“Using an ecosystem services perspective is like moving from black and white to full-spectrum color in terms of the richness of the analysis and the ability to communicate it to the public.”
— John Allen, Deschutes National Forest Supervisor
In the Pacific Northwest in the Deschutes National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service is developing a forest management plan to support several under-appreciated forest benefits such as high biodiversity (including Oregon’s largest Spotted Frog population), mushroom harvests, big game and fish habitat, local firewood gathering, and historic cultural resources. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is exploring how inland land and water management can be altered to help sustain commercial and recreational shellfish harvests as well as other recreational and storm protection benefits that coastal habitats provide for the Puget Sound. In the Upper Green River in Wyoming, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is collaborating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and many other organizations to develop a conservation exchange for an at-risk species, the greater sage-grouse, while also protecting water quality and riparian functions and mule-deer and sage-grouse habitat for their economic and social benefits. These and many other federal agency management efforts confront very different challenges in very different ecological and social contexts, and they all would benefit from ecosystem services analysis.
The Federal Resource and Management of Ecosystem Services Guidebook has been developed in partnership with federal agencies engaged in natural resource planning and management. Agencies have a growing interest in more clearly and quantitatively articulating the benefits and possible tradeoffs inherent in natural resource management decisions—and they would like to make these tradeoffs in a way that clearly communicates what matters to people. Although the guidebook was developed for these agencies, its assessment framework, methods, and examples can be applied more broadly, for example, to inform large-scale restoration efforts, infrastructure siting, rulemaking and permitting decisions, and natural resource management decisions made by states, NGOs, and the business community.
Nature provides humans with many things of value. Not only the water we drink and the air we breathe, but also the crop pollination accomplished by bees, the flood protection afforded by wetlands, and the sense of peace we might find standing in a quiet forest. To be clear, nature’s benefits include environmental commodities that are consumed as well as places within which people live, recreate, and work. They even include the knowledge that other species, wilderness, and natural beauty will exist for future generations. Ecosystem services is shorthand for all of these aspects of nature that contribute to our health, wealth, and well-being. Ecosystem services analysis describes how natural resource management options affect the well-being of people, communities, and economies through their effect on ecological conditions and processes.
Because many ecosystem services are not bought and sold in the marketplace, their benefits often don’t come with convenient data points like prices, inventories, or sales volumes. Lacking such common metrics makes them no less valuable—but it can lead to confusion about what they are, how important people perceive them to be, and how and to what purpose they should be managed.
Broadly speaking, measuring or assessing ecosystem services requires moving beyond ecological measures that are not explicitly linked to human benefits to make causal connections between changes in a natural system to the ecosystem services outcomes that are valued by people. (Such changes in natural systems can be caused by natural stressors or management actions.) Ecosystem services link ecological outcomes to their equally diverse social outcomes—the household, community, and business benefits and values associated with clean water, abundant species, open space, and so on.
Federal agencies are interested in incorporating ecosystem services into planning and management to more clearly link natural resource management choices to things people care about in an understandable and analytically robust manner. This task requires considering (not necessarily quantifying) all important environmental and social values, even those that might be difficult to quantify or monetize. In addition, agencies want methods that more clearly and transparently assess tradeoffs in management decisions. Relating natural resources to social and economic outcomes helps them identify options that yield the greatest benefits for stakeholders and the public at large. Analysis of the many ways natural systems affect communities allows managers to identify management options that yield multiple benefits or to clarify and resolve conflicts that arise when management options involve tradeoffs. In contrast, management that narrowly focuses on one or only a few ecological outcomes can miss important benefits or costs—to society’s detriment.
Incorporating ecosystem services into resource assessments focuses attention on social outcomes—such as health, wellbeing, or economic benefits—arising from ecological systems and natural resources. Other benefits, such as the economic value, tax revenues, or jobs arising from urban, commercial, or industrial development also often bear on agency decisions. Adding ecosystem services to an assessment complements and broadens, but does not replace, analysis of these more conventional economic benefits.
The concept of nature’s services was coined in the 1970s. Recognition of the connection between healthy natural systems and social and economic welfare is not new and was, for example, cited at the birth of the U.S. conservation movement 100 years ago.
Natural resource management continues to evolve, most recently with the multiple use mandate and cumulative impacts analysis. An ecosystem services approach is the next step in this progression.
The recent explosion of interest in incorporating ecosystem services into management is driven by many factors.
The public is increasingly aware of the role that population growth and economic trends play in creating resource scarcities and losses. Although public environmental concern and interest in resource management is not new, there is a growing recognition of the ways in which management of interconnected ecosystems directly affect businesses, communities, and households.
Changes in the environmental science and research community have helped increase interest in incorporating ecosystem services into management decisions. Understanding and measurement of ecological systems over larger geographic and time scales continue to improve, as does understanding of natural systems in “engineered” solutions to environmental problems (e.g., green infrastructure, large-scale restoration). Cooperation between conservation planners and natural scientists has led to improved understanding of how resource management affects ecological systems. In general, natural resource data, models, and insight make the measurement and analysis of ecosystem services more practicable than in the past.
Another change within the research community relates to interactions between natural and social scientists. Today, their relationship is increasingly collaborative and constructive. Environmentally oriented social science within economics, like human dimensions research, is expanding. Also more sophisticated ecological knowledge is being incorporated into the social sciences as ecologists become more involved in the study of human-managed systems. This has opened the door for assessments that go beyond ecological assessments to incorporate social benefits.
Finally, research has been affected by trends in the conservation community (nongovernmental and philanthropic organizations) that emphasize conservation’s role in generating broad social benefits beyond protection of biodiversity.
This greater integration of social and natural science methods allows researchers to explore nature-society relationships in new and more accurate ways. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment,authored by hundreds of scientists around the world under the auspices of the United Nations, played a large role in accelerating the engagement of the academic community as well as public policy makers in using an ecosystem services framework for natural resource management.
Recent policies and guidance at the federal level reflect a growing interest in incorporating ecosystem services to natural resource planning and management. The ecosystem services policy dialogue was sparked in part by the 1998 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) report, “Teaming with Life: Investing in Science to Understand and Use America’s Living Capital.” A decade later, the 2008 Farm Bill called for federal agencies to explore ecosystem services and their potential application in environmental markets, resulting in establishment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of Environmental Markets. Also in 2008 a new rule on wetland and stream mitigation issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection agency stated that “mitigation … should be located where it is most likely to successfully replace lost … services.” In 2010, appointees from federal agencies with natural resource jurisdictions met to explore markets and payments for ecosystem services. Since then, several events have advanced federal agencies’ consideration of ecosystem services approaches to natural resource planning and management.
Federal efforts designed to link social and ecological analysis predate the initiatives described above. Although not labeled ecosystem services, natural resource damage assessments by NOAA and USFWS under the Ocean Pollution Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act require assessment of ecological damage and associated social costs arising from oil spills and improper hazardous waste disposal.
An ecosystem services approach to natural resource planning and management provides an analytical framework for integrating ecological, social, and management factors in a way that is both specific to the local context and reflective of the larger physical and human landscape within which planning and analysis takes place. Such an approach can identify and incorporate a broad spectrum of desired benefits.It can account for difficult-to-value benefits and incorporate them into analyses that allow robust assessment of alternatives, tradeoffs, and opportunities. Although agencies may have provided some consideration of these broader objectives and benefits in the past, an ecosystem services approach brings to the table new analytical techniques, data, and insights.
Any single resource management action typically affects multiple ecosystem services; likewise, the provision of one ecosystem service can be influenced by multiple management actions. Providing access to a stream, for example, creates opportunities for fishing and hunting but may impair the public’s enjoyment of a wilderness experience. At the same time, management of the view, the clarity of the water, and the size of the trout population can affect recreational fishing benefits. A systemic approach asks resource managers to consider this interplay of cause and effect among multiple objectives and multiple management actions and to identify and articulate the implications of management for how people enjoy, use, or value the effected resources—however difficult to quantify.
Incorporating ecosystem services into planning can improve efficiency, reveal tradeoffs, demonstrate win-win conservation solutions, and avoid mistakes that arise from management of a resource or specific ecosystem service in isolation. Without systematic identification and consideration of the connections between management and ecosystem services, some impacts (positive or negative) will be left out of the decision-making process. Unaccounted for, or externalized, costs and benefits can lead to poor decisions. This situation is most common when resources managed by an agency affect services not directly managed by that agency. By clarifying how all benefits—and any potential tradeoffs—effected by management choices have been considered by the agency, an ecosystem services approach may help generate support for agency actions and reduce conflict and litigation.
Under a traditional “plan and mitigate” approach to resource management, agencies propose management actions for individual resources or services and mitigation actions for negative impacts to that resource or service that would result from the selected management action. Incorporating ecosystem services into planning can provide managers with a framework that “balances all outcomes” insofar as is possible within agency mandates and regulatory constraints. Without changing existing mandates or regulations, this shift in thinking can result in management plans that address (and improve) a wide range of outcomes. (For an example of how the ecosystem services can change the decision process, see agency examples case 4,“Sustaining Ecosystem Services across Public and Private Lands: The Cool Soda All Lands Restoration Proposal.”)
