I remember as a kid looking down at the Little Miami River valley in awe every time we crossed the big bridge on I-71.
Most Ohio rivers, it seemed to me at the time, were kept clean on their banks, with large berms designed to hold back flood waters.
It was something else to look down from that bridge and see a large wooded riparian area and imagine that rivers should be like that even here. When I saw a sign that said Little Miami was a state and national scenic river, it struck me that there is indeed something special about a healthy ecosystem surrounding a river system.
Yet today people are wondering if we should be spending resources on protecting rivers like Little Miami.
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In the last budget, the state legislature allocated only $100,000 to the scenic rivers program, and in 2021 the state spent only $34,840 on this program.
That equates to a direct expenditure of $44 per mile across the state’s 800 miles of 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 them in 2021. hmmmm
I appreciate we know where the state government’s priorities are, but what about the people who live and relax near our scenic river corridors? It turns out that Ohio residents, their local governments and the private sector know the value when they see it.
A just-released study of the economic value of the northern sections of the Little Miami River Corridor found that the river and its nearby outdoor recreation infrastructure is worth more than $233,000 per mile for the 19,000 visits per mile that occur there each year mile generated.
Local people clearly love the river and their local governments as well as NGOs support it with incredible parks and access points.
People in nearby Greene County make nearly 40% of all trips to this stretch of river, or about 1.5 trips per person per year. Even the citizens of central Ohio travel to the Little Miami River for recreation, making 77,000 trips there each year, or nearly 10% of the total.
Consider this: $233,000 per mile means the 43.3 miles of analyzed river is a $202 million natural asset. That means the public land that people use for recreation there is worth $46,501 per acre.
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Sure, some farmland in the Dayton or Cincinnati suburbs can fetch that price when converted to homes, but most Ohio open space is being bought and sold for well under $46,501 an acre. And that estimate only counts the value that people who replicate get. That doesn’t include the money they spend on the local economy, which turns out to be significant.
The most recent study also looked at these numbers and found that the Little Miami River Corridor and associated public natural space generates $4.8 million in annual economic activity, or $1,100 per acre of public land per year.
In its nearly 220-year history, Ohio has evolved from an agrarian state into a heavy industrial state, increasingly fueled by modern manufacturing, commercial and service sectors.
Over time, we have evolved into a state with a citizenry that values the few high-value natural assets we have, such as the Little Miami River Corridor.
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Perhaps it’s time to reinvest in these areas and think about adding new areas to our inventory so that future generations can enjoy even better resources than we do.
Brent Sohngen is Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics at Ohio State University.