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Science and Innovations

Study: Flagstaff Residents with Mountain Views Less Likely to Pay for Forest Restoration

Melissa Sevigny

How much would you pay to restore the forest around you? A new economic study says the better your view, the tighter your purse strings. Researchers at Northern Arizona University surveyed Flagstaff residents and discovered people who can see the San Francisco Peaks from their house are less willing to pay for forest restoration projects meant to protect the town from catastrophic wildfires. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with the study’s lead author, Julie Mueller.

OK, let me see if I’ve got this right. If you live close to the forest you’re willing to pay more for forest restoration—but if you have a view of the San Francisco Peaks you’re not so willing to pay.  

MUELLER: Yes—however you have to control for everything else, including controls for income, and distance, and preferences about wildfire, flooding and climate change. Once you hold those variables constant, if we took two respondents who were identical in all of those other variables, so they lived exactly the same distance away from the proposed restoration and had exactly the same preferences, the one with the peak view would be less likely to vote yes on the willingness to pay question.

OK, so—why?

MUELLER: We don’t exactly know why. …. It may be simply that people don’t want the restoration to impact their view. So it may not necessarily be showing a preference about restoration in general—which we are finding a positive willingness to pay for restoration in general—but we also know that values of homes are directly tied to their view. Changing the view changes a home. It changes the experience of living in that home, even if you don’t own it, if you rent. The other thing is that we thought people with views may already have a significant amount of defensible space around their property. They may not necessarily be willing to pay for more restoration because they’ve cleared their property to have the park-like setting, and because of that, they have a view.

Was that a result you expected to find?

MUELLER: No. That was not a result we expected to find. That was surprising! And I think one of the things it really does highlight is the complexity of understanding the benefits, as well as the complexity of understanding environmental perceptions.

How did you measure whether people were willing to pay for forest restoration?

MUELLER: We asked them. So this was a survey that we sent to residents of Flagstaff…. We asked people, would you be willing to pay X amount? And we gave them a lot of information about where that money would go, and then they were asked if it cost you this much per month, would you vote in favor of this policy?  

So the average willingness to pay was about 4 dollars a person per month. If we put that number in the real world, how significant would that be?

MUELLER: The aggregate willingness to pay for Flagstaff would then be 24 thousand dollars per month, totaling 310 thousand dollars per year, which is significant, because the fuel management department for the City of Flagstaff has an annual budget of 300 thousand.

So how can this research help people out in the real world, our forest managers, our policymakers, who are trying to get this restoration work done?

MUELLER: Generally speaking our results show if there’s a choice between a few different restoration projects, the restoration projects that are closer to Flagstaff, that do not impact viewsheds directly, would have the highest value to the public. In my opinion this study gives us more questions than answers, but it highlights a lot of areas for some really great future research on preferences for restoration.

The study appears in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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