What Nature Does for Us

Recognizing ecosystem services and their value

by Chuck Budinger

We love it, we love to be out in it. Most of us intuitively understand the value of the natural world. But when we are called on to discuss how and whether we should invest money and labor to preserve, enhance or restore a natural landscape, we need a framework for talking about its value in ways that are clearer than personal sentiment.

We generally understand that preserving and enhancing ecosystems is an important step toward sustainable development, but there’s more to it. Ecosystems provide ‘services’ to the public, and the importance of ecosystems to people is in large part based on those services. Researchers and scientists are recognizing that this “natural capital” is of vital importance to human well-being, but as a public good, its value is often overlooked.

What is an ecosystem service?

We can think about this kind of service as conditions and processes related to a specific collection of species, soils, vegetation or topography that produce benefits for the public good. So a particular collection of natural conditions can be used for the improvement of human needs.

Researchers and scientists are recognizing that this “natural capital” is of vital importance to human well-being, but as a public good, its value is often overlooked.

For example, if a community wants to improve water quality in the streams that flow through town, an important place to start is re-establishing the ecosystem along the stream banks. Grasses, permeable soils, tree roots and shade trees help cleanse water flowing in the streambed through filtration, absorption, and aeration. These ecosystems also provide aesthetic and calming effects through the harmonious sounds of trees, water and air. Trails for public recreation provide the top level of service to the public.

While it’s difficult to quantify the value of ecosystem services with precision, some economists and scientists, particularly in the earth, social and political sciences, place high monetary and social value on them.

To improve water quality, for example, it may be easier and cheaper to preserve a floodplain than to treat the water with chemicals in a plant. Substituting a wastewater treatment plant for a working ecosystem both adds costs and denies the public a pleasant, peaceful and aesthetic community resource and benefit. Real estate adjacent to open space or natural corridors is generally considered higher-value than similar parcels not as close.

Ecosystem services preserve and maintain biodiversity and the productivity of ecosystem ‘goods’ like seafood, forage, timber, biomass fuels, natural fiber and, in select cases, pharmaceuticals.

On a practical level they can also prevent floods, drought and land degradation, and promote nutrient cycling. In the development of small, energetic communities like Prescott, the generation of ecosystem goods and services helps preserve natural habitats for recreation and relaxation, but also for resource management — clean air, water, wildlife, and so on.

How can we better support ecosystem services in the Prescott area?

I’ve already touched on streambank stabilization, using riparian habitat to filter, adsorb, and infiltrate water for the service of clean water. Under this concept, floodplains can be expanded to slow stormwater flow, allowing percolation of runoff into the subsurface or aquifer along ecosystem corridors that extend through the city to Watson and Willow Lakes. The problem is that for most streams in the Prescott area, floodplains and stream banks are already badly degraded, so we have to consider substantial costs for restoration where it remains possible.

We can derive other ecosystem services from the establishment of wildlife corridors. Granite Dells could become the focal point for a network of corridors extending like the spokes of a wheel to the National Forest lands south of Gateway Mall and north to the grasslands of Chino Valley. An ecosystem of this magnitude would contribute significantly to the wellbeing of city residents by preserving land and vegetation to absorb surface water and convey it to the aquifer, help control flooding, and allow for water storage, not to mention the benefit to local wildlife for migration and foraging. We can place monetary value on this effort based on the economic activity generated by tourism. Another benefit!

Working in tandem with the regulatory requirements of the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and Migratory Bird Act, these expanded, healthy ecosystems can provide significant benefit to human health and wellbeing.

The hiker may be disappointed when the area around Thumb Butte is closed so peregrine falcons can nest in peace, but for the bird-watcher it’s an opportunity that can be worth a trip from out of state, and nearby homeowners benefit from better control of rodent populations as well.

Ecosystems are complex, and the services they provide ripple though our community in subtle ways, furnishing value that’s easier to see than quantify, but far cheaper to maintain than restore.

Chuck Budinger is an occasional contributor to 5enses.

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