Ecosystem Services - EnviroAtlas
What are ecosystem services, and why are they important?
- Ecosystem goods and services, often shortened to ecosystem services (ES), are the benefits that humans receive from nature. These benefits underpin almost every aspect of human well-being, including our food and water, security, health, and economy.
- Many of the decisions we make, from how to develop community infrastructure, to managing the land surrounding our communities, impact the provision of ES.
- We are not always conscious of the links between our surrounding environment and our well-being, and thus we may not always take the true value of ecosystems into account in our decision-making processes.
- Considering the true value of ES in our policies and decision-making could help us better manage our resources in a way that would benefit us economically, environmentally, and socially.
- Learn more about how ES are classified, measured, and valued.
EnviroAtlas Ecosystem Services Benefit Categories
EnviroAtlas uses seven broad benefit categories to organize its information and data on ecosystem services. Use the tabs on the right to learn about the provision of each of these services, stressors and impacts, as well as their linkages to human health and well-being.
- Clean Air
- Clean and Plentiful Water
- Natural Hazard Mitigation
- Climate Stabilization
- Recreation, Culture, and Aesthetics
- Food, Fuel, and Materials
- Biodiversity Conservation
Ecosystems produce clean air
- The natural production and maintenance of clean air is important for overall human health and well-being.
- The earth around us naturally provides clean air that is produced from a series of complex interactions between the land and atmosphere. Forests, for example, absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.
- To help produce clean air, natural resources such as wetlands, trees, and soil, filter many pollutants from our air. Some of these pollutants include carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), particulate matter (PM), and nitrogen oxides (NOx).
- The ability of an ecosystemecosystemAll living things and nonliving things in an area, as well as the interactions between them. to filter pollutants from the air varies by region, topography, season/climate, ecosystem type, ecosystem fragmentation or connectivity, and the species composition of that system.
- Local weather and topography affect how air pollutants may disperse, and certain types of trees, such as conifers and deciduous broadleaf species, are particularly efficient at pollutant removal.
Air quality stressors and drivers of change
- Multiple factors detract from clean air, including natural factors and human activities.
- Natural factors can include wildfires, extreme weather events, and volcanic emissions.
- Air pollution created by human activities, such as certain land management practices, crop fertilization, and vehicular and industrial emissions, are also drivers of change in regards to air quality.
- Land management affects traffic patterns and the amount of green space in an area, which can contribute to the presence or lack of vegetation that removes certain air pollutants. Land management can also affect vehicle miles traveled (VMTs), increasing vehicular emissions of air pollutants such as NOx and CO2.
- Dust particles from agricultural practices, as well as SO2 emissions from electricity generation, are also major air pollution sources.
- Mobile sources are by far the largest emitters of four of the six criteria air pollutants that are regulated by the U.S. EPA under the National Ambient Air Quality StandardsNational Ambient Air Quality StandardsNational Ambient Air Quality Standards are federal standards for the minimum ambient air quality needed to protect public health and welfare. They have been set for six criteria pollutants: sulfur dioxide (S02), particulates (PM/PM10), nitrogen oxides (NOX), carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), volatile organic compounds (VOC), and lead (Pb).1. Chemical reactions in the atmosphere can produce secondary pollutants such as ground level ozone.
- Fertilizing crops with nitrogen-rich materials like animal manure can also affect air quality and climate stabilization, by returning potent greenhouse gases (GHGsGHGsGases in the Earth's atmosphere that produce the greenhouse effect. Changes in the concentration of certain greenhouse gases, due to human activity such as fossil fuel burning, increase the risk of global climate change. Greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, halogenated fluorocarbons, ozone, perfluorinated carbons, and hydro fluorocarbons.) such as methane, NOx, CO2, and gaseous ammonia back to the atmosphere.
Health impacts and benefits
- Even at low concentrations, air pollutants such as ozone and PM can trigger a variety of health problems such as asthma attacks, coughing, and lung irritation, as well as increase susceptibility to longer term illnesses such as cardiovascular diseases2.
- The ability of natural resources to remove air pollutants from the atmosphere reduces their negative effects and improves public health.
