Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

For Peats Sake: COMMON GROUND: Ecosystem Services Link People to Nature

By Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

No matter what you believe about climate change – whether it is happening or not – whether it is anthropogenetically caused or not – scientific studies have shown that sea levels are rising 60% faster than either the 3rd or 4th Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports predicted (Rahmstorf, 2012). One only has to watch the news on a fairly consistent basis to understand that extreme weather events have been getting more extreme and are occurring more frequently. Hurricanes, drought, wildfires, floods – all are indicative of changes in the timing and amount of precipitation. Scientists have been struggling to understand the complexities of the natural systems, but our ability to precisely measure, analyze, and report on what is happening on a global, national, regional or local scale has been hampered by the rapidity of changing weather patterns. And we are seeing first hand exactly how vulnerable we are. This has resulted in a new direction in federal planning called the “no regrets” approach.

The “no regrets” approach includes “actions by households, communities, and local/national/international institutions that can be justified from economic, and social, and environmental perspectives whether natural hazard events or climate change (or other hazards) take place or not.” (Siegel, 2011) You will often hear this referred to as “resiliency planning.” But taking this type of approach requires an ability to equitably and comprehensively evaluate benefits and costs associated with any kind of decision (including maintaining the status quo) to ensure that economic, social and environment benefits and costs are equally accounted. The most promising methodology available to develop this type of comprehensive benefit-cost analysis is called “ecosystem service valuation.”

Ecosystem services, also referred to as “natural capital,” are the goods and services provided by the natural functions of nature which contribute to human well-being (Costanza, 2011). Historically, the majority of those goods and services have not been commoditized and therefore they have not been accounted for in the market system as a cost of production nor have we been able to monetarily quantify the value of their loss or their benefits to production or to society. Since most policy and development decisions are based on economic benefit-cost analysis, the value of wetland services (as non-commodities) has been absent from policy and development discussions and therefore, wetlands have often been degraded or destroyed.

Recently, concerns about the impacts of severe weather events and loss of biodiversity have heightened the interest in the ecosystem services provided by wetlands such as flood attenuation, water pollution filtration, wildlife habitat, biodiversity and carbon sequestration (Perrings, 2010). Yet time after time, community discussions at workshops, meetings and conferences on stormwater mitigation, floodplain management, climate change preparedness et al neglect to include ecosystem service valuation in the conversation. Wetland functions are typically viewed as important in regard to natural resource management (e.g. providing habitat), however, few communities have highlighted them as a strategy for resiliency planning through natural infrastructure solutions.

Several case studies have highlighted the cost-savings of natural vs manmade infrastructure, including the Staten Island Bluebelt project where stormwater is controlled using existing natural drainage systems, e.g., streams, ponds, and wetlands. An initial benefit-cost study found that the project would save more than $30 million over a conventional sewer-line approach. The Bluebelt “now includes about 400 acres of freshwater wetland and riparian stream habitat and almost 11 miles of stream corridor…[and]… it has successfully removed the scourge of regular flooding from southeastern Staten Island, while saving the City $300 million in costs of constructing storm water sewers.” (Appleton, 2012)

The use of ecosystem service valuation has lagged however, due to limitations of current scientific knowledge and general imprecision in both underlying data and modeling assumptions. Although several federal and state agencies (e.g. Bureau of Land Management, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geological Service, state Department of Environments and Environmental Protection Agencies), non-profit organizations and private companies have begun to explore the use of ecosystem service valuation and develop software tools, results have often generated a good deal of controversy and debate. A common language and methodology(s) is needed in order for scientists, economists and policy makers to communicate, measure results, and compare case studies. Fortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released its “Final Ecosystem Goods and Services Classification System” (FEGS-CS) in August of 2013 in order to provide a standardized and comprehensive listing of ecosystem goods and services as a solid foundation and framework for discussion nationally and internationally (Landers, 2013).

If a tree falls in a forest, and nobody is there, does it make a sound? I suppose it depends on if you are a tree, or a forest critter or any other type of forest flora or fauna. Those of us in the wetland field can relate to the falling tree in so many ways. When I go for a hike in the woods, I talk to the rocks and trees and critters all the time. Is my voice silent because no other humans are around? I don’t think so. Humans are inextricably connected to nature on levels we have yet to comprehend. But I can tell you that the natural world is talking to us right now. It is telling us that we need to change our direction, to live more sustainably, and [FOR PEAT’S SAKE!] we need to consume less and share more. And it’s telling us that it can help, if we’ll only listen and learn. But I suppose that requires a common language – thankfully the EPA has begun to develop some common ground.

Additional Information:

National Ecosystems Goods and Services Classification System (NEGSCS)

Final Ecosystem Goods and Services Classification System (FEGS-CS)

The Staten Island Bluebelt: A Study in Sustainable Water Management

Ecosystem Valuation


Appleton, A. (2012). The Staten Island Bluebelt: A Study in Sustainable Water Management. Retrieved September 9, 2013, from The Cooper Union:

Costanza, R., Kubiszewski, I., Ervin, D., Bluffstone, R., Boyd, J., Brown, D., Chang, H., Dujon, V., Granek, E., Polasky, S., Shandas, V., & Yeakley, A. (2011). Valuing Ecological Systems and Services. F1000 Biology Reports, 3:14.

Landers, DH., & Nahlik, A.M. (2013). Final Ecosystem Goods and Services Classification System (FEGS-CS). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Perrings, C. (2010). Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services, and Climate Change: The Economic Problem. Washington, D.C. : The World Bank.

Rahmstorf, S., Foster, G., Cazenave, A. (2012). Comparing Climate Projections to Observations Up to 2011. Retrieved from IOP Science: Environmental Research Letters:

Siegel, P.B., & Jorgensen, S. (2011). No-Regrets Approach to Increased Resilience and Climate Change Justice: Toward a Risk-Adjusted Social Protection Floor. Social Protection for Social Justice. University of Sussex, Brighton, UK: Institute for Development Studies.

This entry was posted in climate change, ecosystem services, restoration, sea level rise and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *