What does a vacant lot in Cleveland have in common with desert in southern Arizona? Or a farm field in the upper Midwest with a river in urban China? All of these different lands support human lives and livelihoods in often unseen ways. They provide important "ecosystem services" by filtering pollutants from our drinking water, creating habitat for wildlife or enriching our lives with aesthetic beauty and recreational opportunities.
Ecosystem services was a major theme at last week's U.S. Society for Ecological Economics conference at Michigan State University. The conference topic of "Building a Green Economy" emphasized the need to fully recognize environmental constraints to economic activity. Valuing ecosystem services that we otherwise take for granted is a critical part of making our economy greener and more sustainable.
Conference attendees discussed a number of emerging efforts to build a green economy by accounting for undervalued ecosystem services. For example, federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are working to enhance the ecosystem services provided by public lands. These agencies, and their state and county level counterparts, often have mandates to manage for multiple uses and need better information about how public lands contribute to the common good. Also, quantifying and valuing ecosystem services on public lands can help create new funding mechanisms to support conservation and land management. For example, the city of Denver is helping fund a $32 million venture with the USFS to protect forested lands that drain into the city's water supply.
Conference presentations also touched on how ecosystem services can improve management on private lands, which is important because most land in the U.S. is privately held, and much intensive land use takes place on private lands.
In particular, agriculture occupies nearly half of the land area of the lower 48 states, and agricultural practices can have large-scale environmental impacts. If ecosystem services were included in the agricultural equation, incentives for land management could change and farmers could get rewarded for practices that reduce erosion, improve water quality or enhance habitat for wildlife.
This already happens to some extent through the conservation programs of the U.S. Farm Bill. But research suggests that our agricultural landscapes and our farm policies could do even better. For example, an analysis colleagues and I presented at the conference shows that small, targeted reductions in agricultural area could generate improved water quality and increased carbon sequestration potentially more valuable than revenue lost from reduced cropping.
Despite huge uncertainty about the provision and value of ecosystem services, research suggests that agricultural lands could do more to support our well-being. Including often overlooked ecosystem services in the ledger could inform new payment mechanisms that reward farmers for producing not just crops but a full suite of agricultural ecosystem services. And better information about ecosystem services could also help improve policies like the U.S. Farm Bill, so that our scarce public dollars encourage agricultural practices that support the public good.
Photo by Lynn Betts, USDA NRCS