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Ecosystem Services


Nicole Balloffet, Washington Office, State and Private Forestry;
Robert Deal, Pacific Northwest Research Station;
Sarah Hines, Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry and Northern Research Station;
Beth Larry, Washington Office Research and Development;
Nikola Smith, Pacific Northwest Region, National Forest System and State & Private Forestry


Climate change, coupled with other stressors, is affecting the ability of many landscapes to continue providing the quality and quantity of ecosystem services demanded by the public.

Ecosystem services are commonly defined as the benefits people obtain from nature. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a United Nations report describing the condition and trends of the world's ecosystems, categorizes ecosystem services as:

Provisioning Services such as food, clean water, fuel, timber, and other goods;
Regulating Services such as climate, water, and disease regulation as well as pollination;
Supporting Services such as soil formation and nutrient cycling; and
Cultural Services such as educational, aesthetic, and cultural heritage values, recreation, and tourism.

Forests and grasslands provide a wide range of ecosystem services. In addition to providing food, fuel and fiber, forests clean the air, filter water supplies, control floods and erosion, sustain biodiversity and genetic resources, and provide opportunities for recreation, education, and cultural enrichment. Sequestering (or releasing) carbon is a form of climate regulation, which is another important ecosystem service provided by forests and grasslands; specifics of climate regulation depend upon ecosystem structure, composition, and management.

Ecosystem services may be local, regional, or global in scale. For example, the provision of clean water is most often a regional service, most accessible to those within a watershed's boundaries. Climate regulation can be local or global. By removing and releasing carbon dioxide and other gases, ecosystems regulate the global climate, but land-use change can affect local micro-climates by influencing variables such as temperature and precipitation.

In 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that large-scale ecosystem change had reached a tipping point, significantly impacting the ability of many of the world's ecosystems to provide critical ecosystem services to human society. Drivers of ecosystem change are an interrelated set of challenges, including land-use change and degradation, biodiversity loss, nutrient loading, invasive species, and climate change.

Climate change is a significant driver of ecosystem change and the loss of services, primarily because climate change is a global phenomenon with far-reaching impacts that is expected to become more severe in coming decades. Climate change will alter the world's forest and grassland ecosystems in ways that will affect their ability to deliver the critical ecosystem services that support human health and well-being (1). In anticipation of wide-scale ecosystem change and the potential loss or change in the supply or distribution of ecosystem services, land owners and managers can focus on strengthening forest and grassland resiliency and adaptive capacity so these landscapes might continue to provide life-supporting benefits into the future (2).

Expected Changes

As climate change intensifies, scientific research has provided "established but incomplete evidence that changes being made in ecosystems [which may be partially driven by climate change] are increasing the likelihood of nonlinear changes in ecosystems (including accelerating, abrupt, and potentially irreversible changes)" (3). Recent research suggests that the majority of ecosystem services will be negatively impacted as temperature increases; while a 2°C (3.6° F) rise may benefit some ecosystem service values slightly, a 4.5° C (8.1°F) increase will be very disruptive to almost all ecosystem service values (4). As the climate regulation capacity of many ecosystems deteriorates and/or experiences abrupt and non-linear changes, plant and animal populations will experience negative impacts at local and regional scales. These impacts may include all of the climate change effects already predicted or chronicled - changes in the timing and distribution of water (e.g. droughts, floods, snowpack availability); increases in insects, invasive species, and disease; habitat and biodiversity loss; and species range shifts. In addition, ecosystem services degradation often leads to declines in human well-being. This is especially true in agrarian/rural communities and developing nations, where declines in ecosystem services can have a rapid, direct impact on incomes and standards of living, exacerbating poverty and increasing inequality (5, 6).

In many places, climate change impacts are coupled with other ecological drivers, such as land-use change, and scientific research is important in helping us to isolate variables and understand implications. For example, in 2009, the nation’s forests sequestered approximately 235 million tons of carbon, an amount equivalent to roughly 16% of US annual carbon dioxide emissions (or approximately 13% of US annual greenhouse gas emissions) (7). However, these figures are the result of many different drivers, only some of which are climate related: on one hand, many former agricultural lands are reverting back to forests, helping to increase overall sequestration; on the other hand, insect outbreaks, extreme weather and other forest health issues, exacerbated by climate change, compromise the sequestration rate and capacity of affected forests.

