What is the monetary value of a supply of clean water? Or the value of clean air or having places available to hike and fish?
For decades we have taken these resources for granted, or at least we have not put a monetary value on their benefits. That’s changing. Participants from 30 nations met this week at the ACES: A Community on Ecosystem Services; Linking Science, Practice and Decision Making conference to talk about just how we can value these benefits and include that in our decision-making and planning. As the conference kicked off, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tidwell talked about the need to quantify the benefits of public lands, building consensus and support for a multi-generational outlook, moving away from short term objectives and toward “sustaining the health and diversity of our forests and grasslands.”
Participants included a number of other federal officials, including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, USDA Undersecretary Robert Bonnie, and Jay Jensen of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).
In her keynote address, Secretary Jewell spoke about the importance American ecosystems for the services they provide, highlighting three things:
Jensen, CEQ’s Associate Director for Land and Water Ecosystems, and a former USDA Deputy Undersecretary, talked about how ecosystem services are considered by Federal policy makers. What’s needed, he said, are local opinion leaders to help educate the public why it is important to consider and value ecosystem services in environmental decision-making.
Undersecretary Bonnie highlighted how the quantification and consideration of ecosystem services is changing the way USDA agencies carry out their conservation missions. He highlighted recent USDA successes in supporting ecosystem markets efforts for water quality and greenhouse gases. Bonnie also noted USDA’s development of tools, such as COMET-Farm, that can help land managers understand how their actions may impact ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration or nutrient uptake.
Dr. Ann Bartuska, Deputy Under Secretary at USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics said that the challenge now is understanding what services are provided by public and private lands, valuing those services in the market, and providing economic certainty to build support for long term policy objectives.
Ensuring that there are markets and economic certainty for owners of private lands is equally important. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Jason Weller shared with participants how his agency provides the tools to encourage ranchers and farmers to improve the environment by limiting runoff, planting cover crops and providing technical assistance. Outcomes from those efforts can be measured and valued in a marketplace. While NRCS doesn’t administer markets, through programs like Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG), it provides funding and technical support help entities develop environmental markets for water quality, carbon, and wildlife habitat. For example, just last month USDA announced that a CIG grant helped initiate a partnership that is improving the environment, creating a market for carbon credits generated on private lands. Chevrolet, a division of General Motors, recently purchased almost 40,000 carbon dioxide reduction tons generated on working ranch grasslands in the Prairie Pothole region of North Dakota.
Sharing successes and hearing from local leaders will be critical to expanding potential markets. Under Secretary Bonnie said that we can create demand by showing producers how “real, measurable environmental benefits” can also improve their bottom line. “We need to ramp up demand,” said Bonnie. We’ve made tremendous progress on forest conservation measures, but we need every tool on the table as we deal with climate change.” USDA is very committed to the concept of environmental markets: Markets that work “for the environment but also for land owners and private foresters.”