More than 200 economists, sociologists and government policy makers brought ideas and lively discussion about ecosystem services and valuation to the “Big Easy” during the fourth National Forum on Socioeconomic Research in Coastal Systems on March 24-26.

The forum, held every three years in New Orleans, is sponsored by the LSU AgCenter’s Center for Natural Resource Economics and Policy.

“The center was established to coordinate the activities of resource economists and policy professionals,” said Rex Caffey, the center’s director and an economist with the LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant.

The purpose of bringing such a diverse group of scientists together is to add a human dimension to the information being generated on hydrology, biology and ecology of the coastal systems.

“We know a tremendous amount more than we used to about these areas,” Caffey said. “What we don’t really know and what we haven’t really investigated is how the people in this landscape are being affected.”

This includes how changes in the coastal areas affect property owners and businesses.

Over the past 20 years, more than half a billion dollars have been spent in Louisiana on coastal restoration projects, ranging from small community-based efforts to large ecosystem-scale programs.

Caffey and other economists agree on the economic importance of the coast, but very little has been done to determine the specific values of ecosystem goods and services.

“There are a number of things that nature provides that the market just doesn’t put a price on. But we all recognize their importance,” Caffey said. “These are things like clean water, clean air and habitat.”

The two main things that have to be considered when looking at the future of coastal areas, according to Caffey, are economic viability and environmental integrity.

The center has grown from five original members to its current 28 cooperators at eight institutions nationwide.

“The center is regional in scope, be we have attendees and participants here from as far away as Sweden, New Zealand and the United Kingdom,” Caffey said.

Among the topics covered at this year’s conference were the legal and regulatory aspects of water policy, carbon credit markets and climate change, analysis of commercial fisheries, and issues in the analysis of storm damage. 

Louisiana State Senator Gerald Long addressed the group on water planning policy. He said Louisiana is in a good position when it comes to water because of its abundance here compared to other states.

“What we’re doing now is implementing some bills that I authored and we passed last year,” said Long. “One of these bills created the 28-member water commission, which is responsible for establishing some rules that govern how we manage and use our water in Louisiana.”

Louisiana is one of only nine states that do not have some type of comprehensive management plan.

“My goal is that in the next two or three years Louisiana will become the leader in how we use and manage water,” Long said.