Thursday, December 28, 2006

Economic Benefits of Environmental Clean-up in Great Lakes Area

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Put yourself in the position of a policy maker trying to decide whether or not to spend tens, or maybe even hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up a polluted river or harbor on the Great Lakes. Forty three such sites have been identified, and they’re contaminated with PCBs, heavy metals, and other industrial wastes--really nasty stuff that poses a direct threat to human health and destroys or degrades aquatic life. Among the many questions you face is whether there’s an economic benefit to be realized by such an undertaking.

Well, there is.

John Braden is a professor in the U of I Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics who has worked in recent years to quantify that benefit.

Most recently, Braden has collaborated with economists from Georgia State University and the Northeast-Midwest Institute based in Washington DC to gauge the value to local homeowners of cleaning up sites on the Buffalo River in New York and the Sheboygan River in Wisconsin.

One way Braden and colleagues sought to do that was to collect data for housing sales in both areas for the years 2002 through 2004. Their preliminary study of this data suggests that property values of single-family, owner-occupied homes are depressed significantly by the polluted state of the rivers: between one and seven percent in Sheboygan and between six and nine percent in Buffalo. In other words, a home in the Sheboygan study area that sold for a hundred thousand dollars in 2003 would more likely have sold for between a hundred-one and a hundred seven thousand dollars if the river were not so heavily polluted. Not surprisingly, the negative effect of the pollution on property values was more pronounced nearer the rivers.

Researchers also surveyed homeowners in both study areas directly about whether they would be willing to pay more for residential properties were the pollution in the rivers cleaned up. In Sheboygan, responses to the survey suggest that area residents would be willing to pay on average ten percent more for residential properties; in Buffalo that figure was fifteen percent.

From a public policy standpoint it’s worth looking at the aggregate numbers that come out of these studies. A seven percent increase in property values for the area that was studied near the Sheboygan River would translate into a 108 million dollar increase overall. A nine percent increase in property values for the Buffalo area would mean a 140 million dollar increase overall. Such increases in property values mean increased revenue for local governments, which suffer from depressed values just as citizens do. Since local governments pay a share of clean-up costs in order to obtain state and federal assistance, any revenue increase they invest in further clean up could also bring in even more state and federal help.

Braden emphasizes that the increase in property values he and his colleagues have calculated is only one of the economic benefits to be realized by an accelerated clean-up of contaminated areas around the Great Lakes. He suggests such areas would likely also enjoy great benefits as opportunities for recreation multiply and fisheries recover.

Of course good public policy does not rest on economic factors alone. In the simplest terms, we ought to clean up our own messes. But that’s not to say we can’t enjoy it when we find out that doing the right thing pays off, too.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Celebrating New State Rule on Mercury Emissions

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

As 2006 draws to a close, I invite you to pause and celebrate a change that has been set in motion this year that will benefit us all long into the future. I mean the new rule on air pollution from coal-fired power plants proposed by Governor Blagojevich back in January and given final approval by a bipartisan legislative oversight committee just last week.

The new rule requires operators of coal-fired power plants to make dramatic reductions in how much mercury their facilities put into the air by installing modern pollution control equipment. This is equipment that is available right now, and at a cost that will not place an undue burden on producers or consumers of electricity. The rule stipulates an average reduction of ninety percent across the fleet of plants operated by each company by 2009, allowing another three years before each individual plant has to meet the new standard.

Prior to final approval of the new rule, agreements on emissions were hammered out between the State of Illinois and the three major coal-fired power companies operating here. These agreements also institute significant reductions in emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to an array of environmental and human-health problems.

It’s especially significant that the new rule on mercury emissions does not permit power plants to buy allowances or trade mercury emissions credits with other companies or states. While such practices can be reasonable with respect to other pollutants, they are not when it comes to mercury, since they can lead to the creation of toxic “hot-spots” in the vicinity of power plants.

Although stricter regulations on mercury emissions from power plants in Illinois are to be applauded, it should be remembered that they represent only a second-best option for addressing the problem of mercury pollution. At issue is an airborne pollutant that can travel far from its source without any regard for state lines, one that really should be regulated nationally. State regulations only became necessary when early last year the US EPA failed to require ninety percent cuts in mercury emissions by 2008—despite the fact that its own staff had found such reductions were possible at a reasonable cost using existing technologies.

Illinois’ new rule has received strong support from statewide conservation groups, including Prairie Rivers Network, which is based in Champaign. According to Prairie Rivers’ executive director, Jean Flemma, the new rule represents “a victory for public health as well as the health of fish and wildlife in the state.”

In requiring power plants to meet higher standards, Illinois—which currently ranks sixth among all states for mercury emitted from power plants—becomes a leader in the effort to reduce mercury pollution. And it joins a number of other Midwestern states in recognizing the value of adopting clean energy technologies to protect human health and natural resources.

Somewhere down the road we ought to be able to eat the fish we catch in Illinois without having to worry about how much mercury we’re ingesting when we do. The new state rule limiting mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants is a step in that direction.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Gift Ideas for Illinois Nature Lovers

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Are there nature lovers on your holiday shopping list? If so, I’ve got some suggestions for how you can help them connect with the natural wonders Illinois. As a bonus, you can obtain these gifts without a trip to the mall.

