Valuing Ecosystem Services

James Salzman, Valuing Ecosystem Services, 24 Ecology L. Q. 887 (1997).

Beneath the Arizona desert sun on September 26, 1991, amid reporters
and flashing cameras, eight men and women entered a huge
glass-enclosed structure and sealed shut the outer door. Their 3.15
acre miniature world, called Biosphere II, was designed to re-create
the conditions of the earth (modestly named Biosphere I). Built at a
cost of over $200 million, Biosphere II boasted a self-sustaining environment
complete with rain forest, ocean, marsh, savanna, and desert
habitats. The eight “Bionauts” intended to remain inside for two
years. Within sixteen months, however, oxygen levels had plummeted
thirty-three percent, nitrous oxide levels had increased 160-fold, ants
and vines had overrun the vegetation, and nineteen of the twenty-five
vertebrate species and all the pollinators had gone extinct. Eden did
not last long.1

What went wrong? With a multi-million dollar budget, the designers
of Biosphere II had sought to re-create the level of basic services
that support life itself-services such as purification of air and
water, pest control, renewal of soil fertility, climate regulation, pollination of crops and vegetation, and waste detoxification and decomposition.
Together, these are known as “ecosystem services,” taken
for granted yet absolutely essential to our existence, as the inhabitants
of Biosphere II ruefully learned. 2 Created by the interactions of living
organisms with their environment, ecosystem services provide both
the conditions and processes that sustain human life. Despite their
obvious importance to our well-being, recognition of ecosystem services
and the roles they play rarely enters policy debates or public

The general ignorance of ecosystem services is partly the result of
modern society’s dissociation between computers, cars and clothing
on the one hand and biodiversity, nutrient cycling, and pollination on
the other. It is perhaps not surprising that many children, when asked
where milk comes from will reply without hesitation, “from the grocery
store.”‘3 The primary reason that ecosystem services are taken
for granted, however, is that they are free. We explicitly value and
place dollar figures on “ecosystem goods” such as timber and fish.
Yet the services underpinning these goods generally have no market
value-not because they are worthless, but rather because there is no
market to capture and express their value directly.

Although awareness of ecosystem services dates back to Plato,
only recently have ecologists and economists begun systematically examining the contribution of ecosystem services to social welfare. An
important synthesis, entitled Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence
on Natural Ecosystems, has just been written for the general public.
Edited by Stanford biologist Gretchen Daily, the book presents one of
the first rigorous attempts to identify the range of ecosystem services
and to value objectively the services in dollars. The New York Times
has hailed the book as “the pioneering efforts of some practical ecologists
who are eager to make common cause with economists.”‘4 The
book’s findings also provide important insights for environmental law.
As the discussions at the Ecology Law Quarterly symposium reprinted
in this issue and numerous law review articles clearly demonstrate,
ecosystem management has become a familiar part of the
environmental law landscape. State and federal agencies do understand
its general importance. 5

Read FUll article at Ecology Law Quarterly


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