- What are ecosystem services?
Ecosystem services are the benefits people receive from nature.
Broadly defined, ecosystem services are the benefits that flow from nature to people, for example, nature’s contributions to the production of food and timber; life-support processes, such as water purification and coastal protection; and life-fulfilling benefits, such as places to recreate or to be inspired by nature’s diversity. There can also be ecosystem disservices, such as mosquito-borne diseases and pollen-induced allergies.
- How can ecosystem services be incorporated into communication and decision making?
Incorporating ecosystem services information into communications and decision making requires a more systematic and, when possible, quantified consideration of how changes to ecosystems affect people. It does not require a new type of analysis. Ecosystem services assessment does not replace methods like risk assessment, scenario analysis, or cost-benefit analysis. Instead, new information on the ecosystem services, benefits, and beneficiaries affected by decisions can be incorporated into existing decision, analysis, and assessment processes.
- What are the characteristics of a robust decision assessment that includes ecosystem services (what some call an “ES approach”)?
- Ecosystem changes are connected to changes in human well-being. The decision (or assessment informing the decision) considers how the action will ultimately affect human well-being, through its impacts on the ecosystem.
- All relevant ecosystem services affected by the decision are considered. The decision (or assessment informing the decision) considers all relevant ecosystem services—that is, services important to stakeholders and expected to be significantly changed, either directly or indirectly, by the decision or management action. Because it may not be possible to conduct appropriate and high-quality analysis of all relevant services, decision makers should explain how services will be considered when they are not all incorporated into the assessment in the same manner.
- Changes in the well-being of different stakeholders (beneficiaries) are considered and compared. The decision (or assessment informing the decision) considers and compares changes in the well-being of different stakeholders, who are influenced by changes in ecosystem services flows.
Assessment of ecosystem services will, at a minimum, consider stakeholder values and priorities and may involve direct stakeholder engagement.
- What are ecological production functions?
Ecological production functions are relationships that can be measured or modeled and that estimate the effects of changes in the structure, function, and dynamics of an ecosystem on outputs that are directly relevant to people. They can take many forms, from conceptual relationships established through expert opinion to complex simulation models. However, they are often a series of statistical relationships connecting ecosystem condition to outputs.
- How are ecosystem services-based planning and multiple-use planning different?
An ecosystem services approach to planning has much in common with multiple-use forest and rangeland management, but the two are not equivalent. Multiple-use planning emerged from the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act of 1960, which authorized the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to sustainably develop and manage the national forests’ renewable resources (timber, range, water, recreation, and wildlife) and from the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which established a similar multiple-use mandate for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Ecosystem services planning is authorized and encouraged through various rules and guidance documents, including the 2012 USFS Planning Rule, the 2011 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) report Sustaining Environmental Capital, and the 2013 Principles and Requirements for Federal Investments in Water Resources. But no federal law currently mandates implementation of ecosystem services planning.
Multiple-use planning tends to focus on the production of marketable commodities like timber and direct uses of public lands like recreation. The ecosystem services approach (1) considers services and economic impacts beyond those specifically identified in the acts noted above and considers benefits that arise outside the boundaries of the management area; (2) emphasizes engagement with many stakeholders, including not only local communities, but also the broader public affected by services provided or supported by public lands; and (3) focuses directly on how the public values and benefits from these services.
Examination of the application of multiple-use planning in the Forest Service helps clarify how it differs from an ecosystem services-based planning approach. The act creating the agency called for it to provide for the management of forests for timber products but also to protect watersheds for people. Deeply embedded in the agency’s mission is the idea that a wide range of resources as well as the impact of their management on society must be considered in planning. Early on, multiple-use processes within the Forest Service often focused on commodity outcomes, like board feet of timber sold or recreation visitor days. As such, the social outcomes tended to be driven by markets and production of services that could be consumed or used. Over the years, as “ecosystem management” and then “ecological restoration” became the overarching approach for planning and management, the agency began to shift its focus from producing goods and commodities to maintaining the health of land to restore water quality, reduce fire risk, provide scenic beauty for the public, and the like. This gradual shift has made the “reach” to an ecosystem services approach much more attainable. Today, the major changes an ecosystem services approach brings are (1) the extent of the services considered beyond commodities (e.g., carbon sequestration, pollination, flood control), (2) stakeholder input in the selection of services rather than public consideration of agency-selected alternatives, and (3) the degree to which both social and economic factors are directly tied to these services.
- How is an ecosystem services approach to planning different from a cumulative impacts assessment?
As of 1987, Council on Environmental Quality regulations require analysis of cumulative environmental impacts for projects subject to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The goal of the requirement is to allow decisionmakers to better understand the totality of potential impacts to a resource over time and space, so as to avoid environmental “death by a thousand cuts.” As a matter of principle, the requirement shares one of the core goals of an ecosystem services approach: the desire to capture a wide variety of ecological impacts and do so over geographic scales that are both ecologically and socially important. Although cumulative impacts assessments and an ecosystem services approach to planning share some characteristics and are not mutually exclusive, there are important differences between the two.