- Airborne fine particles (PM2.5) are the main cause of reduced visibility (haze) in parts of the United States, impacting the quality of outdoor experiences in U.S. national parks and wilderness areas. The natural removal of these particles from the atmosphere can improve visibility and increase our ability to enjoy these outdoor spaces.
- Cleaner air means fewer pollutants that can redeposit onto land and water bodies, resulting in improved water quality, and lower concentrations of GHGs that trap heat and reduce climate stability.
- For more information on the health benefits of clean air, explore the Clean Air portion of the Eco-Health Relationship Browser.
- EPA. National Emission Inventory. 2008. Emission Source Sectors. Accessed January 2013.
- NOAA. Air Quality. Accessed January 2013.
Clean and Plentiful Water
Ecosystems provide water resources
- Available clean water is critical to the health of people, the environment, and the economy. EcosystemEcosystemAll living things and nonliving things in an area, as well as the interactions between them.s such as rivers, lakes, and streams provide roughly 80 percent of usable freshwater, while the remaining water comes mostly from underground wells1.
- Vegetated land cover helps regulate the flow of water through a watershedwatershedThe area of land from which rainfall (and/or snow melt) drains into a stream or other water body. Watersheds are also sometimes referred to as drainage basins or drainage areas. Ridges of higher ground generally form the boundaries between watersheds. At these boundaries, rain falling on one side flows toward the low point of one watershed, while rain falling on the other side of the boundary flows toward the low point of a different watershed. by intercepting, absorbing, and slowly releasing water. This "sponge" effect can reduce adverse impacts such as stream bank erosion, sediment transport, and the frequency and severity of floods and drought.
- Natural resources such as wetlands, stream buffers, and vegetated land cover can also naturally filter out pollutants such as metals, pesticides, sediment, and overabundant nutrients that may affect water quality.
- The efficiency of ecosystems to filter pollutants depends on many biological and physical characteristics, including species composition, soil types, slope, and climate characteristics.
- Natural land cover helps maintain the flow and usability of water resources so that they remain clean and abundant for sustainable use by current and future generations.
Stressors to water quality and quantity
- Multiple factors can affect water quality and quantity, including land management, point-source pollution, hydrologic alteration, and invasive speciesinvasive speciesA type of plant, animal, or other organism that does not naturally live in a certain area but has been introduced there, often by people. An invasive species can spread quickly, especially if it has no natural predators in its new home. An invasive species can hurt native species, disrupt ecosystems, and create problems for people (for example, weeds and insects that damage crops)..
- Point-source pollution enters water directly from factories, power plants, and other stationary sources. Non-point source (NPS) pollution is pollution that runs into water from agricultural lands, impervious surfaces, or other land uses.
- In the 2000 National Water Quality Inventory, agricultural NPS pollution was reported to be the leading source of water quality impairment in surveyed lakes and rivers2. Forestry practices also significantly affect water quality by increasing the amount of sediment that gets deposited into local water bodies.
- Pollution reduces the overall usability of water, and in some cases, such as with the presence of algal blooms, can transform entire ecosystems.
- Altering the hydrologic regimehydrologic regimeThe system that describes the occurrence, distribution, and circulation of water on the earth and between the atmosphere. through activities such as dam construction interrupts the overall functionality of water systems by slowing water flow, trapping sediments, changing temperature, and promoting the presence of non-native and invasive species3.
- Invasive species may further undermine natural communities by crowding out native species in riparianriparianReferring to the areas adjacent to rivers and streams with a differing density, diversity, and productivity of plant and animal species relative to nearby uplands. areas, changing local species composition, and affecting structural integrity as well as the ecosystem's ability to remove pollutants from the environment.
- Various land uses, such as those that require large tracts of impervious surfacesimpervious surfacesSurfaces such as paved streets, parking lots, and building rooftops that prevent precipitation from soaking into the ground. Different surfaces can have different degrees of imperviousness. (e.g., parking lots), also affect water quality and quantity. Impervious surfaces prevent rainwater from entering the soil, forcing water to flow along the land until it finds a place to drain, which impedes groundwater recharge. These surfaces also increase the quantity, speed, and temperature of water runoff and add to water pollutant loads that can reduce water quality downstream.
