The Association of State Wetland Managers (ASWM) started looking at efforts to develop ecosystem service valuation tools in 2013 by hosting a webinar on Informing Flood Mitigation with Ecosystem Service Valuation: An Introduction to the Ecosystem Valuation Toolkit for the Natural Floodplain Functions Alliance. Then the Association looked in to this trending area of research and practice to find out how these methods might be applied in the context of wetland restoration and protection. After months of research, ASWM released a peer reviewed report on Ecosystem Service Valuation for Wetland Restoration: What It Is, How To Do It and Best Practice Recommendations. We created a webpage about ecosystem services with links to other resources on our website. And we developed a webinar on our findings from the report that we presented as part of our Members Webinar Series as well as at our 2013 State/Tribal/ Federal Coordination Workshop, the 2014 Conference on Ecological & Ecosystem Restoration and the 2015 Society of Wetland Scientists annual conference.
It is a complicated field of study and practice – one that requires not only an understanding of science but economics as well. For many scientists and economists, it’s an uncomfortable relationship. It requires learning new ways of looking at the world and in many ways, learning a new language. Although both fields require the use of statistics and mathematics, one comes primarily from the human world perspective (economics is a social science) and the other comes primarily from the natural world perspective. Ironically, humans do come from and are intrinsically part of the natural world, however, in many ways we have lost our understanding of our connection to nature. This separation sets the stage for very divergent viewpoints on the role of nature and humanity. At the extreme, there are those who perceive humankind as wholly separate from nature and deny our dependence on the natural world. Conversely, there are those who think humankind is nothing but a virus to the natural world and that the earth would be far better off without them – or at least with a much smaller population. Both of these extreme perspectives, in my opinion, continue a negative feedback system in which we shortchange the needs of both humanity and the natural world.
I’ve had some exhilarating conversations with others who are also intrigued and excited by the potential of ecosystem service valuation as a communication tool that can illustrate how integrated the needs of society and the functions of nature really are in order to better inform policy and project selection. For better or worse, most of our nation’s activities are measured by economic output with the Gross Domestic Product. This indicator does not, however, account for the value of public goods such as clean air, clean water, storm surge protection, carbon sequestration and floodwater attenuation. Public goods are defined as being non-excludable (anyone can benefit from them) and non-rivalrous (the use by one individual does not reduce the availability of it for another). Public goods, such as ecosystem services, are not monetarily accounted for in our market system (essentially they are free) and so we have no incentive to protect the resources that provide them. Think of Garrett Hardin’s book the Tragedy of the Commons. Ecosystem service valuation is one way to begin accounting for services provided by our natural resources so we can start managing them more responsibly.
But when you start trying to identify all of the ecosystem services provided by natural resources, it can lead to a bit of a “rabbit hole.” The myriad of ecosystem services provided by resources such as wetlands can be exhaustive. And not all of them are easily transferable into monetary units – nor is it desirable at times to place a dollar value on things such as intrinsic value. And each wetland is unique due to various types of wetlands, diverse levels of function and their placement on the landscape. So a “cookbook” approach certainly won’t work. As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog – it’s a very complicated field of study and practice and at times it makes my head hurt just trying to comprehend it all. So I can only imagine how overwhelming it must be for wetland program managers who have no economic background at all to understand how to utilize these tools. And there are a lot of them available which makes it even more overwhelming.
The good news is that ASWM has committed to hiring an intern for the summer to help us test a select list of available ecosystem service valuation tools, develop a synopsis of each, a comparative matrix and a final report to help wetland program managers figure out which tool(s) best fits their needs and capacity. We are excited to be working with Mark Healy, a student at Southern Illinois University, and his supervisor, Dr. Sylvia Secchi. We are also collaborating with the US EPA Office of Research and Development in Narragansett, Rhode Island, which is working on a similar effort for green infrastructure and a new conceptual mapping tool.
Our goal is to have our project completed by the end of 2015, but it’s certainly a field of study that can and will continue to develop for many years. If you have suggestions for the types of ecosystem services that are of particular interest for your wetland program, please let us know. And if anyone has useable data specific for their wetland/watershed that you would like to share with us for our testing purposes, please let us know about that as well. So for Peat’s Sake, stay tuned – we hope the final product will be used extensively by our members, states and tribes!