Start with field guides from the Illinois Natural History Survey, which you can purchase at Survey headquarters at 1816 South Oak Street in Champaign. (Free parking, no crowds.) [You can also order INHS field guides via phone at (217) 333-6880 or by downloading an order form and sending in a check or money order. See the manuals page at the INHS website.] The field guides published by the Natural History Survey are similar to the national guides you may be more familiar with, but they’re written and photographed by scientists from Illinois, and they contain more detailed information about ranges and habitats in our state. The most recent addition to the Survey’s field guide series is The Skipper Butterflies of Illinois. It includes full accounts of the 59 species of skipper butterflies found in the state, along with more than 400 color photographs. This book complements two of the other field guides available from the Survey, The Butterflies of Illinois and The Silk Moths of Illinois.

If you’re shopping for someone who’s interested in more down-to-earth critters, you can’t go wrong with the Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Illinois. Like other guides, this book helps to answer that most important question in the field, “what is it?” But it’s also an eye-opener. When people just browse the photographs of some of the fascinating snakes, frogs, toads, lizards, and salamanders that can be found right here in Illinois, they might also be inclined to go looking for them.

Are there people on your list who enjoy kayaking or canoeing? Help them learn the difference between a rabbitsfoot and a pistolgrip with the Field Guide to Freshwater Mussels of the Midwest.

If you’d prefer to give a gift to be enjoyed inside (and one that can be ordered by phone), consider a year’s subscription to The Illinois Steward magazine, which is published by the U of I Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, along with other affiliates. The Steward introduces readers to wildlife, natural areas, and important issues in conservation with captivating photographs and top-notch writing. It’s a quarterly reminder of the many natural treasures that are ours to enjoy and protect. The publishers of the Illinois Steward also produce a set of note cards featuring scenes from around the state that makes an excellent gift.

Another subscription possibility is, Outdoor Illinois, a monthly magazine published by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. As a DNR publication, Outdoor Illinois may hold special appeal for the hunters and anglers on you list.

If you’re buying for birders, stop by the Audubon gift shop [for info see right sidebar on Champaign County Audubon Society homepage] at the Urbana Park District’s Anita Purves Nature Center. (Again, free parking, no crowds.) There you can pick up Birds of Illinois (De Vore, Bailey and Kennedy 2004) a field guide with state-specific range maps and more detailed accounts of life history and conservation topics than you’ll find in bird guides with a wider focus. If you want a gift for someone who would like to bird more, but doesn’t know where to go, give them the book Birding Illinois (De Vore 2000), which describes how to get around and what you can expect to see at more than 110 locations throughout the state.

With a little luck, you’ll be finished shopping early, and have some time to get out for yourself.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

An Invitation to Join the Champaign County Christmas Bird Count

For specific information on the Champaign County Christmas Bird Count contact Helen Parker of the Champaign County Audubon Society at [] or 367-3130.

For more general information on the CBC visit the National Audubon Society's web pages at

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

On Saturday, December 16th the Champaign County Audubon Society will conduct its annual Christmas Bird Count, an event that provides birders of varying abilities an opportunity to contribute to scientific efforts that track trends in bird populations over time.

The local count is part of a national effort that dates back to 1900, when a Christmas count was conceived of as an alternative to the tradition of the holiday “side hunt,” in which teams competed to see who could shoot the greatest quantity of birds in a day. Twenty-seven people participated in that first count, and they tallied ninety species of birds.

In contrast, recent years have seen upwards of fifty thousand people participating in the Christmas Bird Count, species totals of more than six hundred, and total numbers of birds counted around seventy-five million.

Some volunteers participate in the field, where they follow a specific route within the designated count circle, making note of every bird they see or hear for as much of the day as possible. Other volunteers who live within a count circle can participate by keeping track of the birds that visit their yards on the day of the count. The idea is to record not only how many species are observed, but also roughly how many individuals of each species are present on the count day.

Given the variability in the way individual counts are conducted, the information gathered from the Christmas Bird Count is most useful for assessing general trends in populations of wintering birds over time, and short term fluctuations in data are expected.

Among the thirty-nine people who participated in the Champaign County count last year we observed more than eleven thousand birds, with at least one individual from sixty-eight different species.

For me, highlights of the day included seeing a northern goshawk chase pheasants in the restored prairie at Meadowbrook Park, and catching sight of a peregrine falcon as it rode the afternoon wind. But the count is just as much about keeping tabs on the smaller birds that come down from northern states and Canada to enjoy the central Illinois winter with us: dark-eyed juncos, American tree sparrows, purple finches, and the like.

If you are interested in participating in this year’s Christmas Bird Count in Champaign County you can find contact information at the Environmental Almanac website, but here are the basics. The count takes place on Saturday, December 16th. Some volunteers are needed to help count birds in the field, for whatever part of the day they are available. Less experienced volunteers will be teamed up with veterans, so there’s no need to hang back if you’re unsure of your bird identification skills. Volunteers are also needed to count birds at their feeders, but only if they live within the count circle, which encompasses an area roughly from Busey Woods in Urbana to Homer Lake. (The count coordinator will gladly help you determine whether or not you live in the circle.) At the end of the day all participants are welcome to a chili potluck where the lists of birds observed will be compiled.

Now, I realize that the busyness of the holiday season can leave people feeling short of time, and that counting birds in December isn’t for everyone.