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Americans Are Being Asked to Put a Price Tag on Nature : Conservation: U.S. will survey 6,000 people, asking what they would pay to restore the Grand Canyon ecosystem to proper functioning. The project is part of new approach to environmental issues.

October 03, 1994|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. — What's it worth to you, Mr. and Mrs. America, to know that the delicate balance of water, rock and life that makes up the Grand Canyon ecosystem is functioning the way nature intended? Now, would you be willing to pay that amount in monthly installments on your electricity bill?

Those questions are more than just the idle speculation of economists and bloodless policy wonks. The answers could help determine whether Americans' love of nature will prevail over their hunger for electricity in a key environmental dispute over a hydroelectric dam on the Colorado River--the body of water that is at the Grand Canyon's heart.

This fall, the Interior Department is expected to order changes in the operation of the 31-year-old Glen Canyon Dam, which is being blamed for environmental damage along the Grand Canyon's riverbanks.

Although the changes would mark a victory for environmentalists, revisions to the dam's operations could also dramatically raise electric rates for 3 million customers who rely on the dam for hydroelectric power. Hoping to stem the expected public outcry, the federal government is taking a preemptive strike.

Its proposed weapon? Public opinion.

In the next several weeks, some 6,000 surveys will fall into mailboxes from Maine to Southern California, asking Americans how much, in effect, they value the Grand Canyon and what they would pay to restore the proper functioning of its ecosystem. The responses that pollsters receive could do more than help reverse environmental damage there: They may help effect a small revolution in the making of federal land-use policy.

The questions are part of a new effort to get policy-makers, in decisions concerning the management of public lands, to consider the psychic value of leaving some natural resources unexploited. Still in its infancy, the computation of what economists are calling "non-use value" could hand conservationists new ammunition in their fight to keep some lands off limits to developers. But it also could have the opposite effect of derailing environmentalists' efforts to set aside natural resources if Americans see unacceptable costs associated with such conservation decisions.

The technique, some environmentalists said, could help right a longstanding imbalance in policy decisions by placing a monetary value on things--like wilderness--that economists have never attached value to before.

At the same time, it raises questions that are deeply unsettling to many green activists and anathema to virtually all Native Americans: How, they ask, can you put a price tag on the Grand Canyon? And if you can put a dollar figure on something like the Grand Canyon's ecological balance, does that mean it's for sale?

Environmentalists believe that changing water levels caused by Glen Canyon Dam are responsible for the erosion of beaches along the riverbanks. Loss of the beaches has meant the disappearance of habitats and spawning grounds for many of the canyon's native species of plants and wildlife--including humpback chub, razorback suckers, coyote willows, canyon wren and Southwestern willow flycatchers.

The erratic water flows also wreaked havoc for Grand Canyon rafters, who faced rapids that were constantly shifting and campgrounds that were in danger of dissolving into the Colorado River.

The temperature of the river has dropped significantly as cold water from the dam's deep reservoir was released in massive, irregular spurts. The cold water favored fish, such as trout, that had been introduced to the river from elsewhere. But it appeared to be hurting the Colorado River's native populations of humpback chub and razorback sucker, now nearly extinct. And that changing balance among the canyon's fish appeared to be causing a cascade of changes up and down the food chain.

But while apparently damaging to the Grand Canyon's ecology, the changing water flows have been a boon to Western consumers. Whenever demand for electricity is highest, the operators of the Glen Canyon Dam can increase the flow of Colorado River water through its turbines to generate "peaking power." In all, the dam produces 4 billion kilowatt-hours per year.

For Grand Canyon beaches and the critters that live off them, the resulting gushes of water have produced costly negative effects. But for some 3 million power users, the dam's operations have brought a cheap, clean and plentiful supply of electricity when it's most needed; and for the Western Area Power Administration, which markets the power Glen Canyon Dam generates, it's meant a steady income flow at premium rates.

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