To begin with, an ecosystem services analysis is integrated throughout every step of a planning process, including development of alternatives, and can be applied outside the NEPA process (e.g., for high-level planning, sometimes informally referred to as “pre-NEPA” planning). Cumulative impact assessments are generally conducted only during NEPA analyses to evaluate impacts of already-developed alternatives. Additionally, while cumulative impact assessments examine impacts to the human environment, which can in theory include many of the same services that an ecosystem services analysis would, cumulative impact assessments typically focus on more traditional and tangible environmental impacts, such as archeological resources or water quality. Like environmental impacts, ecosystem services is another type of outcome or impact that can be assessed in various analyses. A cumulative effects analysis can consider effects on ecosystem services in addition to environmental impacts. Similarly other analyses, like cost-benefit analyses that consider other implications of a decision like the social welfare trade-offs and co-benefits provided by an action or policy, can also incorporate services.
- How is an ecosystem services approach to planning different from ecosystem-based management?
An ecosystem services approach to planning can aid in implementing ecosystem-based management and other holistic or integrated approaches to management.
An ecosystem is a geographically specified system of organisms (including humans), the environment, and the processes that control the system’s dynamics. Ecosystem-based management uses a long-term, integrated approach to study and manage the resources of an entire ecosystem. This approach considers different management scenarios’ balance of conflicting uses and cumulative impacts—including the impacts from and the benefits to humans—the ecosystem services. For instance, ecosystem-based aquatic resources management may consider multiple factors such as pollution, coastal development, harvest pressure, predator/prey and other ecological interactions, and watershed management. Ecosystem-based forestry management might consider factors such as endangered species protection, biodiversity, cultural resources, recreation, predator/prey and other ecological interactions, and watershed management.
- How do climate adaptation and risk management intersect with an ecosystem services approach to planning and management?
An assessment of ecosystem services should be based on an analysis of natural resource status and trends. Information in status and trends assessments on the impacts of climate change on the risks of natural hazards, for example,would allow consideration of climate adaptation strategies. An assessment that considers ecosystem services would likely consider how management choices will affect the risks of natural hazards and disturbances like flooding, fire, and heat waves on people and the things people care about.
- How would an ecosystem services approach to management affect a project’s conservation goals?
An ecosystem services management approach should augment—not replace—conservation objectives. When biodiversity conservation is the overriding goal of a project, an ecosystem services analysis can identify potential co-benefits relevant to other management objectives or to local communities or site visitors. Such information can be used to target conservation investments to yield the greatest social benefit or promote additional investment in conservation. Ecosystem services management can also help identify unintended consequences—ecological or social—that could be considered during project planning. Other advantages to an ecosystem services approach to management include improved engagement and communication with stakeholders and potential partners.
- Isn’t it true that with an ecosystem services approach to management, the only aspects of nature that will be managed are those with some utilitarian value?
Ecosystem services can include any aspect of nature that is considered valuable or important. Utilitarian and commercial goals are important, but so, too, is humans’ desire for less tangible things: beauty, wilderness, cultural heritage, a sense of place, and maintaining these benefits for future generations. An ecosystem services approach to management seeks to reveal, communicate, evaluate, and manage these often less tangible benefits in the public interest. Ideally, an ecosystem services assessment will identify all significant ecosystem services and evaluate the effect of management on this full suite of services throughout the decision-making process.
- Does using an ecosystem services approach to management mean that a dollar value must be put on everything?
Using ecosystem services in decision making does not require a monetary assessment of ecosystem services. Using ecosystem services does require consideration of the social outcomes caused by changes to ecological systems, but those outcomes need not be monetized. For example, the value can be described in terms of health outcomes, such as the number of households protected from groundwater contamination. Decisionmakers can also gain important insight from more qualitative analyses that provide general information about which ecosystem services are most important to affected communities or which management actions likely to increase or decrease the provision of a particular ecosystem service. Regardless of the methods used, an ecosystem services framework can provide a tool for comparing options (e.g., management alternatives, project options, future scenarios) and considering tradeoffs among ecosystem services for each option—a useful tool for resource managers. Monetary valuation of outcomes can be helpful in analysis of tradeoffs, as it puts everything in common and easily understood units, but it is not a requirement.
Does an ecosystem services approach to management require resource agencies to change their management to prioritize whatever local stakeholders value most?
An ecosystem services approach to management neither preempts an agency’s existing mandates and decision-making discretion nor requires that a specific decision be reached. What it does is provide additional information on how best to meet existing priorities (and perhaps provide other benefits at the same time), thereby supporting more informed decision-making.
- How can the usefulness or value of adopting an ecosystem services approach to management be evaluated?
Agencies can reap many benefits from implementing an ecosystem services approach. Ultimately, though, the test of whether an ecosystem services approach to planning is worth taking hinges on (1) whether it leads to a change in decisions or a clearer illumination of the tradeoffs; (2) whether it results in an environmental and social benefit; and (3) whether it improves stakeholder engagement and public support for agency actions while aiding in conflict resolution. Answering these questions is an important next step and one that will require researchers to move beyond developing case studies to undertaking structured policy analyses and program evaluations.1