Report: Sonoma County’s natural resources worth billions

Conservation advocates have long touted the need to preserve Sonoma County's bucolic landscape, but a report released last week for first time assigned a dollar value to those open spaces and their natural resources.|

Conservation advocates have long touted the need to preserve Sonoma County’s bucolic landscape, but a report released last week for first time assigned a dollar value to those open spaces and their natural resources.

The value of services provided by undeveloped and working lands, both public and private, in Sonoma County ranges from $2.2 to $6.6 billion annually, according to the report from the Healthy Lands and Healthy Economies Initiative. The study stems from a years-long collaboration between open space and conservation districts in Sonoma, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.

“It’s clear that our community values open space and working lands, but the main point of the report is that not only do we value them, but these lands have an immense value that’s not commonly understood in the typical market framework,” said Karen Gaffney, conservation planning manager for the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

The report assigns value to a variety of ecosystems. It accounts for green spaces that absorb runoff to curb flooding while filtering out pollutants. It highlights the benefit of soil, which captures and stores atmospheric carbon and sustains ground cover to prevent damaging erosion. It quantifies the public health benefit provided by trees and plants, which boost air quality, and of open spaces that harbor insect- and wildlife that can limit pests.

It’s the first clear picture of the total estimated value of Sonoma County’s “natural capital,” or its stock of natural assets, and the way they can provide cost-effective alternatives to man-made infrastructure.

The assigned values were determined by economists at Washington-based nonprofit Earth Economics using a “benefit transfer method,” which utilizes existing valuation studies from similar landscapes across the country to show how the environment adds to overall economic well-being and provides a return on investment on taxpayer dollars used in land conservation.

“This is exactly like a house appraisal,” said Earth Economics president and co-founder David Batker. Sonoma County, he said, aligned with some of the higher dollar ranges seen nationwide.

Conservation officials have touted the study as an affirmation of the local investment in land protection and safeguards on water quality including development setbacks on streams.

In 1990, Sonoma County voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax to support land conservation. The tax currently generates about $23 million annually to buy and extinguish development rights on private land and add to the county’s ample public parkland. The sales tax supporting the county’s Open Space District was renewed for another 25 years in 2006.

Over its nearly three-decade existence, the Open Space District has spent more than $400 million to conserve 117,000 acres of land, said Mary Dodge, the administrative and fiscal services manager.

“People understand that nature has value. It’s clear in this county,” said Wendy Eliot, conservation director at the nonprofit Sonoma Land Trust. The report underscores the need to sustain such conservation efforts, she said. “We continue to approve measures that ask us to put money behind our respect and value and appreciation for nature. The takeaway is a sense of satisfaction that we know we’re right. This stuff is important.”

The aesthetic benefit of the county’s working and natural lands has the highest value of any single service, contributing an estimated $1.2 billion to $4.2 billion annually, according to the report. Forests, coastlines, pastures and valleys contribute to property values because people are willing to pay more to live near those spaces, the authors conclude. The payoff in local recreation and tourism spending amounts to as much as $600 million annually, they determined.

“People take farming, forests and parks for granted, and this shows all have a role to play in a healthy economy ... in indirect and direct ways,” said Ben Stone, executive director of Sonoma County’s Economic Development Board. “It impacts talent attraction. People also come here to visit because of the open space. In a tourism bureau study, we saw that people come for the wine, but they’ll return for bucolic beauty.”

Natural landscapes can also provide a less costly alternative to building infrastructure for such needs as flood control or water treatment, the report states.

The study highlights the 19,132- acre Cooley Ranch, a protected space in northern Sonoma and southern Mendocino counties that makes up nearly a quarter of the land that drains to Lake Sonoma, the largest source of drinking water for the region. Development there could introduce harmful sediments and nitrogen into the water system, harming fish and requiring costly water treatment measures.

If the property had been developed with 56 homes, it could have cost about $164,000 a year to deal with potential nitrogen pollution, the report states. .

The report also assigned dollar values for watershed protection - up to $180 million annually - and carbon sequestration, at up to $197 million a year.

The report also provides a foundation to advance the concept of companies purchasing and utilizing natural resources to offset environmental impacts locally, said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, the former assistant chief of the U.S.D.A’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“On one side, this helps us identify what’s the best return on investments for our money with agriculture and open space, but it also helps inform private companies on how they can purchase credits for resources they utilize.”

The initiative was funded with a $1 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the California Coastal Conservancy and the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation.

In Santa Clara County, the estimated annual value of working and natural lands ranges from $1.6 to $3.8 billion, according to the report. The estimated annual value of Santa Cruz County’s natural space is $798 million to $2.2 billion, the report states.

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or On Twitter @hannahbeausang.

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