Even when agencies’ legal and regulatory missions constrain their focus to relatively narrow objectives (e.g., endangered species), a more comprehensive ecosystem services approach can be helpful. As an example, if biodiversity or habitat restoration is a project’s overriding goal, incorporation of a broader suite of ecosystem services in planning may identify co-benefits (or costs) relevant to public support, conflict resolution, or jurisdictional disputes.
Expanding the scope of outcomes to include additional ecosystem services during a planning exercise may not change a manager’s assessment of which management alternative is best. Incorporating ecosystem services into decision making does not replace an agency’s existing priorities—but it does provide additional information about how best to meet existing priorities while also addressing other objectives. (For an exploration of how co-benefits may be considered in project planning, see agency examples case 5, “Incorporating Consideration of Ecosystem Services into Plans for the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.”)
Ideally, integrating ecosystem services into planning is part of an inclusive, collaborative process involving people and communities throughout the decision-making process, incorporating their input regarding what they value and the benefits they would enjoy from a given management option. Collaborative engagement can align with existing agency processes, such as impact scoping under the National Environmental Policy Act. By incorporating engagement at the outset of the process, before any management actions are proposed, additional benefits or desired outcomes can surface that might not emerge in a public involvement process wherein stakeholders respond to a specific proposed outcome or action. The 2012 Forest Service Planning Rule encourages this type of early engagement both to elicit the public’s needs and values and to inform the selection of management objectives. Early elicitation of public values to help define the management objectives and services of interest can, in turn, lead to more formal ecosystem services assessments and valuations and eventually result in better communication of benefits and tradeoffs to stakeholders and the broader public.
Use of ecosystem services language reinforces agency efforts to describe the impacts of management actions using metrics and terms that are relevant to the public. For example, a project aimed at removing invasive species could be described not only in terms of number of acres treated, but in terms of an expected increase in bird sightings or other species’ abundance, or in terms of reductions in risks of catastrophic wildfires. This approach can help stakeholders and the public better understand the implications of implementing one set of management actions over another.
Explicitly incorporating preferences, priorities, or values in comparisons of the ecosystem service outcomes or benefits of management allows alternatives to be compared on the basis of their social outcomes (how they will affect people). Social preferences for ecosystem service benefits can be incorporated into tradeoff analysis, resulting in a transparent evaluation of options in terms of both these outcomes and the public’s ranking or valuation of them. These methods may also lead to the expression of ecosystem services benefits in monetary terms, which can help managers convey to the public, Congress, communities, and businesses the very real economic and social value of the resources being protected and managed.
Analysis of who is providing services, who is gaining services or losing them, or who is bearing greater or lesser risk can be useful for understanding whether management decisions are equitable across communities affected by resource management. Equity concerns are a common source of controversy in public lands resource management. A landscape analysis of services and beneficiaries can increase the transparency of distributional effects. Although some may view it as an invitation to greater controversy, this transparency can also clarify which ecosystem services can be provided over time and across the landscape with minimal tradeoffs. Even when it reveals distributional conflicts, more transparent measures of ecosystem service benefits can reveal options that reduce perceived inequities.
For historic, political, and administrative reasons, U.S. natural resource management tends to be agency-, media-, and place-specific. But because most ecological systems are linked across broad geographic scales, the impacts of management decisions do not stop at a fence line or political boundary, and the biophysical factors that create benefits (and thus social outcomes) may be geographically far removed from the people affected. In this way, all federal lands and waters are connected to entities outside their boundaries. An ecosystem services approach can be used to consider how the flow of services to and from federal lands and waters is changed by management choices.
Systemic analysis of the ecosystem services effects of resource management decisions can help managers identify potential partners by understanding
Incorporating ecosystem services into assessments can complement efforts to evaluate the impact of large-scale threats, such as drought, nutrient enrichment of waters, habitat fragmentation, air pollution, and invasive species, and develop strategies to deal with them. Also, by understanding the implications of resource management activities on the ecological benefits important to people, particularly those benefits arising for people outside a management area’s boundaries, managers can “leverage” their management actions or funding sources to address bigger challenges and provide more benefits than would be possible when working alone. This reasoning is part of the impetus for the USDA’s new “all-lands” approach to resource management, BLM’s eco-regional assessments, the Department of the Interior’s creation of landscape conservation cooperatives, the U.S. Army Corps’s watershed informed budgeting, and NOAA’s Integrated Ecosystem Assessment and Habitat Blueprint programs.
