This isn't to say we shouldn't be excited about the conservation potential here - I certainly am! It's just that we need to keep our near-term expectations realistic and recognize that in most cases, we have a lot to learn about (1) how different land management regimes affect the economic value of specific ecosystem services, and (2) how landowners can best be compensated for maintaining (and restoring) these services.
For those of you who are new to the concept of ecosystem services, they are, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the benefits people obtain from ecosystems. These include:
Supporting services - services that are necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services. Some examples include production of atmospheric oxygen by plants, soil formation and retention by plants, insects and microbes, nutrient cycling, water cycling, and provisioning of habitat.
Provisioning services - The products obtained from ecosystems, including, for example, agricultural/food and fiber (e.g., crops and trees), fresh water, and genetic resources.
Regulating services - The benefits obtained from the regulation of ecosystem processes, including, for example, the regulation of climate, water, and some human diseases. Ecosystem services such as mitigation of floods by forests and buffering against storm surges by wetlands fall under this category.
Cultural services - The non-material benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experience.
At the recent annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), I attended a symposium titled “Ecosystem Services in Decision-Making: Stepping Into Reality”. Pioneering ecosystem services experts such as Gretchen Daily of Stanford University, Taylor Ricketts of World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and The Nature Conservancy's Peter Kareiva pointed out that a lot of work remains to be done to turn what are termed "Payments for Ecosystem Services" (PES) programs into viable options for protecting and restoring ecosystems, their resilience to climate change, and the valuable services they provide to society.
Just how good are the prospects for successful PES programs to benefit ecosystems and people alike? Already, we have seen some celebrated uses of PES schemes (see page 10 of this link) to protect ecosystems and human welfare. One example is New York City’s use of Catskill Mountain forests to filter its drinking water for a fraction of the price it would have cost them to build a water filtration plant.
In spite of these early successes, however, as well as the rapidly rising number of studies examining ecosystem services, WWF's Ricketts cautioned that there is still a huge mismatch between the data currently available, and the data that is needed to inform widespread implementation of PES programs.
Ecosystem Services - Current Research Needs
First and foremost, scientists need to understand exactly what PES programs are paying people for. For example, how do we concretely measure and verify the water filtration or flood mitigation services of a forest? How do we quantify the storm protection value of barrier wetlands, such as those that once provided much more effective protection against storm surges for cities such as New Orleans?
It is in such questions that a fascinating ecosystem services research agenda begins to emerge. Several key needs noted by the ESA symposium’s participants included:
Need 1: basic academic studies on how different land use treatments affect ecosystem services, from tropical to temperate forests, from grasslands to deserts, and from wetlands to alpine tundra. This includes series of replicated experiments that are regional to landscape in scale, are spatially explicit (in other words, help identify where on maps ecosystem services are provided), and explore how multiple services are affected by multiple management regimes (for example, how a forest's ability to maintain a snowpack and store water might be affected by leaving it intact, vs. selective logging, vs. clear-cut logging).
Need 2: figure out how to actually get people paid for ecosystem services – to determine how to turn these services into economically and politically viable conservation solutions. As Gretchen Daily pointed, out, development of any PES plan will require that a multidisciplinary team of ecologists, economists, policy experts, and lawyers (and probably marketing and communication experts) partners to answer the following questions: Who pays? How much? To Whom? For what? For how long?
Need 3: Develop and explore new management and policy tools and approaches for implementing PES programs. Realistically, approaches that work in developing countries, such as Costa Rica’s fuel tax that funds rainforest conservation, won’t necessarily work in a country like the United States, where proposing a new tax is politically risky. What works to make a PES plan a success may vary from country to country, and even from culture to culture.
Just how monumental is the challenge of converting emerging scientific understanding of ecosystem services into new PES programs? As Steve Polasky of the University of Minnesota pointed out, we are having enough difficulty applying what we already know about how to improve human welfare by protecting ecosystem services. The failure to convert scientific understanding of ecosystem services into benefits to human communities was clear with the flooding in New Orleans, for example, where a pathway dredged through barrier wetlands (the "Mississippi River Gulf Outlet") acted as a funnel that directed Hurricane Katrina's storm surge into the city. Fortunately, the devastation suffered by New Orleans appears to be helping spur awareness of the economic importance of protecting the ecosystem services that wetlands provide.
Need 4: Choose test sites wisely to maximize impact. Panelists pointed out that we would be smart to prioritize locations for PES schemes based on the value of the ecosystem services provided, how endangered and in need of protection the ecosystem is, and how positive the prospects look for working with and improving the livelihoods of the ecosystem's human communities. By prioritizing and applying PES programs to sites with high ecosystem service value, that are particularly endangered, and where the program can provide jobs and otherwise improve the welfare of the local community, we can magnify the benefits.
To be sure, the conservation community is energized about the potential for PES schemes to establish incentives that reward landowners for protecting the environmental services that their lands provide to society, instead of just regulations that punish landowners for failing to do so. As Ricketts noted, the concept’s clear linking of conservation to human welfare is an attractive selling point that is also likely to help the public “get” the importance of a healthy environment.
For those of you who want to learn more about ecosystem services, check out the Natural Capital Project. It was recently established to advance the field, and turn its exciting promise into on-the-ground successes in both protecting ecosystems and improving human quality of life.