As millions of people head out for the Memorial Day weekend and inaugurate the summer, it is appropriate that our discussion of beaches turns this week to their economic value. What do we lose, apart from sand, when erosion claims our beaches?
Our nation’s beaches are important to the environment, coastal infrastructure, our enjoyment and, therefore, the economy. They provide important habitat to a variety of marine species, birds, and upland wildlife. In fact, several rare and endangered species (e.g. diamondback terrapins, piping plovers and least terns) require beaches for feeding and reproduction. In many locations, beaches and dunes are the last line of defense protecting natural resources (estuaries, salt marshes, salt ponds), coastal developments, roadways, and utilities against coastal storm damage. Because we have historically built in the coastal zone (75% of Massachusetts development, as in many coastal states, lies within the coastal zone), development does not typically allow beaches and dunes to migrate naturally. Therefore as beaches erode, we lose their valuable ecosystem services and protective functions. Beaches also provide us with aesthetic value, which we all appreciate when taking a stroll, snapping a photograph or making a painting.
While it is difficult to quantify the aesthetic or existence values of beaches, the impact of beaches on our national, state and local economies is hard to ignore. There are two major factors in the economic value of our beaches: property and tourism.
Coastal property, due to its limited availability and unique amenities, is considerably more valuable than comparable inland property. Reports indicate that proximity to waterfront adds nearly 30% (Surfrider Foundation, 2010) to real estate values. Losses to these properties, both building losses and land losses, represent significant reductions to the local property tax base. A Heinz Center report on coastal erosion hazards found there are approximately 85,000 structures in the lower 48 states located within the projected erosion hazard area. Projections indicate that erosion losses in these areas total $410 million per year to U.S. communities (and an additional $530 million per year loss to owners).
Coastal property and the associated taxes are tremendously valuable, but these revenues associated with the sustained existence of beaches are small in comparison to the revenues generated by beach tourism. Travel and tourism is America’s largest industry, contributing $1.4 trillion (10.4%) to U.S. GDP, and coastal states generate 85% of all tourism revenue due to the draw of beaches (Houston, 2008). Tourist spending translates to profits for local businesses and tax revenue for the local, state and national government. Studies suggest that beach tourism generates $52 billion per year in Florida and $73 billion per year in California (Houston, 2008). Extrapolations indicate that, nationally, beach tourism contributes $322 billion to the national economy. Unfortunately, in Massachusetts we have not quantified these values. Our proactive beach management policy lags behind other states that do acknowledge the value of beaches.
As we can see, there are many reasons to protect our beaches from erosion. Next time, we’ll look at the options for managing our valuable shoreline. Until then, have a safe holiday and get out there and enjoy our beaches!