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September 2, 2010

Balancing ecosystems with economic vitality

  • Decision makers need to know how much stress we can put on ecosystems without jeopardizing our economic prosperity.


    Our communities face increasingly complex challenges balancing basic goals such as economic development and jobs, environmental protection, and infrastructure maintenance and upgrades. At the same time, there is a critical need to pursue our community’s visions for quality of life: leisure, open space, recreation and education.

    The uncertainties and risks posed by increasingly scarce resources — expected to accelerate with climate change — add to this complexity and make planning for the future even more challenging. Even water, our most ubiquitous resource, is in short supply in some regions of the country.

    Ecosystems such as forests, streams, floodplains, wetlands and estuaries serve these communities in the form of clean water and air, food, storm protection, climate regulation, wind and wave renewable energy, recreation, and aesthetic and spiritual inspiration. Looking at these ecosystems as “natural capital” helps to balance management perspectives and ensure these resources are sustained.

    Including ecosystem services in the planning process will lay a basis for responding to change and maintaining our economic vitality and quality of life.

    Take for example the role of forests and wetlands in providing clean water to our cities, farms and the natural environment. These ecosystem services include:

    • Filtering sediment and pollutants from water.

    • Holding soils in place and reducing erosion and sedimentation.

    • Maintaining soil permeability so that rain filters through the soil and recharges groundwater rather than running across the surface and impacting water quality.

    Resilient ecosystems

    Replacing forest and natural vegetation cover with impervious surfaces and filling wetlands and floodplains increases runoff and flooding hazards. These “free” services then must be replaced with expensive stormwater infrastructure and flood protection levees — and society incurs the costs of flood damage.

    Maintaining or restoring the natural capacity of a watershed to provide these ecosystem services can be a much less costly way to meet our clean water, runoff regulation and flood mitigation needs. From a cost perspective, these ecosystems provide additional free services such as carbon sequestration and climate regulation, clean air, fish and wildlife habitat, and opportunities for recreation and aesthetic enjoyment.

    Ecosystems provide more than services, they are resilient because they absorb a certain amount of stress and still function at a healthy level. Knowing how much stress we can put on these systems without jeopardizing our own future and economic prosperity is critical information that our decision makers need today.

    Renowned ecologist Paul Ehrlich has provided the analogy of rivets on a plane wing: Rivets ensure flexibility of the wing and the ability of the aircraft to handle turbulence. The plane may be able to handle the loss of a rivet or two, but how many before the aircraft is unable to fly? Which rivets are the critical rivets? This can also be applied to stressors to our natural systems: Which species, if lost, might trigger collapse of an ecosystem and the loss of the services they supply to our communities?

    The ecosystem approach

    Using an ecosystem services framework and measuring the ecological and economic value of these services will help us evaluate programs, policies and actions to better plan for maintenance and restoration of services in planning our infrastructure, and economic development. Recognizing the multiple benefits that natural systems provide and considering how to maintain and incorporate them into our communities as they grow is a way we can achieve multiple goals simultaneously, adapt to climate change, and maintain the environmental and economic benefits that contribute to quality of life.

    An excellent example of this approach is New York City’s recent solution to failing drinking water quality. Rather than spend an estimated $9 billion on a new water treatment plant, the city used an ecosystem approach to evaluate alternatives and ultimately invested about $1.5 billion in watershed protection and farm management programs in the Catskills watershed. This option provided the city with less expensive clean water and other benefits, including mitigation for greenhouse gases, enhanced wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities and more viable farming communities.

    The city of Napa, Calif., successfully revitalized its economy and downtown area when it chose to address severe flood damage from the Napa River through ecosystem restoration rather than building flood walls and channeling the river through the city. Working cooperatively and focusing on the ecosystem services that the valley’s floodplains, wetlands and riparian areas used to provide, the city and the Corps of Engineers began an innovative program of restoring a living river. Flood hazards have been reduced, and the economically viable downtown is anchored on its riverfront development and a system of parks and natural areas centered on the restored river.

    Finding the benefits

    Government agencies and private industry are taking a closer look at the benefits of maintaining ecosystem services rather than trying to provide them through technological solutions as we face increasing demands on our infrastructure with the growth of our communities. This is possible through the development of new tools to more accurately quantify the direct and indirect benefits provided by ecosystems, allowing communities to better evaluate the tradeoffs between traditional and non-traditional approaches and prioritize their investments.

    Many groups are developing approaches and methodologies for incorporating ecosystem services into planning, such as Business for Social Responsibility, the World Resources Institute, The Nature Conservancy, University of Vermont, Earth Economics and companies such as Parametrix. Approaches range from landscape analysis to identify and map areas where ecosystem services are provided, to methods for measuring and quantifying ecosystem services at a particular site, to methods to assess effects of particular actions on the services provided.

    Applying these methods can give planners and decision makers key information needed to protect or maintain critical ecosystem services, identify where ecosystem services can replace traditional infrastructure, and ensure resiliency of ecosystems for the future.

    The information can also be used to evaluate existing land-use policies and codes to determine if they are likely to impact or enhance ecosystem services. Policies and codes can be updated to encourage resilience of ecosystem services to reduce infrastructure costs or meet regulatory requirements ranging from protection of water quality to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

    In our efforts to prepare for climate change, we can either help enhance or degrade existing services. How we choose to integrate information on ecosystem services into our planning today is critical for sustainability and maintaining the quality of life of our communities in the face of an uncertain future.

    Jan L. Cassin, Ph.D., works for Parametrix as an ecosystem ecologist and wetland scientist experienced in the assessment of ecosystem services, watershed planning, aquatic systems restoration and wetland ecology. She has participated in ecosystem service valuation approaches and watershed planning for a variety of government and private clients.

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