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UF Survey: Most Floridians Willing To Pay To Restore The Everglades

Ed Hunter (352) 392-1773 x 278

J. Walter Milon

GAINESVILLE—Although support varies depending on the cost of the remedies, most Floridians are willing to pay for restoring the Everglades to their original condition, a new University of Florida study shows.

J. Walter Milon, a natural resources specialist with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said he was not surprised to find most Floridians supported Everglades restoration — to a point.

“The average respondent indicated a clear willingness to pay for Everglades restoration,” Milon said. “But they quite clearly have an upper limit on how much they are willing to pay. It’s not an unbounded ‘this thing must be restored at any cost’ kind of response.

“This shouldn’t be too surprising. Very few people would support giving state government and federal agencies a blank check and let them go and do whatever is necessary,” he said.

State and federal agencies have spent years assessing how best to repair the River of Grass. Researchers say fertilizer run-off and partial draining to create land for homes and farms this century have done serious damage to the Everglades’ wildlife habitat. Congress is expected to take action next year on a $7.8 billion plan to restore the ecosystem’s water flow, while the state has slated millions of additional dollars for clean-up.

The survey, which Milon did in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was conducted by interviewing 480 randomly-selected South and Central Florida households. A majority of the participants supported plans that allowed for partial restoration of water flow and wildlife that imposed minimal costs, such as moderate restrictions on water use and annual costs of about $25 per household.

Milon said one goal of the survey was to try to quantify for decision-makers the level of support for Everglades restoration among the public.

“The primary intent was to try to identify what public preferences are for restoration of the Everglades ecosystem, recognizing that the Everglades is a fairly complex system and the whole process of restoration has a lot of different components to it,” Milon said. “So it was a way of trying to take a very complicated problem and boil it down into something that was relatively simple that could be understood by the general public and still relate to the restoration planning process.”

But Milon cautioned that even the results of this survey should not be taken as a guarantee that politicians won’t hear complaints if they try to impose a tax to pay for the restoration.

“It’s not clear that these measures of willingness to pay directly translate into ‘Yeah, I’m willing to write you a tax check for this amount,'” Milon said. “We have to be careful to caution that good intentions don’t necessarily mean good actions.

Survey participants were shown a video designed to give them some background on the issues to be addressed in the survey. They then were asked to indicate their preference on a series of choices between two options: for example, changing Everglades water flow to be more similar to historical conditions versus making no changes. To help participant’s evaluate each choice, the survey included the cost of each option.

Based on the participants choices, researchers derived a measure of “net willingness to pay,” or WTP, that indicated in dollars the net benefit to the homeowner of each proposed plan. A positive WTP indicated the plan would benefit the homeowner economically; a negative WTP reflected an economic cost.

Milon said the highest WTP can be thought of as the maximum benefit of full restoration if the full costs were paid by the federal government. For example, the maximum WTP for full water flow restoration with the federal government footing the bill is $60 to $70 per household per year. That amount is reduced by whatever cost Floridians must pay, he said.

“As the typical Florida household has to pay more, whether in terms of some tax on current utility bills, or for people in South Florida in terms of some additional restrictions on water use, then those benefits decline,” Milon said. “This is the public’s perception of the gains from those environmental improvements.

“It is not so much that this amount accrues to them in their pocket, but it’s something that’s perceived by them to be good, and what we do is provide a measure of the environmental benefits from alternative plans to restore the Everglades in terms of dollars,” he said.