Nature Provides Valuable Services That Benefit All, Experts Say

The Chesapeake Bay ecosystem provides a variety of services, including the absorption of carbon dioxide from Earth's atmosphere, which can mitigate the effects of climate change. | Ray Paterra/USFWS/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The watershed of the world’s third largest estuary — the Chesapeake Bay — covers 64,000 square miles and is home to almost 18 million people who benefit from the flood control, food sources and recreational opportunities that the ecosystem provides.

Such resources, known as ecosystem services, were the subject of a symposium held at AAAS’ headquarters in Washington, on May 19 where experts explored the role played by the natural forces of ecosystems in protecting adjacent lands and local communities. The event was coordinated by scientists who are current or former AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellows, who bring their scientific expertise to postings in Congress and federal agencies. Session organizers are also members of the Biodiversity Affinity Group, a collection of the AAAS policy fellows who host symposia on issues related to biodiversity and conservation.

“During a flooding event, water flows out of streams and into the floodplains where it is retained and it doesn’t end up in your basement,” said scientist Dianna Hogan, during the symposium. Hogan works with the United States Geological Survey to study the positive effects that ecosystems like the Chesapeake Bay have on humans and societies.

Hogan’s current research focuses on floodplains, level land areas adjacent to the rivers and streams that feed into the bay. Floodplains are important because they lie at the intersection of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and serve as a crossroad for a variety of beneficial processes that protect surrounding lands.

Floodplains help combat the effects of climate change by storing carbon, Hogan said, lowering carbon levels in the atmosphere.

Such areas also improve water quality by retaining sediment and nutrients that would otherwise flow into streams and tributaries that lead to the bay. This process results in cleaner bay water, making the environment more conductive to recreational activities like boating and fishing.

Ecosystem services also deliver substantial economic benefits, according to Daniel Juhn and Rosimeiry Portela, researchers who work with environmental non-profit organization Conservation International.

During the symposium, they discussed a pilot program that they worked on with the Peruvian government and other partners to assess the monetary value of natural resources in the country’s northern region of San Martín.

“The whole purpose of the project at the very beginning was to really develop and design a reputable framework to integrate nature into the economy,” said Portela.

The research was conducted using a process that tracks natural assets and the financial value of the services they provide, known as natural capital accounting. Juhn said the process “effectively [makes] ecosystems a sector of the economy.”

Portela, Juhn and their team examined timber, firewood, water and game hunted in tropical forests, known as bushmeat and set the monetary value of the natural resources based on the asset.

In the case of timber and firewood, researchers analyzed government data on wood harvest levels and compared that to the exchange value of the harvest to calculate the financial value. Researchers also used a modeling approach that helped determine the geographic regions with the greatest amount of wood being harvested.

For other assets, like water, analysts determined the overall value by tallying the values of the services and manufactured products related to the resource. When analyzing water, for instance, according to Conservation International, researchers studied the value of the crops dependent on water for irrigation, as well as the value of the energy water generates through hydroelectric dams, among other factors.

The study concluded that, in 2011, ecosystem services represented the eighth largest economic sector in San Martín, generating roughly $58 million for the regional economy.

Portela said such findings translate the importance of ecosystem services into financial terms that governments use to make decisions. She also noted that additional research will be necessary to better understand the continuing value of these natural resources and services.

“At the end of the day, this is something intended to better policy and decision making,” Portela said, “but we need a lot more science.”

During the symposium’s keynote address, Lydia Olander of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions explored the future of ecosystem services assessment. She noted a 2015 memorandum, released by the Obama administration, which directed federal agencies “to develop and institutionalize policies to promote consideration of ecosystem services, where appropriate and practicable, in planning, investments and regulatory contexts.”

Olander said that guidance for the implementation of these policies, developed in collaboration with federal agencies, has recently been completed and returned to the Executive Office of the President for further review.

Many agencies already consider the value of ecosystem services in their decision making, she said. The Agriculture Department and the U.S. Forest Service instituted a land planning rule in 2012, which provides guidance to ensure that plans to restore Forest Service land also preserve related ecosystem services.

Olander said the financial value of the services nature supplies could emerge from an executive order President Donald Trump issued on March 13. The order called on the Office of Management and Budget to come up with a plan to eliminate redundancies and improve efficiencies throughout the federal government.

For instance, Olander said that investing in nature conservation can result in economic benefits, citing a 2017 report from the Council on Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, which proposed that preserving the habitats of pollinators could increase honey production and improve crop yields.

David Inouye, a University of Maryland researcher who studies the biology of pollinators, echoed that point during remarks at the symposium. He said a study he authored on pollinators found that, as of 2015, 5% to 8% of current global crop production was attributable to pollinators, translating to an economic value of between $235 billion to $577 billion.

Olander said such types of economic benefits mean that ecosystem services could stand out, as government administrators seek to make their agencies more efficient. “I think that ecosystem services could be something of value to this administration as they ask these questions,” said Olander.

[Associated image: Mgimelfarb]