Ecosystem Services

Sixty years ago Aldo Leopold posed what was then a rhetorical question: “Do economists know about lupines?” Today, to the surprise and delight of conservationists past and present, the answer is, increasingly, “Yes.”

Whether we live in the city, country, or somewhere in between, we are familiar with the many goods and services that ecosystems provide us. These ecosystem services, however, have traditionally been seen as externalities that lie outside the realm or consideration of financial markets, which has left them undervalued if not completely ignored. That’s beginning to change at an emerging intersection of conservation and economics.

While conservationists have historically taken an interest in protecting ecosystems for their own sake, one of the most persuasive arguments for maintaining the integrity of ecosystems is that they provide essential services. Even if we’ve rarely captured them in our accounting, the value of these resources is hardly inconsequential.

Imagine for a moment: would human society be able to sustain itself without the supporting, provisioning, regulating, and cultural services we draw from the natural world? Could we hope to engineer man-made systems that replicate natural processes like air and water purification, crop pollination, aquifer recharge, fisheries, climate and flood regulation, erosion control, seed dispersal, carbon storage, and soil fertilization and renewal?

Economists and conservationists are now working together to build models that document, estimate, and assess how changes in natural ecosystem services affect not only environmental condition of our environment, but also our ability to continue to obtain these goods and services now and into the future. Placing an economic value on these services can help reveal the connections between actions taken by people (whether individually and collectively) and the impact of our actions on those things upon which we fundamentally depend.

Further Reading


Reed Noss contributed to writing of this overview.

Ecosystem Services Research and Case Studies

  • Wildlife Habitat Benefits Toolkit

    by Mike McQueen
    What's the value of undeveloped land? The toolkit just released by Defenders of Wildlife offers land trusts, land-use planners, wildlife managers, and public policymakers the means for answering one of land conservation's thorniest questions.

    Read More

  • The Economic Benefits of Conserving Land: Mount Agamenticus, Maine

    by Defenders of Wildlife
    The natural systems of Maine's Mount Agamenticus region provide an annual economic value of between $5.3 million to $6.4 million to local communities, according to an analysis by Defenders of Wildlife's Conservation Economics Program.

    Read More

  • Red Wolf Ecotourism in North Carolina

    by Defenders of Wildlife
    First reintroduced to northeastern North Carolina in 1987, about 100 to 120 red wolves now roam in the wild. A 2005 study found that the red wolf and wildlife may increase tourism throughout the rural "Inner" Banks region.

    Read More

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