Agencies may find it more cost-effective to achieve management objectives by providing incentives (e.g., payments) for private landowners or nearby municipalities to undertake conservation efforts rather than implementing additional management actions on agency lands or waters. Incorporating ecosystem services into assessments can assess the potential ability of partners to support management objectives and opportunities to incentivize their participation. Under the proposed Green River Conservation Exchange, for example, the Bureau of Land Management and other interested parties have agreed to contribute funds toward conservation actions undertaken by federal, state, local, and private parties to benefit greater sage-grouse habitat (see agency examples case 8, “An Ecosystem Services Approach to Sage-Grouse Conservation: Upper Green River Conservation Exchange Program”).
In the context of constrained budgets, implementing ecosystem service approaches can shift debate over program costs to a discussion of program benefits and help justify changes in program funding and budget allocations. It may also provide support for engaging external beneficiaries (individuals, businesses, and state and local agencies) in incentive/cost-sharing programs or partnerships to improve ecosystem services provision. For example, hunting permits, grazing permits, and park entrance fees have been around for decades. The USFS Forests to Faucets project illustrates a new take on this idea: Denver Water has invested in the USFS’s Rocky Mountain Region forest thinning and watershed protection projects in recognition that they benefit Denver Water’s downstream drinking water reservoirs.
An ecosystem services approach is human-oriented by design in that it seeks to relate ecosystem features to the wellbeing of people. This orientation can lead to a false impression that utilitarian benefits arising, for example, from water consumption, timber harvests, energy extraction, recreational resources, and commercial fisheries are the focus. Ecosystem services include less tangible, more intrinsic, and equally important benefits associated with things like species’ existence, wilderness, beauty, and the value to future generations of preserving those things. Because these matter to people and their well-being, they are benefits provided by ecosystems—they are ecosystem services.
Use of assessment of ecosystem services in assessments and decision making does not require a monetary assessment. Ecosystem services approaches can and often do describe social and economic outcomes without giving them monetary value. For example, the value can be described in terms of health outcomes, such as number of hospitalizations from smoke-induced respiratory distress. Analysis can also produce quantitative, but non-monetary, indicators tied closely to benefits, such as the number of households whose drinking water is protected from groundwater depletion or contamination. Important insight can also come from narrative explorations of ecosystem services outcomes that provide general information about which ecosystem services are most important to affected communities or which management actions are likely to increase or decrease the provision of ecosystem services. However, such narrative descriptions are in sufficient on their own for a robust assessment. Regardless of whether monetary, non-monetary, or other well-defined ecological or social measures are used, use of ecosystem services in assessments provides information to help decision makers and the public understand and compare different ecosystem services and different management, project, or planning options and to make tradeoffs among them.
Incorporating ecosystem services into management decision processes neither preempts an agency’s existing mandates and decision-making discretion nor requires that a specific decision be reached. Rather, it provides additional information on how best to meet existing priorities (and perhaps provide other benefits at the same time), thereby supporting informed decisionmaking.
Incorporating ecosystem services into assessments and management decisions poses a number of challenges. One relates to confusions that can arise due to terminology. For example, the term ecosystem services is interpreted in various ways. Some resource managers, policy makers, and researchers think of ecosystem services as the biophysical processes (such as nutrient cycling, wave attenuation, climate regulation) that give rise to social benefits. Some think of ecosystem services as the goods or commodities (such as cubic-feet of water, duck populations, or acres of wilderness) arising from biophysical processes that benefit us. Others define ecosystem services as the benefits themselves (such as the recreational value of a forest, the commercial value of a fish population, or health improvements associated with environmental amenities). Coming to a common understanding and use of terms is a challenge that will need to be addressed for those conducting assessments. This guidebook provides a starting place for developing consistent terminology that will likely evolve with use.
Discussion of ecosystem services with the public need not rely on technical terminology. In fact, successful public engagement often will feature intuitive, commonly used, and concrete language about specific resources—language such as “abundant fish populations,” “water suitable for swimming,” “natural viewscapes,” or “reduced flood risks.”