Health impacts and benefits
- Clean and plentiful water resources are needed for every aspect of life. Humans require safe, potable water for drinking, food preparation, and simple everyday uses.
- Though most U.S. municipal water resources are typically treated before consumption, maintaining clean water resources helps minimize the need for and cost of this treatment. For instance, the New York City drinking water supply system is the largest unfiltered water supply in the U.S., which is made possible through strict watershed protection measures. This protected natural system has saved the state am estimated $8 - $10 billion in avoided water treatment costs4.
- Municipal water sources are typically treated only for those contaminants that we are aware of, thus making natural filtration by ecosystems beneficial in adding a level of protection. Contaminated water that is not adequately treated may result in waterborne disease outbreaks or serious health issues as a result of chemical or metal contaminants.
- Abundant water resources are used to grow crops, to water feed animals, and to process much of the food that we consume.
- Water resources are also used to produce power (e.g., thermoelectric, hydroelectric, nuclear) and are essential to the production of most of the material goods that people enjoy.
- Clean and abundant water resources are also needed for plant and animal survival. Wetland-dependent and aquatic species require aquatic habitats all or part of the year. These rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands are also visually pleasing and provide opportunities for people to fish, hunt, and relax.
- The regulating and filtration services provided by natural resources help maintain a clean and plentiful water supply for the entire nation.
- For more information on the health benefits of clean and plentiful water, explore the Clean Water portion of the Eco-Health Relationship Browser.
- US Army Corps of Engineers. 2008. Water Supply: Value to the Nation.EXIT Accessed February 2013.
- Environmental Protection Agency. 2005. Agricultural Nonpoint Source Fact Sheet. Accessed February 2013.
- International Rivers. Environmental Impacts of Dams.EXIT Accessed February 2013.
- New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Facts about the NYC Watershed.EXIT Accessed February 2013.
Natural Hazard Mitigation
Ecosystems help mitigate the effects of natural hazards
- Weather-related natural hazards, such as floods, fires, heat extremes, droughts, and hurricanes can potentially devastate large numbers of people, property, crops, and natural resources.
- Healthy ecosystemecosystemAll living things and nonliving things in an area, as well as the interactions between them.s and good agricultural practices benefit humans in many ways, including helping to mitigate some of the effects of these natural hazards.
- Though fire is an essential part of the natural cycle, it can have significant consequences; forest and rangeland management help ensure a healthy fire cycle while reducing the impacts on human health.
- Vegetated land cover intercepts and absorbs water, retaining it and slowing its movement, helping to reduce flooding and its subsequent effects. Vegetated stream buffers help absorb water along streams and rivers, which also reduces flooding by holding excess water. These buffers are especially important in urban areas where significant amounts of stormwater runoff can inundate streams during precipitation events.
- Coral reefs and coastal marshes offer shoreline protection in coastal regions and help reduce the impacts of storms, including erosion, by acting as a physical barrier and reducing wind and wave energy.
- Vegetative cover is also important for reducing temperatures on micro- and macro-scales. Vegetation helps to shade areas and reduce surface temperatures, mitigating the potential public health effects of extreme heat.
- Maintaining cover crops over soils and limiting tillage helps minimize the impact of drought on crops.
- Without the protection provided by natural resources and ecosystems, the detrimental effects of natural hazards would likely be more catastrophic.
Stressors and drivers of change
- Human activities can significantly impact the natural functioning of ecosystems. In particular, land managment can contribute to natural hazards such as floods and droughts by removing vegetation that helps absorb water and replacing it with impervious surfacesimpervious surfacesSurfaces such as paved streets, parking lots, and building rooftops that prevent precipitation from soaking into the ground. Different surfaces can have different degrees of imperviousness. that increase the quantity and speed of water runoff during precipitation events.
- Land management activities can also result in the conversion or destruction of very useful water regulating habitats, such as wetlands, that are highly effective at helping to control water flow and storm surge.
