Healthy habitats generate many benefits for humans as well as wildlife. Natural processes create healthy soil, clean and abundant water, fertile crops, and protection from flooding and climate extremes. These benefits we receive from nature are often called ecosystem services.
People also value nature - including the fish, wildlife and plants within it - for many reasons. In addition to providing food, water, clothing and building materials, nature offers cultural and spiritual benefits, recreational opportunities and an endless source of beauty.
Major Threats to Ecosystem Services
Because the processes that give us these benefits often take place in the background, we tend to take ecosystem services for granted. But when species or habitats are lost, important ecological processes are disrupted, putting many natural benefits at risk. Now more than ever, functioning natural systems are vital to the health and safety of human communities.
How Do We Put a Value on Nature?
Money drives many decisions about how natural resources are divided and managed. Sometimes, that makes perfect sense. For example, the money people spend on nature-based recreation makes a significant contribution to the economy and quality of life. Those who manage land may use that revenue to place a value on it.
However, it does not always make sense to assign a dollar value to the things we receive from nature. The value of native biodiversity – including plants, animals, insects and their habitat – offers aesthetic, scientific and spiritual value that is even more important than the short-term economic value.
The most important thing is that those who manage land consider the full range of values that ecosystems offer before they make major decisions that could impact habitat, water, wildlife or other parts of the ecosystem.
Payments for Ecosystem Services
As a society, we value clean air, water, fish and wildlife and natural landscapes. We have regulations that limit activities that are harmful to the environment, like discharging toxic chemicals, destroying endangered species habitat and catching fish beyond a legal limit. Although these regulations are good at stopping people, companies or agencies from doing bad things to the environment, they aren’t always helpful in persuading them to do something good for it.
Some programs are emerging that offer payments for certain ecosystem services. For example, in some states, carbon is bought and sold through exchanges to limit the overall impact on climate change. Landowners can establish wetland banks, where developers who adversely impact wetlands can buy credits to compensate for the losses. Conservation banks for endangered species have been established to offset damage to habitat for those species. Water quality credits are available in some places as an alternative way for polluters to comply with regulations. Ideally, these programs appeal to landowners, as they can supplement income from farming, forestry, or other activities, and are generally voluntary. And at the same time, they offer a real incentive for landowners to keep habitats healthy.
These conservation banking programs can help restore an ecosystem, but their impact is still small compared to the need. Market-based approaches tend to be driven by regulations, and only address some of the values found in nature. To make a real difference, these programs must be part of a larger strategy that uses multiple approaches across an entire landscape.
What Defenders is Doing to Help Protect Ecosystems
- We are actively engaged in a number of discussions concerning ecosystem services at the national level and in selected parts of the country.
- Defenders and partners initiated and passed legislation in Oregon, the first in the nation that requires agencies to consider ecosystem services across all land uses.
- The Conservation Registry, created and managed by Defenders, compiles information on projects that address specific ecosystem services.
- Defenders staff leads a national effort to improve our collective capability to measure biodiversity and ecosystem health – and to make sure that it is addressed within ecosystem service-oriented programs.
- Defenders developed habitat measurement tools, or metrics, for three priority habitat types in Oregon: oak woodland, floodplain, and sagebrush. The goal was to build a reliable accounting method to measure biodiversity and habitat values if they are to be bought and sold, and to measure outcomes for landowners receiving incentive payments for conservation actions.
- With Portland State University and others, Defenders hosted a workshop that developed a set of principles to assess the value of ecosystem services.
- In the Rogue Basin of Oregon, Defenders helps lead a project that is conducting a basin-wide assessment of ecological integrity and the values people place on nature within and outside of the region.