Crucial Questions / Options for Management

Options for stemming the degradation of ecosystem services in the United States and creating conditions to enhance or sustainably manage their use and production vary across the landscape and may partially depend on land ownership. An ecosystem services perspective may help land agencies frame management with a focus on ecological functions and processes and the public benefits that result. Using this approach may help managers protect and sustain the delivery of ecosystem services and create a resilient landscape in response to -- and in anticipation of -- climate change. Private landowners that restore or enhance ecosystem services may be able to benefit from new financing mechanisms, such as payment for ecosystem services (PES) incentive programs and emerging environmental markets.

Managing for change - an ecosystem services approach. An ecosystem services approach, one that considers all of the benefits that people receive from nature, is beginning to shape an alternative way of thinking about forest management in an era of change. The 2007-2012 Forest Service Strategic Plan states that "the National Forest System (NFS) delivers multiple ecosystem services and can serve as a natural laboratory for informing scientific knowledge and policy" (8). The proposed Forest Service Planning Rule includes enhancement of ecosystem services in the Agency’s management goals (9). In a 2010 address to the Society of American Foresters, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell articulated a shift in forest management that emphasizes an integrated approach to stewardship of ecosystem services and ecological processes:

"Where once we tended to compartmentalize, managing for a particular good or service-timber here, forage there, recreation over here, urban forest over there-today we tend to focus more on restoring a whole range of goods and services across entire landscapes. We do that by restoring the functions and processes characteristic of healthy, resilient forest ecosystems-ecosystems capable of delivering clean air and water, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, and all the other benefits that Americans want and need."

A few case study examples can help illustrate how land management is evolving to incorporate an ecosystem service approach. The Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region is partnering with Denver Water, a municipal water utility, to reforest areas damaged by wildfire in order to decrease sedimentation and erosion, which severely compromise water quality, and reduce the risk of future wildfire in watersheds critical to the city’s water supplies and infrastructure. The Forest Service and Denver Water are sharing an investment of $33 million over a 5-year period (2010-2015). Management treatments and reforestation activities will improve water quality, therefore providing benefits for both society (Denver Water’s customers) and fish and wildlife. Improvements in forest health will also make forests more resilient and adaptive to the impacts of a changing climate.

In the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Region, the Deschutes and Willamette National Forests are exploring how an ecosystem service approach can serve evolving forest management needs and priorities. Forest staff are experimenting with how ecosystem service outcomes can help frame proposed projects and articulate the rationale for management decision-making (10). While the Forest Service's reporting systems tend to focus on outputs (acres treated to reduce wildfire risk, etc.) , the agency and our partners are also interested in new ways of expressing holistic outcomes for ecosystem services. Emphasizing forest management from an ecosystem services perspective also has the potential to strengthen relationships with the public by expressing management objectives in terms of these beneficial outcomes. Collaboratively managing mutually-valued services can sustain resources over time (10, 11).

New markets and incentives. National Forests do not currently engage in emerging markets and market-based payments for ecosystem services, but these opportunities can potentially play a role in ecosystem restoration and protection on private and non-federal land. Markets provide a means for land owners to be financially compensated for specific voluntary restoration activities that improve ecosystem services; This includes management activities that generate ecosystem services - such as management that enhances carbon sequestration and or restoration activities that lead to improvements in water quality and watershed health, streams and wetlands, and fish and wildlife habitat. Those that pay for the provision of ecosystem services, in the form of tradable environmental credits, are most often entities that are mitigating their activities in order to comply with state and federal environmental regulations. Forest owners that increase carbon sequestration on their land, for example, may generate carbon "offsets" that can be sold to greenhouse gas emitters or to carbon-conscious consumers aiming to reduce their carbon footprint through a voluntary marketplace. Landowners that set aside and manage land for species habitat and protection can establish a "conservation bank" and sell endangered species or habitat credits to land developers and other entities that must comply with the Endangered Species Act. Organizations, municipalities, and individuals with an interest in improving the delivery of an ecosystem service might also willingly pay for conservation or restoration activities either for philanthropic or identity reasons or because they’ve found that investments in ecosystem protection are a more cost-effective alternative to building or improving traditional infrastructure designed to meet the same societal goals. Well-designed markets and market-based payments for ecosystem services can provide an economic incentive for private landowners to own and sustainably manage forestland and to be rewarded for providing critical, life supporting services for the benefit of society. (12, 13).

Balloffet, N; Deal, R; Hines, Sarah; Larry, B; Smith, N. 2012. Ecosystem Services and Climate Change. (February 4, 2012). U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Climate Change Resource Center.

Barbier, E. B.; Heal, G. M. 2006. Valuing Ecosystem Services. The Economists' Voice: Vol. 3 : Iss. 3, Article 2.

