Can a price tag really be put on something as untamed as a wetland teeming with ducks, insects and other life forms precious to the environment?

Turns out, it can; and researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, are hoping that by putting cold, hard dollar signs to projects like wetland restoration, farmers, other landowners, governments and the public will be encouraged to open their wallets to pay for a healthier environment.

A new study shows it would cost a test group of Manitoba farmers an average of $400 per acre to restore a previously drained wetland on their property. Better yet, when asked to submit blind bids on what they’d be willing to pay or thought it would cost, they came within that price range, said researcher Katherine Packman, a master’s student at the university's rural economy department.

Although soil quality and other factors may vary the cost slightly in different regions, the findings highlight the costs farmers would bear to restore wetlands. This information can be used to create policies that promote wetland restoration, Packman said.

“By putting an actual cost to wetland restoration, the element of the unknown is removed. The information may encourage farmers to make the investment when they realize it is within their budgets,” Packman said. Natural wetlands, which provide food and living habitat for ducks and other waterfowl and insects, are usually drained and sometimes filled with soil to prepare the land for crops, but have a “significant environmental benefit when brought back to the prairie landscape,” she added.

To reach a dollar cost, Packman studied the natural features and production characteristics of 36 farms in southern Manitoba, then estimated how much money would be needed to re-establish wetlands on those lands. Machinery costs, loss of crop land production, labour and consulting fees were all factored in.

Her work is part of extensive, ongoing research into environmental costs, and one of the first studies that puts a dollar figure on the costs of wetland restoration on Canadian farms.

The research was funded by Ducks Unlimited and by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.