If you have ever had the pleasure of driving the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and Virginia, you can appreciate the value of the early morning mist rising from the dark valleys, the setting sun’s rays splashing warm colors over distant pastures.
Some of those beautiful vistas, however, are being lost – spoiled by a building boom of subdivisions along the 470-mile stretch of scenic roadway.
Because the Blue Ridge Parkway is a “linear park,” private land not far from the parkway’s shoulders can be developed – unless local officials move to protect the land.
And one way they are trying to do that is by defining the value of “view-sheds.” But how can a view-shed be quantified?
“It’s taking something that was very qualitative and emotional, and taking it apart and making it scientific,” Susan Kask, an economics professor at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., told The Associated Press. The college is one of three area schools involved in a project to assign a dollar value to the vistas.
So far, researchers have estimated the view-shed value of one part of the parkway at $1.7 billion.
Imagine the value of the views of Nantucket Sound? Of Cape Cod Bay? Of Buzzards Bay? What would visitors and residents alike pay to keep their ocean vistas free of development?
Developers of a massive wind farm on Nantucket Sound argue that property values have not decreased as a result of wind farms. And wind farms will reduce air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels and eventually improve scenic vistas.
But why can’t we do both? Why can’t we keep Nantucket Sound free of industrial development, and reduce air pollution from power plants?
Some argue it is unnecessary to assign an economic value to views. Why place a dollar sign on a treasure we thought was priceless?
In North Carolina, parkway stewards say they need hard facts, not warm feelings, in the effort to protect scenic vistas.
Laura Rotegard, a parkway official, told the AP that the study isn’t intended to stifle development, but spur a conversation about its different costs.
“We want this data to force the political folks to say, ‘Do it better’,” she said. “These values don’t say, ‘Don’t do it.’ They say, ‘Recognize that there’s a tradeoff’.”
One clear result from the $120,000 study, funded in part by the National Park Service and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, was that visitors would lose a lot of value if the scenic experience were allowed to deteriorate.
David Harmon, co-author of the recent book, “The Full Value of Parks: From Economics to the Intangible,” told the AP that parks offer a wide variety of noneconomic values, such as recreation, beauty and even spiritual renewal. He is troubled that parkway defenders must make their argument in economic terms.
But Leah Mathews, a University of North Carolina-Asheville economics professor, said that having some value for the views is better than none.
“It would be really nice if we collectively as a culture have discussions about these values, but the crass reality is we often don’t,” she said. “What we’re really trying to do is put something out there.”
(Published: September 23, 2003)