Bowes, M.D.; Krutilla, J.V. 1989. Multiple-use management: the economics of public forestlands. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future. 357 p.

Boyd, J.; Banzhaf, S. 2006. What are ecosystem services? The need for standardized environmental accounting units. Discussion Pap. RFF-DP-06-02. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future. 26 p.

Carroll, N.; Fox, J.; Bayon, R., eds. 2007. Conservation and biodiversity banking: a guide to setting up and running biodiversity credit trading systems. London: Earthscan Publications. 318p.

Costanza, R.; d’Arge, R.; de Groot, R.; Farber, S.; Grasso, M.; Hannon, B.; Naeem, S.; Limburg, K.; Paruelo, J.; O'Neill, R.V.; Raskin, R.; Sutton, P.; van den Belt, M. 1997. The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature. 387:253-260.

Daily, G.C., ed. 1997. Nature’s services: societal dependence on natural ecosystems. Washington, DC: Island Press. 392 p.

Deal, R.L.; Raymond, C.; Peterson, D.L.; Glick, C. 2010. Ecosystem services and climate change: Understanding the differences and identifying opportunities for forest carbon. In: Integrated management of carbon sequestration and biomass utilization opportunities in changing climate: Proceedings of the 2009 national silviculture workshop. RMRS-P-61. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station: 9-25.

Esposito, V.; Phillips, S.; Boumans, R.; Moulert, A.; and Boggs, J. 2010. Climate Change and Ecosystem Services: The contribution of and impacts on Federal Public Lands in the United States. In: Watson, A.; Murrieta-Saldivar, J.; McBride, B., comps. Science and stewardship to protect and sustain wilderness values: Ninth World Wilderness Congress symposium; November 6-13, 2009; Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. Proceedings RMRS-P-64. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. p. 155-164.

Fox, J.; Nino-Murcia, A. 2005. Status of species conservation banking in the United States. [pdf] Conservation Biology. 19(4): 996-1007.

Kremen, C. 2005. Managing ecosystem services: what do we need to know about their ecology? Ecology Letters 8: 468-479.

Kline, J.D.; Mazzotta, M.J.; Patterson, T.M. 2009. Toward a rational exuberance for ecosystem services markets. Journal of Forestry 107: 204-212.

Kroeger, T.; Casey, F. 2007. An assessment of market-based approaches to providing ecosystem services on agricultural lands. Ecological Economics. 64(2): 321-332.

LaRocco, G. L.; Deal, R. L. 2011. Giving credit where credit is due: Increasing landowner compensation for ecosystem services. PNW-GTR-842. Portland, OR: USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 33 p.

Maleki, S. 2008. Counting all that matters: recognizing the value of ecosystem services. Science Update 16. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 12 p.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2003. Ecosystems and human well-being: a framework for assessment. Washington DC: Island Press. 212 p.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005.Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC.

CCSP, 2008: The effects of climate change on agriculture, land resources, water resources, and biodiversity in the United States. Synthesis and Assessment Product 4.3. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC., USA, 362 pp.

Mooney, H.A.; Ehrlich, P.R. 1997. Ecosystem services: a fragmentary history. In: Daily, G.C., ed. 1997. Nature's services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 392 pp

Newcome, J.; Provins, A.; Johns, H.; Ozdemiroglu,E.; Ghazoul,J.; Burgess, D.; Turner, K. 2005. The Economic, Social, and Ecological Value of Ecosystem Services: A Literature Review. Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, London.

Patterson, T.M.; Coelho, D.L. 2009. Ecosystem services: foundations, opportunities, and challenges for the forest products sector. Forest Ecology and Management. 257: 1637-1646.

Vedeld, P.; Angelsen, A.; Sjaastad, E.; Kobugabe-Berg, G. 2004. Counting on the Environment: Forest Incomes and the Rural Poor. Environment Department Paper No. 98. World Bank, Washington, D.C.

Collins, S. 2007 (7 May). Ecosystem services: a new perspective on forestry. Speech. National Silviculture Workshop. Ketchikan, AK.

