by: Defenders of Wildlife: Kassandra Kelly Posted on: December 12, 2012
Photo: Great Blue Heron in flight over wetland home in Oregon. Steve Hillebrand, courtesy of USFWS.
Editor’s Note: This piece is written from the perspective that monetizing species or wetlands through the creation of species or wetland banks is a solution to declining habitat and biodiversity. This is one way the EPA currently implements its regulation of wetlands. A given success story saw a wastewater company planting trees to cool water released from its treatment plant, rather than paying for expensive cooling towers.
You may have heard about payments for ecosystem services. Whether regulated or voluntary, bundled or stacked, market issuing credits or shares or offsets… any discussion about ecosystem services can get geekified real fast. You may even ask, eyes glazing over and finger hovering over the click button, what’s in this for me?
In a word: payment. Imagine paying land mangers to manage their land in a way that provides benefits to the community. Interested? Read on.
What are ecosystem services?
An ecosystem service is a function the earth naturally provides for society. For example, trees give us oxygen and shade, forests purify our drinking water, and wetlands filter our wastewater. As a society, we value clean air, water, fish and wildlife and natural landscapes. In many instances, we have regulations that constrain activities that are harmful to the environment, like discharging toxic chemicals, destroying endangered species habitat and catching fish beyond a legal limit. Although these regulations are effective at limiting harmful acts, they are not always helpful in establishing positive or restorative actions. Enter the marketplace.
Let’s purchase a Great Blue Heron’s services.
An ecosystem marketplace provides incentives that create a win-win situation for both landowners and the environment. What’s the incentive? Money. An ecosystem market arises when people are voluntarily willing to pay to establish or enhance a particular natural function. For example, a developer wanting to build a new subdivision might voluntarily choose to meet air quality requirements by paying a nearby farmer to plant trees to absorb the greenhouse gases to be emitted over the lifespan of the project.
How do we put a price on nature?
Of course we can’t really buy a heron, nor attach a value to a lovely view. And payment for ecosystem services is not a new concept. Just look at the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, which helps landowners and farmers reduce soil erosion, improve water quality and quantity, support wildlife habitat, and reduce damages caused by floods and other natural disasters by paying farmers to preserve natural areas on their property. The Environmental Protection Agency wetland mitigation banks, which provide a place where wetlands can be bought and sold, are familiar tools for developers who choose or are forced to mitigate their impact on wetlands. But when it comes to those things that don’t have a price, such as oak woodlands and sagebrush country in Oregon or even the lowly coffin cave mold beetle in Texas, we need to find a way to measure the benefits they provide.
It’s a great idea but does it work?
If you are a landowner who wants to try out these new tools, you can find out by setting goals for restoring natural functions on your land (if they’ve been impacted), and then measuring progress toward those goals. For instance, fencing cows away from a creek and planting trees to shade the water. The result? Cool, healthy water for fish and wildlife, and a naturally functioning ecosystem.
Quant is short for Quantify.
Your inner accountant knows it can’t be that easy and she’s right. Buyers and sellers are a long ways from finding one another. And when they do, the benefits provided by healthy ecosystems need to be quantifiable so that everyone knows what they are getting. Remember your goal? Cool, healthy water. A transparent transaction between buyers and sellers requires a practical way to measure all the complexity in a functioning ecosystem, and a way to state in universal language whether you are progressing toward that goal.
See it in action:
Following are several great examples of work people are already doing on green infrastructure, endangered species banks, and new methods for measuring and quantifying conservation outcomes:
In 2003, Clean Water Services decided not to build multi-million dollar cooling towers for their wastewater treatment plants. They planted trees instead. In order to comply with the Clean Water Act, Oregon utility Clean Water Services worked with a volunteer committee comprised of local landowners, conservationists, nonprofits, and government agencies to enhance natural riparian areas along the Tualatin River so that warmer water released from the wastewater treatment plant would be cooled naturally, at minimal ratepayer cost.
Speciesbanking.com is a global information clearinghouse focusing on biodiversity offsetting, compensation and banking. There are over thirty species banks already at work, where credits are available to those who need to mitigate damage to environmental resources such as gopher tortoise habitat, giant garter snake habitat, and plenty of other endangered species whose habitats can be conserved effectively in other locations.
For further reading visit Marketplace for Nature portal in the Conservation Registry, which features information on projects currently underway; Willamette Partnership for information on quantifying
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