New Currency for Conservation: How Do You Protect the Services Nature Provides While Still Encouraging Economic Growth?

Article excerpt

Despite all our technological advances, humans are ultimately sustained by the marvelous workings of nature. The conservation movement has been founded on the struggle to manage industrial progress without destroying the systems that have allowed the human population to prosper.

The past 100 years have seen some progress in this struggle for balance. As a society in general, Americans are more aware of the benefits of protecting the environment and of the harm we can do to the natural world.

Maintaining the services provided by these functioning ecosystems is key to maintaining our own well-being. The question is how: How can we better protect the services provided by nature's ecosystems while encouraging economic growth to sustain many of our social systems?

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A diverse group of interests met in Washington, DC, this past spring to discuss these questions and the potential role of ecosystem markets in addressing them. The meeting, A New Currency for Conservation, was sponsored by AMERICAN FORESTS, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and the U.S. Forest Service. Other participants included representatives from The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, commercial forest managers, private land owners, academia, and others interested in identifying ways to conserve and restore priority landscapes.

Conservation is an investment and strategic conservation requires prioritizing landscapes where the greatest return will be realized. By establishing a system where the benefits of functioning ecosystems are tallied alongside land development, landowners will have more options for managing and enhancing the conservation value of their land. Participants at the DC workshop identified some venues for collaboration and debated the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches to establishing a system for ecosystem services markets and payments.

Other questions arose from the discussion: What role should federal and state governments play? What strategies should be used to encourage landowners, commodity producers, and environmentalists to form alliances? How can the cost and complexity of initiating a payment system be lowered?

How should standards and monitoring systems be developed?

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Ecosystem services markets may be an effective way to add value and maintain the services provided by private land. As urban areas grow, the value of surrounding private farm and forest land is perceived to be less than if that same land was converted to a more developed use.

Census projections put the U.S. population at almost 138 million by 2050, a growth rate that will trigger development despite the fact that while population is increasing, the average household size is decreasing. This translates to more houses, more land needed to build houses, and more resources needed to build houses.

The National Resource Inventory indicates that between 1992 and 2001 nearly 21 million acres of forest, cropland, and other open space was converted to more developed uses. By 2050, total forestland in the United States is projected to decrease by 3 percent--a total of 23 million acres--while agricultural land is projected to decline by 4 percent--43 million acres, according to the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station.

As these undeveloped landscapes become more fragmented, society loses both the sense of open space and the ecosystem services originally provided by these lands.

Another problem: Despite diminishing forestland, the number of forest landowners is on the rise. This fragmentation is detrimental to wildlife and could lead to incremental losses in forest cover as new access roads and houses are constructed. Family forest landowners now own 42 percent of the nation's forestland, a figure that promises to strain the resources of federal and state agencies that help landowners manage their land. …