- The removal of vegetation can contribute to heat hazards because trees can shade and cool areas, reducing local temperatures.
- Altering the hydrologic flow via human activities such as dam construction interrupts the overall functioning of aquatic systems by slowing water flow, trapping sediments, changing temperature, and promoting the presence of non-native and invasive speciesinvasive speciesA type of plant, animal, or other organism that does not naturally live in a certain area but has been introduced there, often by people. An invasive species can spread quickly, especially if it has no natural predators in its new home. An invasive species can hurt native species, disrupt ecosystems, and create problems for people (for example, weeds and insects that damage crops)..1
- Invasive species may further undermine natural communities by crowding out native species in riparian areasriparian areasAreas bordering streams, lakes, rivers, and other watercourses. These areas have high water tables and support plants that require saturated soils during all or part of the year. Riparian areas include both wetland and upland zones., changing local species composition, and affecting the structural integrity of the environment.
- Not only do human activities affect the structure and function of ecosystems, but they also reduce the resiliency of these systems and their ability to cope with natural hazards and a changing climate. Changes in climate are a significant driving force in shifting weather patterns, which can result in increased severity and frequency of extreme weather events that create these natural hazards.
- Agricultural practices and increased development can contribute to a negative feedback loop by causing the removal of tree cover and subsequent effects on climate.
Benefits of natural hazard mitigation
- Though the occurrence of extreme weather events and natural hazards is inevitable, their effects can be at least partially mitigated by the presence of natural resources and intact landscapes.
- In coastal areas, coral reefs and estuaries can limit the damaging effects of storm surges and tidal waves by acting as a physical barrier that reduces the water's height and speed2. Up to 90% of the energy from wind-generated waves is absorbed by coral reefs, which helps protect adjacent ecosystems and human structures3.
- Wetland vegetation such as mangroves and salt marshes can also literally bind the shoreline together and reduce the potential for erosion. By acting as a barrier and mitigating the effects of extreme weather, healthy ecosystems help prevent the loss of properties and crops in vulnerable areas. This protection increases the safety and security of populations that may be affected by natural hazards.
- In areas where natural ecosystems have been compromised, the effects of hazards such as storm surges and floods are worsened. For instance, the effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were exacerbated by the loss of the Mississippi River Delta, development, and the presence of dams - all of which compromised the effectiveness of water regulating natural resources4.
- By reducing the effects of flooding, natural resources help to reduce the negative health effects, such as physical injury and psychological distress, associated with these events.
- Trees and other vegetation also aid in mitigating the effects of heat-related hazards by locally cooling areas and reducing indoor temperatures through shading. This may decrease hospital admissions and mortality due to heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses.
- This vegetation also acts a sponge by intercepting, absorbing and slowing releasing water, replenishing groundwater resources and guarding against drought.
- For more information on the health benefits of hazard mitigation, explore the Water Hazard Mitigation portion of the Eco-Health Relationship Browser.
NOAA. How do coral reefs protect lives and property? Accessed June 2018.
Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. 2011. Wetland ecosystem services: Shoreline stabilization and storm protection.Exit Accessed March 2013.
Ecosystems help maintain a stable climate
- The earth's climate is constantly changing on geologic time scales ranging from centuries to thousands of millennia (e.g., periods of wide-spread volcanism, cooling or ice ages, etc.).
- Most species, including humans, have evolved or adapted to survive and flourish under such slowly changing patterns of temperature and precipitation averages, variability, and extremes.
- Recently, these patterns have been changing more rapidly in response to increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasesgreenhouse gasesGases in the Earth's atmosphere that produce the greenhouse effect. Changes in the concentration of certain greenhouse gases, due to human activity such as fossil fuel burning, increase the risk of global climate change. Greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, halogenated fluorocarbons, ozone, perfluorinated carbons, and hydro fluorocarbons. (GHGGHGAny gas that absorbs infrared radiation in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases include, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, chlorofluorocarbons, hydrochlorofluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride.) in the atmosphere.
- GHGs trap heat in the atmosphere in the same way that heat is trapped in a horticultural greenhouse.
