A team of economists says the Puget Sound ecosystem is worth at least $7 billion to $62 billion a year. They hope to raise awareness that Sound protection and restoration is an economic issue and not just an environmental one.

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How much is Puget Sound worth?

At least $7 billion to $62 billion a year, according to a team of economists.

Trying to put a price tag on the Sound’s ecosystem, including the forests, wetlands and mountains surrounding it, might seem as fruitless as trying to sell the sun.

But that’s exactly what a small but growing cadre of economists and environmentalists is doing.

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A report issued Thursday by Earth Economics, a Seattle-based nonprofit, uses old-fashioned accounting to offer a ballpark estimate of Puget Sound’s overall value. The authors used computerized maps to calculate how many acres of different kinds of land surround the Sound. They then took existing studies that put price tags on the values of certain things, such as the flood-controlling benefits from an acre of wetland.

Add it all up, and you get the estimate. The broad range is a result of differences in the various existing studies the economists used when calculating prices.

The aim of the report is to raise awareness that environmental protection and restoration isn’t just an ideological issue but an economic one, and that damaging the natural world comes with financial costs.

The report’s authors also hope their work can help policymakers find ways to harness economics to restore the Sound, or to decide which projects — such as rebuilding damaged rivers — make the most financial sense.

For the past century, this region has spent vast sums on man-made structures such as roads, buildings, sewer systems, dikes and dams, said David Batker, an economist and executive director of Earth Economics.

But the land, rivers and Sound also do lots of things that benefit us, and there is great expense when we damage them, Batker said: Wetlands soak up rainwater and diminish floods. Forests filter water we drink. Estuaries harbor young salmon that eventually grow big enough for us to eat. Beaches are magnets for recreation.

“We’re well-endowed with great natural capital,” he said. “We’ve taken it for granted to a large extent.”

It’s hard to know how accurate the price estimate is, said Bill Ruckelshaus, chair of the Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency now working on a recovery plan for the Sound.

“To me the value of it in Puget Sound is reminding people that we’re not just talking about aesthetic values and environmental values when we talk about cleaning up Puget Sound,” he said. “We’re also talking about economics that affect them.”

Initial estimates are that the cleanup price tag could run as high as $27 billion by 2020. That’s a lot less than the estimated long-term value of the ecosystems in and around the Sound, according to Batker. He put the long-term value at $243 billion to $2.1 trillion.

But the new report doesn’t answer whether the cleanup costs would be a good deal or not.

Batker said the overall estimate of the Sound’s value is conservative because it didn’t account for all the benefits, such as the cancer drug Taxol, derived from bark of the yew tree.

“This is a very imperfect study,” he said. “But it’s better than giving it a zero.”

Several groups are working to create more nuanced computer models that could show the economic cost or benefit that would come from changes such as restoring a wetland or altering development patterns around Puget Sound. Groups include Earth Economics, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries in Seattle, and The Nature Conservancy.

The biggest hurdle, however, is translating these theories into real policy changes, said Alan Durning, head of Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank studying economics and the environment.

One approach, he said, is getting people to pay the costs of environmental damage they cause.

Todd Myers, of the free-market think tank Washington Policy Center, welcomed efforts to better account for economic costs and benefits. But he said environmentalists should also be willing to pay people if their property is restricted — for example, if landowners are forbidden from cutting down forests because it would cause runoff.

“If you want to say, ‘Todd, you can’t convert that forest because it will cause these societal impacts.’ I can say, ‘OK’ and since you are receiving those societal benefits, you need to pay me.”

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com