Safeguarding water supplies: willingness to pay for forest restoration

Posted on October 1, 2014

When forest management involves the suppression of fire, tree densities increase and more rainfall is diverted to evapotranspiration at the expense of downstream water flows. Denser forests are more susceptible to wild fires, which increase rates of erosion and impair water quality in run-off streams. Forest restoration involves thinning tree stands to reduce the wild fire risk and re-establish natural run-off rates. Although it’s more cost-effective to restore forests than to pay the price of wild fire, restoration costs are considerable and managers need to assess the extent to which people are willing to pay for forest ecosystem services. Such an exercise has been carried out in the western USA, where National Forest lands supply more that half of downstream water needs. Irrigators are the main consumers, with other significant users including municipal water providers, industry, hydropower and recreational concerns. Researchers used questionnaires to sample 1137 irrigators downstream of pine forests that have been targeted by a large-scale restoration initiative in the Verde River watershed in Arizona. Subjects were provided with comparative information on typical hydrological conditions associated with three contrasting watershed states (current, post-wildfire and restored) and were asked how much they would be willing to contribute toward forest restoration. On average, irrigator households were willing to pay $183.50 / year. At this rate, totalled across all irrigators, this level of contribution would raise about 10% of the $4 million required for the restoration project. Analysis revealed that willingness to pay was significantly affected by the attitudes of irrigators to current water issues, their awareness of the effects of forest restoration, the costs of irrigation, and irrigator income. Although experts considered that wildfire was the greatest threat to watershed health, the irrigators were more concerned about other issues (drought and water overallocation). Similar surveys of other user groups would establish whether their willingness to pay for forest services is sufficient to offset the costs of restoration.

Reference: Mueller, J. M. et al. 2013. Estimating the value of watershed services following forest restoration. Water Resources Research 49, 1773–1781.