USDA Forest Service - Ecosystem Services

Climate Change, Wilderness, Human Relations
RMRS scientists at the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute have been cooperating with scientists in other circumpolar north countries to better understand the forces that protect and threaten human relationships with wilderness in the Arctic. Most recently, working under a resolution passed by tribal leadership of the Qikiktagrugmiut (native Inupiaq) of Kotzebue, Alaska, a science team led by Alan Watson of the Leopold Institute identified a combination of threats that are changing Inupiaq relationships with the Western Arctic Parklands. Native Inupiaq believe that wilderness contributes to their identity, maintaining a traditional way of life, contributes to survival of individuals and families, provides opportunities for personal growth, expression of humility, and maintenance of mental and physical health, as well as expression of independence associated with self-sufficiency. These are values not specified in our Wilderness Act, but received by these people through wilderness protection. They believe these values are threatened most by global warming and globalization as well as outside pressures imposed by tourists and some federal agency management actions. More research has been proposed to better understand the role of federal land managers in protecting these relationships and working with native Inupiaq to anticipate future changes.
Contact: Linda Joyce, Curt Flather

Forest Economics and Policy
Shifting climate patterns contribute to changing disturbance regimes in southern forests (insect outbreaks, fire) and, in turn, affect the economic costs of these disturbances. Climate change may also play a role in the societal values placed on forest resources. This research unit explores many of the complex relationships that exist between changing forests conditions, human communities, and economic processes.
Contact: David Wear

Mid-Atlantic Forests and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed
Forest landscapes are changing as a consequence of climate and environmental change. These changes affect people and the forest ecosystems they depend on for clean water, clean air, forest products, and recreation. How can we best manage our forest resources to sustain this array of ecosystem services under increasing environmental stress and a changing climate? This research is leading to the development of effective strategies to adapt to these long-term changes.
Contact: Yude Pan

Social and Economic Analysis of the Effects of Climatic Change
Research conducted by the Land Use and Land Cover Dynamics team.
Contact: Ralph Alig

The Southern Forest Futures Project
SRS researchers are among the experts working on the Southern Forest Futures Project. The goal of the project is to forecast possible forest conditions 50 years into the future, and the implications for sustainability. Climate change is among the major forces that will influence conditions in 2060.
Contact: David Wear, John Greis

  1. IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R.K.; Reisinger, A.(eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 104 pp.
  2. Millar, C.; Stephenson, N.L.; Stephens, S.L. 2007. Climate Change and Forests of the Future: Managing in the Face of Uncertainty. Ecological Applications 17(8): 2145-2151.
  3. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis.
    Island Press, Washington, DC.
  4. Esposito, V.; Phillips, S.; Boumans, R.; Moulert, A.; and Boggs, J. 2010. Climate Change and Ecosystem Services: The contribution of and impacts on Federal Public Lands in the United States. In: Watson, A.; Murrieta-Saldivar, J.; McBride, B., comps. Science and stewardship to protect and sustain wilderness values: Ninth World Wilderness Congress symposium; November 6-13, 2009; Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. Proceedings RMRS-P-64. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. p. 155-164.
  5. Vedeld, P.; Angelsen, A.; Sjaastad, E.; Kobugabe-Berg, G. 2004. Counting on the Environment: Forest Incomes and the Rural Poor. Environment Department Paper No. 98. World Bank, Washington, D.C.
  6. Newcome, J.; Provins, A.; Johns, H.; Ozdemiroglu,E.; Ghazoul,J.; Burgess, D.; Turner, K. 2005. The Economic, Social, and Ecological Value of Ecosystem Services: A Literature Review. Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, London.
  7. US EPA Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2009. April, 2011. USEPA #430-R-11-005.
  8. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service [USDA FS] 2007. USDA Forest Service Strategic Plan FY 2007-2012. United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Washington DC.
  9. "U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: National Forest System Land Management Planning Notice of Proposed rulemaking: request for comment." 76 Federal Register 30 (14 February 2011), pp. 8480-8528.
  10. Smith, N.; Deal, R.; Kline, J.; Blahna, D.; Patterson, T.; Spies, T.; Bennett, K. 2011. Ecosystem services as a framework for forest stewardship: Deschutes National Forest overview. PNW-GTR-852. Portland, OR: USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 46 p.
  11. Patterson, T.; Coelho, D. 2008. Missing feedback in payments for ecosystem services: A systems perspective. In: Chapman, R.L., ed. Creating sustainability within our midst: challenges for the 21st century. New York: Pace University Press: 61-72.
  12. Heal, G.M. 2000. Nature and the Marketplace: Capturing the value of ecosystem services. Washington, DC: Island Press. 203 p.
  13. Collins, S.; Larry, E. 2007. Caring for our natural assets: an ecosystems services perspective. In: Deal, R.L., ed. Integrated restoration of forested ecosystems to achieve multi-resource benefits: proceedings of the 2007 National Silviculture Workshop. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-733. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Pacific Northwest Research Station: 1-11.