up to $304,000 per hectare, and storm prevention, valued annually at up to $84,000 per hectare.
The study also assessed the value of different ecosystems, finding that beaches had the highest value, followed by wetlands.
When carrying out the study, the authors looked at Howe Sound as a distinct ecological region, rather than by jurisdiction, something B.C.'s Ministry of Forests, Land and Natural Resource Operations is aligned with.
"Looking at activities across a region, as opposed to sector by sector, is one of the principles behind the ministry's cumulative effects assessment framework," said ministry spokesperson Greig Bethel.
The framework mentioned is a ministry initiative to develop an integrated resource and development-planning tool for Howe Sound in partnership with local government, stakeholders and First Nations.
Natural capital valuation is a process that is gaining recognition in the international community, with 24 governments currently using the accounting methods in their economic decision-making. It can be an essential tool for the region's officials during the planning phase of development, said Ruth Simons, executive director of The Future of Howe Sound Society.
"We can now refer to this data and this document during the environmental assessment of various projects. It's also a document that all of the groups and stakeholders around Howe Sound can use," she said. "Hopefully it helps with the argument about being careful of what you take away in the name of economic growth."
At the federal level, Molnar said there are a handful of departments factoring natural capital valuation into their work. Statistics Canada is currently working on a system of environmental and economic accounts that will track GDP changes on a quarterly basis alongside natural valuation figures, "so you have a better idea of what some of the tradeoffs involved are," said Molnar.
Environment Canada is also reporting the value of nature to Canadians through a survey every few years, as well as developing an ecosystem-services tool kit that will assist senior levels of government in factoring in these values in decision making.
An economist by trade, Molnar said that the industrial resurgence of Howe Sound should be considered alongside nature recovery, not as a piecemeal approach. Proposed industrial projects in the region include Woodfibre's controversial liquefied natural gas proposal and the Burnco gravel mine.
"Our economy ultimately depends upon the environment — we extract all of our raw materials for production from the environment and at the end of the day the waste from that production goes back into the environment — so both are considered and both are strongly interconnected, yet so many of our measures, GDP and so on, don't include the value of nature," she said.
To view the full report, visit www.davidsuzuki.org/publications/reports/2015/sound-investment-measuring-the-return-on-howe-sounds-ecosystem-assets.