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Study finds St. Louis River's value for habitat, flood protection and more tops $5 billion per year

If you like to fish for walleye or musky, or maybe kayak on calm waters, the St. Louis River might be priceless as a backyard bastion of recreation.

But, seriously, what is the river really worth?

Billions of dollars, according to an economic analysis commissioned by the Fond du lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe.

According to the study’s 61-page report, recently released by the band and conducted by Earth Economic of Seattle, the St. Louis River provides an estimated $5 billion to $14 billion in ecosystem service benefits every year.

That total includes up to $2.6 billion per year in flood risk reduction, the study found, noting a thriving river system with wetlands, grasslands and adjacent forest able to soak up significant amounts of water. The value also includes up to $512 million per year in fish, wplant and wildlife habitat — from wild rice and eagles to ducks, walleye and sturgeon.The study also found that the river provides up to $13.6 million per year in food for humans, including wild rice and fish.

And the study found up to $1.8 billion per year in water quality value as the river system works to filter water and boost water quality for the environment and people around it.

Trying to replace those values if they were somehow lost would probably cost even more, the study notes.

Fond du Lac officials say it’s critical to understand the value of the river as decisions that affect the river are being made — that natural capital is just as valuable as man-made capital as a foundation of the regional economy.

“We hope this report generates discussion with local, state and federal partners about how we can best invest in and preserve these irreplaceable natural and cultural resources,’’ said Karen Diver, Fond du Lac tribal chairwoman, in announcing the results.

It’s no coincidence that the report comes as a variety of big man-made projects in the river’s watershed are under consideration — including proposed copper mines and iron mine expansions. It also comes as the band moves forward with a controversial plan to seek special federal air quality status that could affect regional industries that emit regulated air pollutants, and as state and federal agencies decide how much sulfate can be released into the river.

“Historically, ecosystem services have been either not valued or greatly discounted in economic analyses, leading to a misconception of their fundamental role in our economy,’’ the report notes. “We may receive these ecosystem services for free from the environment, but they are worth far more than that. Quantifying the value of ecosystem services allows the value of natural capital to be included in economic tools, which enables us to make wiser public and private decisions.”

Over 140 years, the seven generations forward that Ojibwe people believe is under their custodial care, the river of the watershed is worth $273 billion or more.

“The Fond du Lac Band takes our environmental and cultural stewardship of the St. Louis River watershed, our homeland, very seriously,” Diver said. “We understand the connection between healthy lands, communities and economies. We recognize that the lands and waters must be conserved and protected for our shared benefit and future generations.”  

Earth Economics describes itself as an “independent, nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to researching and applying the economic solutions of tomorrow, today.” The company was founded in 1998 to provide “robust, science-based, ecologically sound economic analysis, policy recommendations and tools to positively transform regional, national and international economics, and asset accounting systems.”