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Mourning Dove Photo: Tim Trumble, Arionia State University

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Money and the Environment

Investing in environment benefits lower income people - but birds prefer rich neighborhoods.

Investing in the environment is a good investment according to a study by the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. The authors of the report claim that an annual investment of $45 billion in preserving large tracts of wild nature would provide a return of between $44 and $52 trillion in "ecosystem services" like water filtration and climate regulation.

Greenbacks aren't rushing into green causes because the market-based economy doesn't tell the whole financial truth, according to Robert Costanza, director of the Gund Institute.

"Converting ecosystems typically benefits only a few private individuals," he says. "Leaving wild nature wild produces benefits in the form of ecosystem services, but these services are public, rather than private goods."

Costanza and his co-authors first wanted to determine the full economic impact of developing wild areas, adding environmental factors to the mix. They identified five studies that compared diverse "biomes," or massive ecosystems, before and after development took place - for instance, a tropical forest in Selangor, Malasia that converted to high impact logging and a mangrove system in Thailand that installed an aquaculture and shrimp farming economy.

Taking into account the erosion of non-marketed services like soil formation, flood protection, and carbon dioxide conversion and the compromise of low impact activities like tourism and the sustainable harvesting of plants and animals, the biomes lost about half their value after development took place, according to the studies.

"In many cases," according to Costanza, "we're talking about replacing services that ecosystems provide, flood protection, for instance, or repairing damage once ecosystems have been compromised. It takes real money to do that. By reallocating the funds that are supporting perverse subsidies, we can easily pay the annual costs of preserving the global reserve network."

Another study that looked at the relationships between nature and money found that birds prosper in prosperous neighborhoods. The study, by the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long Term Ecological Research Project, found that more bird species live in wealthy neighborhoods than in middle and lower income areas.

In a study of 15 small community parks located in Phoenix neighborhoods with distinct socioeconomic classifications ranging from lower to upper income, Arizona State University ecologists Ann P. Kinzig and Paige Warren measured the abundance and diversity of both birds and trees. The researchers chose parks rather than residential yards because these city-controlled spaces offered comparable environments for the study sites, with a similar landscape but significant differences in the surrounding neighborhoods.

"What we are seeing is a pretty strong trend in the data," said Kinzig. "We can't explain bird diversity in the parks by the size of the parks, or the types or sizes of trees in the parks, which is what we might expect. Instead, the characteristics of the neighborhood, including the income of the residents, seem to play a significant role in influencing the number of species that live in the park"

Though the study eliminates park landscaping as a factor, it does not yet pinpoint specific explanations for how neighborhood economic status could affect bird populations.

"Something that happens in the radius of 200 meters from the park boundaries is influencing the diversity of birds," Kinzig noted. "Whatever people are doing is having an influence, because we can't explain it with the park itself. There's a variety of things - it could be what people are planting, it could be socio- economic differences in how often you feed birds - maybe the rich people have more bird feeders.

"It could be something as small as the feral and domestic cats and other predators that live in the neighborhoods - not just how many people have cats, but how many of them are prowling around wild and are good at catching birds, or whether or not people put bells on their necks. Or it could be zoning; what the city plants on the median strips; or how much industrial and commercial activity is allowed." .

The urban parks study is expected to continue for three more years, with periodic updates thereafter.