GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. -- What's it worth to you, Mr. and Mrs. America, to know that the delicate balance of water, rock and life that makes up the Grand Canyon ecosystem is functioning the way nature intended? Now, would you be willing to pay that amount in monthly installments on your electricity bill?
The answers could help determine whether Americans' love of nature will prevail over their hunger for electricity in a key environmental dispute over a hydroelectric dam on the Colorado River -- the body of water that is at the Grand Canyon's heart.
This fall, the Interior Department is expected to order changes in the operation of the 31-year-old Glen Canyon Dam, which is being blamed for environmental damage along the Grand Canyon's riverbanks.
Although the changes would mark a victory for environmentalists, revisions to the dam's operations could also raise electric rates for 3 million customers who rely on the dam for cheap hydroelectric power. Hoping to stem the expected public outcry, the federal government is taking a pre-emptive strike, using public opinion as its weapon.
In the next several weeks, a nationwide survey will be taken, asking some 6,000 Americans how much, in effect, they value the Grand Canyon and what they would pay to restore the proper functioning of its ecosystem.
The responses that pollsters receive could do more than help reverse environmental damage there: They may help effect a small revolution in the making of federal land-use policy.
The questions are part of a new effort to get policy-makers to consider the psychic value of leaving some natural resources unexploited.
Still in its infancy, the computation of what economists are calling "nonuse value" could hand conservationists new ammunition in their fight to keep some lands off limits to developers. But it also could have the opposite effect of derailing environmentalists' efforts to set aside natural resources if Americans see unacceptable costs associated with such conservation decisions.
The modest changes expected to be proposed by the Interior Department this fall would boost electricity bills throughout the West by about $3 million per year, according to current estimates.
Beyond that, it could cost taxpayers between $60 million and $100 million to fix a water temperature problem caused by the release of massive spurts of cold water from the dam's deep reservoir.