A restoration economy is a relatively new idea and is sometimes defined as the economic activity associated with the restoration of degraded ecosystems. In this narrow sense, a restoration economy is the opposite of an extractive economy that creates economic activity by extracting or depleting natural resources.
We prefer a somewhat broader definition: A restoration economy is all of the economic activity associated with restoring degraded ecosystems and maintaining the ecosystem services provided by un-degraded natural ecosystems. Although the idea of ‘ecosystem services’ is also relative new, the concept has been well characterized and includes the basic ecosystem functions that support life such as the recycling of water and nutrients, the maintenance of biodiversity, the pollination of plants and the control of climate and disease plus the cultural services (i.e. spiritual and recreational benefits) provided by natural ecosystems.
By broadening the definition of restoration economy to include the economic activity associated with the maintenance of ecosystem services, the concept of “economy” is much broader than just providing jobs to those actually restoring degraded ecosystems. The broader concept includes all of the economic benefits derived from maintaining healthy ecosystems such as higher crop production from healthy pollinator populations, lower heath care costs because of safe drinking water, plus the jobs associated with ecotourism and the enjoyment of nature.
A key issue to be explored by the Institute is whether or not the restoration economy can grow to provide jobs and other economic benefits comparable to the those provided by the other economic sectors. One hint comes from Oregon, where issues like salmon recovery and forest regeneration have had a substantial economic benefit. A recent study found statewide that $411 million spent on 6740 restoration projects generated an estimated $752 to 977 million dollars in economic impact. To put these numbers in perspective, jobs in Forestry and Mining in Oregon contribute about $500M annually to the Oregon’s economy and employ 8 to 11,000 people depending on the season of the year.
In 2014 mining and logging together supplied approximately 14,000 jobs in all of Arizona and added about $600M to the Arizona economy. We do not know how many people are employed in the Arizona restoration economy, but it is likely far fewer than those employed in mining and logging. Santa Cruz and Cochise Counties are two of the poorest counties in Arizona. The 5 founding organizations planning for the Institute have combined annual budgets of only ~$2M per year yet likely represent about half of the restoration-related activity in our area. On the other hand, the economic activity associated with the maintenance of healthy ecosystems is much larger. The 2011 economic benefit to Santa Cruz county from watchable wildlife was estimated at $21M, primarily associated with bird watching along Sonoita Creek and watchable wildlife expenditures more than doubled over the last decade.
To fully justify the name “restoration economy” and to truly impact the economy and ecology of the borderlands region, the number of jobs and economic impact provided by restoring degraded ecosystems and maintaining ecosystem function needs to grow dramatically. As we implement the Institute, we will ask, “What does success look like?” Can we create 100 jobs in Santa Cruz and Cochise Counties? 1000? Can we be equally or more successful in northern Sonora?
The question of how the Borderlands Restoration Leadership Institute fosters the development of a restoration economy becomes the question of how we foster economic activity that restores degraded systems and maintains the services provided by natural systems. This question will not be answered easily and will constitute much of the work of the Institute, especially during its initial years.
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