NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

"Existence Value" Of Wild Rivers And Salmon Runs

October 21, 1999

Environmentalists and government economists are using the theory of "existence value" to try to quantify the value to people of wilderness they may never see. They say existence value should be added to the benefits of wilderness preservation when performing cost-benefit analyses.

Critics say the concept -- also known as contingent value or passive-use value -- is unquantifiable and/or meaningless and has been around since the 1960s.

Existence value has been cited in legal battles over logging and offshore oil drilling. It is also being applied to a federal plan to breach four huge hydroelectric dams in eastern Washington state -- which has been proposed on the theory that the dams are hindering salmon runs and removing the dams would revitalize them.

  • In polls, Seattle residents say they would be willing to pay a few extra dollars a month on their electric bills to save the salmon runs.
  • During the 1989 Exxon tanker Valdez oil spill in Alaska, Americans polled said they would pay an average of $30 each to avoid a similar accident in the future.
  • And several years ago, Connecticut River Valley area residents said they would pay, on average, $7.90 annually in higher electric bills to preserve Atlantic salmon spawning in that river.

Army Corps of Engineers economists say Americans would shell out as much as $1 billion to breach the four Snake River dams and restore the salmon runs -- but those polled weren't actually spending any of their own money. Nor were they asked to balance the plan against the loss of jobs for port workers in Idaho and higher shipping rates for wheat farmers -- both likely effects.

Even Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt cautions against using existence values in environmental debates. "You can't just cost this stuff out," he says.

Source: Sam Howe Verhovek, "They Exist. Therefore They Are. But, Do You Really Care?" New York Times, October 17, 1999.


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