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Western Landscapes

Ecosystem Services


Blue Mesa

Blue Mesa (Miles Hemstrom)

The diverse forests, rangelands, and other ecosystems found throughout western landscapes provide numerous benefits to people.  The benefits people receive from nature, known as ecosystem services, include the purification of air and water, the regulation of water flow, the pollination of crops, and climate stabilization, among many others. One study estimated the value of ecosystem services around the world to be over $33 trillion annually (Costanza et al. 1997). A US Forest Service assessment of ecosystem services related to the provision of water from National Forest System Lands valued these services at a minimum of $3.7 billion per year (Sedell et al. 2000). Despite the growing recognition of the value of ecosystem services provided by western landscapes, these services largely exist outside of existing economic structures, which limits the incentive for management actions that promote their continued provision.


Researchers and policy makers are working on ways to integrate the value of ecosystem services into current economic structures so that land managers and private landowners have incentive to manage lands in ways that continue to provide these services. One approach, known as Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES), links beneficiaries of ecosystem services with the lands that supply them. In PES programs, beneficiaries of a particular ecosystem service pay landowners for managing their property in a way that maintains or enhances the provision of that service. For example, through programs designed to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, some ranchers in western states have generated and sold carbon credits by altering grazing practices so that more carbon is stored in the soil of rangelands than under normal management plans (see link to carbon ranching case studies below). Similar opportunities also exist for forest managers across the west to generate carbon credits through “carbon forestry” programs. Although PES is simple in concept, the implementation of effective PES programs faces challenges including determining how different management practices result in changes in the provision of particular ecosystem services, convincing beneficiaries to pay for services that they have received for free in the past, and appropriately pricing payments. These challenges, among many others, are the focus of ongoing research in western landscapes.

Authored by Drew Bennett (2012)

Carbon Sequestration Case Studies:





Relevant Links:

US Forest Service website on Ecosystem Services

Costanza, R, R d'Arge, R De Groot, S Farber, M Grasso, B Hannon, K Limburg, S Naeem, R V O'Neill, and J Paruelo. 1997. The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 387 (6630): 253-260

Sedell, J., Sharpe, M., Dravnieks Apple, D.D., Copenhagen, M. & Furniss, M. 2000. Water and the Forest Service. FS-660. United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington, DC