For the sake of the future, Ohio must do more to protect its rivers
(this Op-Ed appeared in the Columbus Dispatch on 4/6/2022 (click here for original)
(the study on which this article is based can be found at: https://go.osu.edu/little-miami)
As a kid, I remember looking down in awe at the Little Miami River valley every time we crossed the big bridge on I-71. Most rivers in Ohio, it seemed to me at the time at least, were kept neatly in their banks with large berms meant to contain floodwater.
It was different to look down from that bridge and see a large forested riparian area, and to imagine that’s what rivers were supposed to be, even here. Seeing a sign stating the Little Miami was a state and national scenic river made the connection for me that an intact ecosystem around a river system is a special thing indeed.
Yet today, people question whether we should spend any resources protecting rivers like the Little Miami. In the last budget, the state legislature appropriated just $100,000 for the scenic rivers program, and in 2021, the state spent just $34,840 in this program.
That amounts to a direct expenditure of $44 per mile over the 800 miles of state scenic rivers and streams to ensure their conservation for recreational use. In contrast, Ohio has 53 miles of off-road vehicle trails on state land, and spent $7,542 per mile on those in 2021. Hmmmm.
I guess we know where the state government’s priorities are, but what about the people who live near and recreate in our scenic river corridors? It turns out that Ohio residents, their local governments, and the private sector, know value when they see it.
A just-released study on the economic value of the northern stretches of the Little Miami River corridor found that the river and its nearby outdoor recreational infrastructure generated more than $233,000 per mile in value for the 19,000 visits per mile that happen there every year.
The local population clearly loves the river, and their local governments, as well as non-governmental organizations, support it with incredible parks and access points.
Folks in nearby Greene County take nearly 40% of all the trips to this stretch of river, or about 1.5 trips per person per year. Even the citizens of central Ohio head to the Little Miami River for recreation, taking 77,000 trips per year there, or nearly 10% of the total.
Consider this: $233,000 per mile means that the 43.3 miles of river analyzed are a natural asset worth $202 million. This means that the public land people use for recreation there is worth $46,501 per acre.
Sure, some farmland in the suburbs of Dayton or Cincinnati may fetch that price when converted to houses, but most open space in Ohio is bought and sold for far less than $46,501 per acre. And this estimate just counts the value that people who recreate receive. It doesn’t include the money they spend in the local economy, which it turns out is considerable.
The recent study also looked at those numbers, and found that the Little Miami River corridor and its associated public natural space generate $4.8 million in annual economic activity, or $1,100 per acre of public land per year.
Over its nearly 220-year history, Ohio has evolved from an agrarian state to a heavy industrial state to one that is increasingly driven by the modern manufacturing, commercial, and service sectors.
Along the way, we have become a state with a citizenry that strongly values the few high-value natural assets we have, like the Little Miami River corridor.
Maybe it’s time to reinvest in these areas and to consider adding new areas to our inventory so future generations can enjoy even better resources than we do.