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Squamish Estuary and its ecological goods and services worth millions: report

'Essentially it's really a conversation starter,' says Patricia Heintzman, spokesperson for the Squamish River Watershed Society
Alex RatsonGetty Images
The Squamish Estuary.

A recent report values the Squamish Estuary between $8.6 and $12.6 million for its natural assets and ecological services.

The Natural Capital Assets Assessment was commissioned by the Squamish River Watershed Society and was supported by the Squamish Nation, the Healthy Waters Initiative and the Fish And Wildlife Compensation Program.

“Essentially it's really a conversation starter,” said Patricia Heintzman, spokesperson for the Squamish River Watershed Society. “This is fundamentally a way to get people talking about the value of nature, the value of biodiversity.”

The report attempts to put a monetary value on 11 separate categories of the estuary: disturbance regulation, habitat, recreation and tourism, education, clean water, Indigenous environmental values, fisheries, carbon sequestration, carbon storage, waste treatment, and nutrient cycling.

The top three categories include disturbance regulation, waste treatment and fisheries, which are high-end estimated at $4.9 million, $3.3 million and $3.1 million and make up approximately 89% of the total estimated value. Both habitat and Indigenous environmental values did not have well-established valuation methods according to the report.

Regardless of the imperfect evaluation methods, the Squamish Nation embraced the report.

“The Squamish Nation welcomes the report and its recommendations which attempts to place the rightful natural and economic values to Skwelwil’em (Squamish Estuary),” said Syeta'xtn (Chris) Lewis, Squamish Nation spokesperson and councillor, in an emailed statement to The Chief.

“The services, values and richness of the estuary has been always known and upheld by the Squamish Nation people … As we inherit a history that has not seen or valued the natural services of the estuary, we hopefully welcome an era where we recognize and reconcile the natural values and no longer take them for granted.”

After those top three categories, next highest was recreation and tourism, which was valued between $351,000 and $457,000.

Notably in this category, the report said it did not include a value for windsports as “no formal economic, social or environmental impact assessments have been conducted by the Squamish Watersport Society (SWS).”

Therefore, the report states the value of the activities against the cost remains unclear.

Windsports perspective

Squamish Windsports Society hasn't commissioned an economic impact study that is specific to windsports, however,  president Nikki Layton referred The Chief to the tourism impact study that was completed by the District of Squamish and Tourism Squamish in 2020. 

"Based on these estimates, we calculate that the windsports community contributes $3.5 million annually to the Squamish economy, with some significant room to grow," she said. 

The society has 881 members, who make a total of 6,500 visits per season, which runs from May to September. 

The organization values non-local member visits at $706,335 per year.

"Then there are the people that come to Squamish to view the windsports, that drive out to the Spit every day of the season and take pictures, enjoy the view of the Chief and Shannon Falls while experiencing the thrill of the action. A conservative estimate for the number of spectators at the Spit each day is 20, if we multiply that by the number of days in the season (123) and the average spend per visitor to Squamish ($155) this is another $381,300 in tourism spending as a result of windsports in Squamish. 

"In addition, there have been national events hosted at the Spit that bring spectators and competitors from around the world. I don’t have any data for the financial impact, but they draw a significant number of people leading up to the event and during the event. Conservatively, these likely yield an additional $50,000 in tourism spending," she said.

David Suzuki Foundation perspective

The Squamish Estuary report values were based on a David Suzuki Foundation report by Michelle Molnar that looked at natural assets and ecological services throughout Howe Sound in 2015. That report explained that the Squamish Estuary makes up approximately 96% of the estuarine habitat in Howe Sound. Because of that, the Natural Capital Assets Assessment approximated their values at 96% of the foundation’s estimated values.

Beyond a conversation starter, however, why put a monetary value on the natural assets and ecological services?

“We are trying to create systems where people make better, more well-informed decisions about how humans interact with nature,” said Jay Ritchlin, who works for the David Suzuki Foundation as the director general for Western Canada.

“The situation we have right now is that a natural space, like an estuary, sort of has an assumed value of zero unless it produces something that you sell in the marketplace.”

So by putting a value on the ecological services, Ritchlin said it is then easier to compare just how development may affect a natural space. For example, he said that while a development would generate money in taxes, some of those tax dollars would have to go back into creating things like storm sewers, water filtration and moving land to mitigate flooding.

“All of that stuff was being done by nature and so you can figure out how much is it going to cost us in both concrete and steel and city staff time to build and maintain all of those different services.”

But there are some risks associated with putting a value on nature and its services.

One of those risks is that it could be easier for a developer to look at a piece of valued habitat and make their development worth more, said Ritchlin, but that would not be using the estimated values correctly.

“We need to be very careful that people don't treat the services of nature the same way they would treat a capital asset like a building. You can't sell it off and get money for it. You're not turning it into a fungible asset, something that you can turn into cash on a dime. But you're getting information that lets you make better decisions.”

Additionally, Ritchlin said that some parts of the environment are harder to quantify than others, which is why there’s a range of estimated value rather than one “magic” number.

Heintzman said that valuing the environment is something that is still in progress and cannot yet fully appreciate the value that is brought to the table.

“Biodiversity is probably that one major unquantifiable thing in the whole assessment process that probably provides the most value. But we haven't figured out a way to actually comprehend and communicate that value and to assess that value,” said Heintzman

“It's like the tip of the iceberg. The actual value is still under the water and we have yet to really reveal because our ways of quantifying it, ways of understanding it, aren't evolved enough yet.”

Because of these emerging limitations on quantifying the environment — especially in areas such as habitat and Indigenous environmental values — the report said, “The total estimated value is likely significantly higher.”

District of Squamish council voted unanimously to refer the report to staff at its Sept. 7 meeting.

A District spokesperson told The Chief that the municipality is not in a position to provide comment on the report until that review has happened.  After the report is reviewed, staff will determine any next steps to report back to council.

~With files from Jennifer Thuncher

**Please note, this story has been corrected since it was first posted to say that Windsports was referring to a report by the District of Squamish and Tourism Squamish not Tourism Vancouver. 

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