By Jewell Cozort, COSA Park Naturalist
“These things [species] count, whether or not there is anybody to do the counting” – Holmes Rolston III
Ecosystem Services are the goods and services provided by ecosystems that benefit, sustain, and support the well-being of people. An ecosystem includes all of the living things in a particular area including plants, animals, organisms, and people all interacting with each other and with the elements of the nonliving environment. Ecosystems differ vastly in size from the temporary saturation of a dry creek bed to the entire ocean.
The concept of ecosystem services developed from the theory of “Tragedy of the Commons” first introduced by William Forster Lloyd in 1833 and later revived and further developed by Garrett Hardin in 1968. It refers to an open-access resource being depleted or spoiled because each user acts in accordance with their self-interest. Over-fishing is one example.
Over time ecosystem services have become a frequent topic in the discussion of sustainability and have been used to advocate for the protection of natural resources. In the late 1990s, scientists and policymakers realized the need to create a comprehensive report on the status of the world’s ecosystems. In 2005 the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was published, which outlined four broad categories of ecological services:
- PROVISIONING SERVICES: food, water, wood, fuel, fiber, pharmaceuticals, and material for industrial products.
- REGULATING SERVICES: nature stores and purifies water, regulates temperatures, prevents floods, and decomposes waste.
- CULTURAL SERVICES: nature contains landscapes of aesthetic beauty we appreciate and sites for education.
- SUPPORTING SERVICES: in support of 1, 2, and 3, for example, oxygen is generated through photosynthesis. Another example is the water cycle. After a rainstorm, water is collected in forests and retained in soils and leaves; it is enriched with elements such as iron and calcium, and then it flows out to the ocean through rivers.
Ecosystem services can be divided into those which:
a. provide a direct benefit including provisioning and cultural services
b. provide an indirect benefit such as the regulating and supporting services.
Some services can be measured by their direct cost. For example, an apple which is food and a provisioning ecosystem service costs approximately $1.29/lb and the water bill may cost $40.00/month. An entrance fee to a national park or the price you pay to take a trip to the Grand Canyon is a measure of the value of a cultural service. However, aesthetic beauty and the sense of place one receives from cultural services can be harder to evaluate. Indirect benefits are particularly difficult to estimate which often leads to those services being grossly undervalued. Furthermore, an indirect benefit such as decomposition of waste or nutrient cycling is not traded in formal markets. When the supply or condition changes it is not reflected in a market price and few people are conscious of the role natural ecosystems play in generating goods.
Ecosystem services existed long before man and are basic fundamentals of life. They are easily taken for granted and often so large in scale that it’s hard to imagine humans can disrupt them. When we do, the damage is not easily or quickly reversed. Ecosystem services are inherently hard to quantify; putting a price on nature is not easy. Society often doesn’t see the value of an ecosystem service until it stops.
There are several methods to estimate the monetary value of an ecosystem service:
- MARKET PRICE: Estimates a value for ecosystem products or services that are bought and sold in commercial markets.
- TRAVEL COST: How much are people willing to pay to travel to a destination for recreational purposes?
- CONTINGENT VALUATION: How much are you willing to pay for an environmental service?
- DAMAGE COST/COST AVOIDANCE/REPLACEMENT COST/SUBSTITUTE COST: How much would it cost to replicate what the ecosystem service does for us “free”?
AN INTERESTING CASE STUDY
Ecuador asked the world to pay $3.6 billion dollars to not drill for oil in Yasuni National Park preserving a pristine rainforest. Donors could only come up with $13 million. Ecuador had to abandon the plan and began drilling in 2017.
AN OVERALL VALUE OF WORLDWIDE ECOSYSTEM SERVICES
A group of environmental economists and ecologists led by Robert Costanza worked to publish “The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital” in 1997. They estimated all ecosystem services provided by the entire biosphere were worth a minimum of $33 trillion/year. An update to the value was provided in 2011 which totaled $125 trillion/year. The most valuable marine and terrestrial biomes are the coral reef and wetlands with values estimated at $352,249/hectare/year and $140,174/hectare/year, respectively.
AN OVERALL VALUE OF A SPECIES OR INDIVIDUAL
Some attempt to place a value on a single species or an individual animal. One example is the vulture. Researchers estimate the value of a single vulture at $11,000 just for its cleaning services of consuming dead animal carcasses, but when other factors like health care costs are considered they are worth much more. Other bird species serve to distribute seeds, pollinate plants, provide insect control, and add beauty and sound to our natural areas. To read more about the value of birds visit: Analysis: The Economic Importance of Birds. Insect pollinators are believed to add $29 billion to the U.S. farm economy. Without pollinators, humans or some other technique would have to be developed to pollinate crops manually, which already takes place in pear orchards in China due to a declining bee population.
LOCAL ECOSYSTEM SERVICES AND THEIR PROTECTION
Closer to home here in San Antonio ecosystem services are all around us. For example, fresh water is supplied by one of the most important ecosystem services the Earth could provide, an artesian aquifer, called the Edwards Aquifer. The economic value of the Edwards Aquifer has not been estimated to my knowledge, however, reports exist which discuss the importance of the aquifer to our economy as a whole. Finally, here’s a personal favorite: the largest maternal colony of Mexican Free Tailed bats in the world, is located in Bexar County, Texas in the Bracken Cave. Bats from the colony provide insect pest control that has been estimated to save South Texan cotton farmers $740,000 annually in pesticide costs while simultaneously reducing pesticide use. Visitors come to witness the spectacular emergence of bats from the cave, adding to tourism by providing a cultural ecosystem service and sense of place. These are just a few examples.
What’s important is that many citizens and environmental groups within San Antonio have worked to protect these precious resources. Citizens have consistently voted to fund the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program which purchases land and conservation easements for sensitive properties over the Edwards Aquifer (148,689 acres so far). When the bats of Bracken Cave were threatened by plans for nearby housing development, conservation groups and local leaders had the good sense to fight to protect it.
Ecosystem services benefit, sustain, and support the well-being of people in fascinating and beautiful ways. Researchers have devised several methods to evaluate their worth. Ecosystem services are more valuable than any dollar amount we feebly attempt to calculate for them. Nevertheless, a monetary value is sometimes the only way to highlight their importance.
To read about Ecological Services and Phil Hardberger Park see Returning to its Roots: The restoration of Grassland Savanna.
For material for children see Ecological Services.