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GLIN==> IISG News: Chicago Nature Centers are Rich in Public Benefit

July 20, 2006
Source: Daniel McGrath (312) 996-5723; dmcgrath@uic.edu

Chicago Nature Centers are Rich in Public Benefit
URBANA - In the economic battle for land in urban and suburban environments, all too often, natural areas are sacrificed for the sake of development. But nature preserves provide benefits for more than just flora and fauna. According to an Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant study, these green places provide public benefits that can be measured in terms of dollars and cents.
Daniel McGrath, an economist at the Institute for Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, calculated the worth of two nature centers in Cook County to those who use them. He found that these sites are highly valued public resources--to the tune of more than $8 million per year.
"That figure represents the total amount that residents of metropolitan Chicago are willing to pay in time and travel costs to visit these two sites over the course of a season," said McGrath. Calculating the value of one's time is related to specific measures, such as income.
McGrath surveyed over 350 one-day visitors at the Chicago Park District?s North Park Village Nature Center on the City?s northwest side and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County?s Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland, just south of the city limits.  Annually, the North Park site receives about 15,000 adult visitors and Sand Ridge about 10,000.
"We calculate that these visitors are willing to pay with their time and money, on average, about $1,200 over the course of a season," said McGrath. "People who come to the North Park site really love it and make it part of their lives. They typically visit about six times a season to bird watch or hike."
According to McGrath, the results in this study actually reflect conservative estimates of the economic values of the nature centers. He found visitors at these sites who traveled from Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, and other parts of the world, but they were not included in his results. "You can't accurately assess travel costs when a trip involves more than one destination," he explained. Nor did he calculate the educational benefits that nature centers provide through school-children visits, which can be significant.
So what does this study mean for the new Ford Calumet Environmental Center planned for the Hegewisch Marsh on the southeast side of Chicago, which will likely cost $7.5 million in donated funds to develop? "There are a number of factors to consider, including the site's location and size," said McGrath, "But the research results suggest that, from a cost-benefit point of view, the welfare gains of this environmental center will support a significant share, if not all of the cost to build and maintain it."
Earlier this month, the results of McGrath's study were presented to the Calumet Governmental Working Group hosted by the City of Chicago.
The Calumet region was at one time one of the largest wetland complexes in the country. Later, the region became a center of industry, producing steel, railroad cars and more. Now that much of the industry has moved on, city and state governments are focused on reviving both the economy and ecology of the region. According to the City of Chicago, the Ford Calumet Environmental Center is slated to open in late 2008.
The economic value of nature centers in urban environments can go well beyond visitor benefits. McGrath is now assessing the impact that the North Park Village Nature Center has had on residential values in that neighborhood, which may provide further insight potential benefits of the new Ford Calumet Environmental Center.
The Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant College Program is one of more than 30 National Sea Grant College Programs. Created by Congress in 1966, Sea Grant combines university, government, business and industry expertise to address coastal and Great Lakes needs.  Funding is provided by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U. S. Department of Commerce, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Purdue University at West Lafayette, Indiana.

Irene Miles
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant
376 NSRC
1101 W. Peabody Dr.
Urbana, Il 61801
(217) 333-8055
FAX (217) 333-8046