Although narrative descriptions of a wide range of services and management actions is possible, they are insufficient for formal analysis and quantitative approaches can be limited by significant data and modeling gaps. One potential gap is a lack of models that link management actions to specific ecological and biological changes, though more and more of these models are becoming available. Monitoring data currently collected for regulatory or more purely ecological purposes often does not match the data needed for ecosystem services—that is, data that facilitates the linkage of ecological and social outcomes. Furthermore,federal guidelines can make it difficult for agencies to get approval to conduct social surveys,limiting the agencies’ capacity to quantify the demand for and the value of many services. Finally, despite hundreds of economic valuation and other social benefit studies, huge gaps remain in our knowledge of social benefits. Although existing studies of values and social benefits can be generalized, their “transferability” to other sites may be limited or impossible when resource and social conditions at these other sites are quite different from those at the study site.
The use of new methods raises concerns over insufficient in-house technical capacity: social scientists, in particular, remain relatively rare within environmental agencies. Incorporating ecosystem services into management and decision making does not require new analytical methods in all cases. Indeed, useful information can be gained from relatively non-technical activities, such as stakeholder engagement and linkage of management actions to prioritized benefits (i.e., desired outcomes). These activities may not be too different from the work an agency already does.Prior knowledge and reports generated under past decision-making efforts will frequently be the foundation for developing an understanding of ecosystem services. More technically challenging methods that use models to reveal the impacts of management on the production of services or to conduct formal tradeoff or cost-benefit analysis using monetary valuation (with non-market valuation) or non-monetary decision analysis are likely to require significant time and expertise. Use of these methods may require additional personnel or the use of outside consultants. Consultants are often used when any cost-benefit analysis or other economic analysis is required. Ecosystem services can similarly be incorporated into other analysis like cumulative effects analysis or risk assessments1. If ecosystem services are to be included in these analyses, federal managers need to ensure that external experts can integrate those services into the analyses using credible data and methods.
Some managers are concerned that using ecosystem services in management and decision making will entail significant effort but have only minimal effect on decisions and outcomes. In a climate of constrained funding and limited ability to increase organizational capacity, an ecosystem services (or any) approach must clearly demonstrate its value. Ideally, early testing and application will provide a wide variety of cases that can be evaluated to demonstrate when and where the approach provides the most value. Experience using new methods will help agencies learn to balance complexity and costs with its value to decision makers and the public.
Finally, because ecosystem services by design captures a wide suite of ecological and social effects, it will tend to identify ways that a given agency or jurisdiction’s management decisions will affect resources managed or protected by other institutions. The analysis itself will often require the collaboration of experts from multiple agencies and may reveal the importance of coordination with a range of stakeholders. This coordination can be viewed as a desirable byproduct of ecosystem services analysis, but it also poses challenges to the institutions involved.
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
Released in 2005, this report represents the work of more than 1,360 experts worldwide. It examines the state of the world’s ecosystems and ecosystem services, evaluating, summarizing, interpreting, and communicating information regarding ecosystem change and human wellbeing and the scientific basis for action needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems.
PCAST Executive Report–Sustaining Environmental Capital: Protecting Society and the Economy
This 2011 executive report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) Working Group on Biodiversity Preservation and Ecosystem Sustainability addresses the needs and opportunities of governments—especially the U.S. federal government—to more effectively protect environmental capital and ecosystem services. PCAST’s recommendations involve a three-pronged effort: making better use of existing knowledge, supporting the generation of essential new knowledge, and expanding the use of informatics.
Sustainability for the Nation: Resource Connection and Governance Linkages
This 2013 report by the National Research Council highlights high-priority areas for governance linkages that can support decisions better aligned with sustainability objectives.
Best Practices for Integrating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making
In 2015, NESP brought together a number of acknowledged academic experts to build upon the methods outlined in the FRMES guidebook and identify best practices. The resulting report outlines recommendations for best practices specific to ecosystem services assessment methods.
Ecosystem Services and Resource Management: Institutional Issues, Challenges, and Opportunities in the Public Sector
This study by Lynn Scarlett and James Boyd published in Ecological Economics in 2015 describes existing federal policies that permit or promote ecosystem services analysis, management, investments, and markets.
Nature as Capital PNAS 100th Anniversary Special Feature
These articles are part of the special series of PNAS 100th anniversary articles to commemorate the exceptional research published in PNAS over the last century and to promote exceptional science looking to the century ahead.
Principles to Guide Assessments of Ecosystem Service Value
This 2014 document arose from the Ecosystem Services Valuation Workshop held July 8–9, 2013, at Portland State University, an event sponsored by Portland State University’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, the Cascadia Ecosystem Services Partnership, and Defenders of Wildlife. The collaboratively developed guiding principles address use of ecosystem services in natural resource decisions.