How do we value nature?

Forterra has partnered with Pierce County to secure funding to purchase a conservation easement on the 144-acre White Farm, with the objective of completing that purchase in 2016. The word ‘farm’ does not fully encapsulate this property—or its value.

Jack and Ellen White, founders of White Farm

The Farm

White Farm is one of the largest contiguous blocks of farmland in Pierce County and borders over 210 acres of protected farmland and open space. The benefits to the community are multiple.

Fields of pumpkins, raspberries and sweet corn help sustain the local economy; maple and alder hardwood forests provide shelter for the critically endangered little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus); mature conifers capture runoff from the ridge-top developments and protect the water quality of multiple artesian springs—the headwaters to Van Ogles Creek. The creek creates priority habitat for waterfowl and eventually runs into the Puget Sound, where the salmon and steelhead will rely on the cool, sediment-free water to spawn and survive.

One of the multiple benefits of the White Farm according to Diane Marcus-Jones, Pierce County senior planner, is that it contains two very different habitats—farm fields and non-commercial forest—right next to each other. This juxtaposition that creates hard lines where one habitat ends and another begins is called ‘edge,’ and it is essential for migratory birds, raptors, cavity-nesting birds, elk and other sensitive species. This field-forest interface creates an integral and rare mosaic of conserved landscape across the South Sound.

Connecting the value of nature

Given its countless benefits, how can we calculate how much something like White Farm is worth? How can a conservation easement properly account for the number of rain drops intercepted by the needles of a 200 year-old Douglas fir? Scientists and economists have been grappling with questions like these and taking steps to more accurately reflect the value of ecosystem services.

Forests have traditionally been appraised according to their products: lumber, pulp, food, medicine, pitch, to name a few. Forest ecosystem services account for these products but also assess the amount of air and water pollutants absorbed or intercepted by trees; the amount of water regulated; runoff reduced; erosion controlled; sediment retained; carbon sequestered; and wildlife habitat provided.

Quantifying these services and connecting how they help humans is often the greatest challenge in defining their value. In economics, a good or service is considered ‘valuable’ if it increases human well-being. In short, if it doesn’t serve us, it doesn’t count. While there is a fine line between valuing and commodifying nature, putting a dollar price on nature makes it more competitive against the force of rapid development.

Succumbing to development

The pressure to develop properties like White Farm is strong. With each passing year, more and more working lands—our farms and forests—in Pierce County are yielding to that pressure.

The Puget Sound region has lost 60% of its farmland since 1950
American Farmland Trust

Patti Snider, daughter of White Farms’ founders Jack and Ellen White, recalls that there were no houses on the hill above their property when she was a child; now there are more than a hundred directly above the farm in the growing Bonney Lake community.

The conversion from farms and forests to houses and pavement has had measurable impact. “There has been a lot of excess water being dumped onto our fields,” says Patti. “There was so much extra water that it flooded the fields and the workers couldn’t harvest the pumpkins.” The Whites attribute this extra flow and accompanying sediment to the runoff from the development.

View from Bonney Lake Development
Photo by Hannah Letinich

The runoff flows from the ridge under the highway, through the conifer forest and onto the White’s fields. The forest and fields of White Farm act as a buffer and provide the last quality control before the runoff seeps into the water table or finds its way to the Puyallup River. The White Farm also helps to contain and mitigate flooding from the Puyallup River. The farm land helps to absorb excess water and the upland forests act like a sandbag wall preventing floods from spreading.

When the Bonney Lake development was built above White Farm, the effect on the area’s natural ecosystem services (or the ultimate loss of those services) was overlooked. The oversight stems from a lack of understanding or a means to calculate the roles played by these ecosystem components. Until these are developed, the fate of similar properties will rest largely on the value landowners ascribe to their lands.

True value

For the White family, the value is intrinsic. Patti remembers playing hide-and-seek in the forests and treasures how much joy her father gets from cultivating the fields.

He loves seeing the crops grow and then seeing it go out to the people. He’s been approached by developers and has turned them down. This is one of the few areas left where animals can come and roam.
Patti Snider

Few large natural areas remain in Pierce County or across the state of Washington. Increasing priority is placed on these small but highly biodiverse areas. It is essential to the health of our region that properties like the White Farm are protected to preserve the forest-agriculture mosaic for their biological and commercial significance.

Forterra is proud to partner with owners like the Whites in conserving such a (in)valuable property.

  • Jazmine da Costa

    Jazmine da Costa is a native New Yorker who has spent the last five year in the Pacific Northwest. Currently, she is pursuing a joint degree MBA and Master of Forestry candidate at the Yale School of Management and Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (F&ES). At F&ES she serves as the President of the Land Use and Urban Coalition and is a co-leader of the Fire Student Interest Group and member of the Equity, Identity and Diversity Committee. She spent the summer at Forterra interning with the conservation department and drafting forest management plans for properties located in Pierce County.