Red Hills Value of Ecosystem Services Study

Issue Overview

Turn on the tap, out comes the water ̶ fresh, clean, and seemingly endless. Over the years, when visitors to Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy are asked where our drinking water comes from, “The faucet” is a common response.  Prodded further, there is often a surprising range of responses that accompany the correct answer – groundwater.

The most important part of this study was our survey of the owners of 110 Red Hills’ hunting properties and other working rural lands, each over 500 acres. We received detailed responses from more than 66 percent of the owners surveyed. Survey respondents reported owning well over 300,000 acres in the Red Hills.

Basic questions like “Where does our drinking water come from?” are important because they force us to think about things we often overlook.  For example, the value of certain indispensable ecosystem services in our lives. These services are the natural processes we take for granted that support our lives on earth: water purification, drinking water recharge, climate regulation, and many others.

Many of us think these vital services are free and limitless because they don’t have obvious price tags. However, because we don’t recognize them as having any monetary value, they often are disregarded when decisions are made that affect our forests, wetlands, and other natural areas. The result is serious and costly impacts. For example, the decades-long loss of marshland and wetlands in Louisiana magnified flooding and damage from Hurricane Katrina in coastal areas and the city of New Orleans.

Because development decisions largely depend on cost and benefit analyses, it is critical that we begin factoring in the economic value of these services provided by nature into the decision making process.

Working with Tall Timbers, the University of Georgia undertook the challenge of valuing a wide range of critical ecosystem services provided by hundreds of thousands of acres of private forests in the greater Red Hills Region. The single most important reason that the forests and other natural areas of the Red Hills have thrived when many others long ago vanished is the region is home to more than 100 large quail hunting properties as well as farms and other working rural lands.  More than 300,000 acres in the greater Red Hills are held as largely contiguous hunting lands with well over half permanently protected from development through various conservation tools.

The results of the UGA study demonstrate the tremendous economic value of the ecosystem services that are directly benefiting all residents of our region. Economists estimated the total economic value of the ecosystem services provided by the private forest lands of the Red Hills at more than $1.13 billion per year. Water quality protection provided by forests and wetlands and drinking water resupply resulting from vast natural areas of high water recharge are two of the most valuable natural services provided by the Red Hills.  The region also provides vital climate regulation, habitat for pollinators essential for the reproduction of many plants including agricultural commodities, and aesthetic beauty valued by residents and visitors alike.

Ensuring a healthy environment with clean and abundant water, fresh air, wildlife habitat, and scenic beauty is critical for our regional economy and our quality of life. The number one threat to rural lands and the irreplaceable natural services they provide is sprawling urban development.

What can you do?

You can help protect these ecosystem services for ours and future generations by supporting efforts to maintain existing rural zoning; supporting policies to maintain the size of our current Urban Services Area [which has decades of room for future growth]; and encouraging activities that enhance the quality of our existing urban and suburban environments.

For more information

Contact TTLC Planning Coordinator Neil Fleckenstein at 850-893-4153, ext. 335 or e-mail Neil Fleckenstein.

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