Valuing Nature's Services 

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources


Guest post by EarthShare Member Forest Trends


Picture this scenario: It’s 7 am on a Monday morning in the not-too-distant future. Eyes still half-closed, you turn on the shower. A few drops trickle out – then nothing. Wearily you go to make coffee. You turn on the faucet. No water there either. You run to the store for bottled water, but your heart sinks at the long line that’s formed in front of the store.

For years, you realize, we used water without a thought and now the well has gone dry. We cut down forests for development, timber and agriculture, and now the forests are gone.

With trees and water gone, the services they provided are no longer available: clean water to drink, trees to suck the carbon out of our atmosphere and to provide habitat for myriad species, forest plants that provide us with food, medicine, clothing – among many other dividends.

Services provided by nature – “ecosystem services” – are often hard to quantify and measure. As a result, our economic system has largely failed to value these resources. It’s easy to calculate the value of a forest for how many dining chairs its timber can make; it’s more difficult to put a value on a living forest.

Difficult, but not impossible.

Since its inception in 1999, Forest Trends has sought to determine the economic value of ecosystem services. To make this happen, we bring everyone to the table: businesses, local communities, policymakers, financiers. The organization was founded by representatives from all of these sectors – and the board of Forest Trends reflects these interests.

How can we create capital markets for the services that nature provides? How can we put a price tag on a ton of carbon dioxide absorbed by trees? What financial mechanism will encourage a farmer to modify his agricultural practices to decrease water pollution?

In the search for answers to questions like these, Forest Trends tracks market methods and payment schemes that communities and governments have put in place. How effective is it when downstream users of water pay farmers upstream to change their grazing techniques? Which municipalities facing water shortages have invested in natural solutions like maintaining mangroves (which act as filters) rather than industrial filtration systems? What have they tried, what has worked – and how much did it cost?

Forest Trends is also involved in practical, boots-on-the-ground projects that value ecosystem services. For example, we support the efforts of indigenous communities in Brazil to maintain their forests and receive “carbon credits” which they can trade on international carbon markets – rather than taking a short-term payment from loggers, agriculture, or mining companies for cutting those same trees.

At Forest Trends, we’re integrating the value of nature’s services into our economic system from several angles so that precious resources, such was water and forests, can still be enjoyed by many generations to come.



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