The nature effect

Illustration by Clayton Junior

In the early 1990s the Clinton administration put a stop to logging in huge swaths of old growth forest in the U.S. to protect a small, non-descript brown bird that was facing extinction: the northern spotted owl. Many people predicted that forestry-dependent communities in Oregon and Washington State would be eviscerated by the decision to protect “owls over jobs.” That fear was exploited by George Bush Sr., who attacked Clinton’s Northwest Forest Plan with the claim that “We’ll be up to our necks in owls and every mill worker will be out of a job.”

Bush’s prediction that environmental protection would cause an economic apocalypse in the region proved to be unfounded. Rather, job losses in the forestry sector were more than offset by a boom in new types of employment. Economic growth was driven by the arrival and expansion of high-tech firms, like Sony and Hewlett-Packard, and federal programs that retrained former loggers and mill workers for diverse new employment opportunities, including in the high-tech manufacturing sector.

Every socioeconomic indicator showed that, far from facing economic ruin, former resource-dependent communities responded positively to increased nature conservation. Over the following decade, the region’s graduation rates increased, income levels rose, poverty fell, and the unemployment rate remained unchanged despite a 91 per cent reduction in logging on public lands. Today, despite being the historical timber-basket of the U.S., Oregon now credits high-tech manufacturing with producing 10 per cent of its economic output – more than eight times the national average.

To the north, in the Chilliwack Forest District of southwestern British Columbia, resource-dependent towns that were built on logging and milling ancient forests into two-by-fours now support a far more diversified employment base as well. The proportion of employment from logging in the region now represents less than 1 per cent, compared to growing film production (2 per cent), high-tech (8 per cent), and tourism (10 per cent).

This shift in employment patterns is partly because many former resource-dependent communities located near larger urban areas have been successful in attracting diversified businesses – drawing city people who want to shift gears and enjoy the benefits of living in a community more connected with nature.

For many firms, the motivation to establish workplaces in communities like Eugene and Portland in Oregon and Victoria, B.C., or nearby bucolic bedroom communities, is a recognition that employees benefit from access to nature and improved quality of life. As the mayor of the mill town of Springfield, Oregon, told the New York Times shortly after logging restrictions came into effect to protect the spotted owl, “It wasn’t blind, dumb luck that helped us land Sony; the company wanted a pristine place on the river.”

Indeed, many of today’s most successful companies are recognizing the importance of quality of life for their employees – at work and at home. Many are willing to locate their operations closer to nature, and to green their own workplaces. Thus we have seen a boom in the number of green roofs, green walls and rain gardens integrated into the design of office complexes.

This green wave in the workplace has been bolstered by the many positive benefits of green time over screen time. Over the last decade, researchers from fields as diverse as biology, psychiatry, ecology, horticulture and medicine have come to the conclusion that spending time in nature is good for our own health and well-being. Their research has shown that access to natural assets like parks and green spaces can improve our physical and mental health while enhancing community.

University of Illinois researcher Frances Kuo has documented that access to nature close to where people live and work can result in less stress and more job satisfaction among employees, as well as increased productivity and reduced absenteeism and employee turnover.

In addition to health benefits, nature also provides a myriad of non-market economic benefits, according to research by the David Suzuki Foundation and others. These benefits come in the form of services provided by the community’s natural ecosystems, or natural capital. Forests purify the air and keep the city cool in summer. Wetlands filter drinking water and protect communities from floods. Fields and farms provide local food and habitat for pollinators and other wildlife.

The benefits of easier access to nature have not been lost on governments. Ontario has permanently protected more than 700,000 hectares of near-urban green space and farmland through its internationally renowned Greenbelt. Quebec recently announced its plan to wrap Montreal and Quebec City in protected greenbelts as well, and the federal government plans to create Canada’s first urban National Park, in the Rouge Watershed in the heart of the Greater Toronto Area.

These initiatives to protect nature, literally in the backyards of millions of people, are happening at a time when fewer Canadians are visiting our existing system of far-flung wilderness parks. Visits to the National Parks system are down 7 per cent across Canada as a whole, down 10 per cent in Quebec and Ontario, and 18 per cent lower in the Maritimes. Parks Canada officials are now openly talking about the creation of the new Rouge National Park as a “gateway park” for the Canadian public, with the hope that citizens will become better connected with nature in their backyards and more likely to visit Canada’s cherished wild spaces.

The fact is, nature is clearly worth much more than we think. It provides essential services and produces health and economic benefits that far exceed the short-term gains obtained from its destruction.

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