- Healthy, properly functioning ecosystemecosystemAll living things and nonliving things in an area, as well as the interactions between them.s, and natural resources such as soils, oceans and vegetation, can reduce or stabilize this rate of change through the long-term capture and storage of carbon. This process is known as carbon sequestrationcarbon sequestrationThe uptake and storage of carbon. Trees and plants, for example, absorb carbon dioxide, release the oxygen and store the carbon. Fossil fuels were at one time biomass and continue to store the carbon until burned. See carbon sinks..
- Sequestering atmospheric CO2 in natural resources called sinks reduces the amount of CO2 that is available to heat the atmosphere and potentially increase climate instability.
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the world's oceans have taken up 500 gigatons (Gt) of atmospheric CO2 out of 1300 Gt CO2 total human-caused emissions in the past 200 years1.
- Along with soils and oceans, both below-ground (e.g., roots) and above-ground (e.g., leaves) vegetation store carbon (average of 53.5 tons of carbon per hectare for U.S. forests)2.
- On a smaller scale, vegetation can mitigate climate variability and extremes by creating local micro-climates through shading and increased humidity, producing a more favorable environment for humans and wildlife.
- By storing carbon and modifying local climate conditions, our natural resources provide a means to stabilize rapidly changing climate conditions.
Stressors and drivers of change
- Many human activities such as transportation, energy production, and industrial processes emit GHGs into the atmosphere, which contribute to changing climate conditions.
- Increases in the atmospheric concentrations of both long-lived (e.g., CO2, methane, nitrous oxide) and short-lived (e.g., ozone) GHGs have resulted in rapid changes in patterns of climatological mean conditions and variability.
- In addition to GHG emissions, land use patterns can be important drivers of climatic changes. Urbanization and increases in urban sprawlsprawlLand development that is built away from urban areas and existing town centers, creating large areas of relatively low-density residential and commercial development. development can increase vehicle miles traveled and GHG emissions from transportation, accounting for approximately 27 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions in 20103. Urbanization also affects climate on local and larger scales by contributing to the Urban Heat Island effectUrban Heat Island effectThe urban heat island effect is a measurable increase in ambient urban air temperatures resulting primarily from the replacement of vegetation with buildings, roads, and other heat-absorbing infrastructure. The heat island effect can result in significant temperature differences between rural and urban areas..
- Increasing demands on food and biofuel in response to growing populations have led to increased agricultural land use and more intensive land management. Agricultural activities, such as fertilizer application and tillage, can result in the emission of nitrous oxide, and livestock produce large amounts of methane, causing agriculture to account for approximately 7 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions4 .
- The removal of trees or forests eliminates the carbon sequestration provided by those trees.
- However, not all land use changes contribute to GHG emissions and climate change. Over the past several decades in the U.S., land use and forestry activities have resulted in more removal of CO2 from the atmosphere than emissions, offsetting roughly 15 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions in 20105.
Health impacts and benefits
- Climate stabilization is important for the safety and security of Earth's species.
- Ecosystem protection, management, and carbon sequestration strategies help slow the current rate of changing climate averages and variability, buffering humans from the negative aspects of such change. This buffer also provides additional time to develop the technology needed to take advantage of the potentially positive aspects of such climatic changes.
- In the near term, for instance, trees and other vegetation can help mitigate heat-related hazards by providing local cooling and reducing indoor temperatures through shading.
- Local temperature reduction may decrease hospital admissions and mortality due to heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses.
- Careful use and management of vegetation can also regulate the flow of water, and in some cases, act as a barrier from physical damage, protecting people from property loss.
- Sea-level change in response to climate warming is a potential threat along the Mid-Atlantic and portions of the Gulf Coast6. Slowing the rate of sea-level rise could help maintain the quality of drinking water supplies by reducing the rate of salt water intrusionsalt water intrusionDisplacement of fresh or ground water by the advance of salt water due to its greater density, usually in coastal and estuarine areas. into aquifers and the upstream movement of salt-wedges in rivers and streams.
- Slowing sea-level rise through carbon sequestration could also provide additional time to move water supply infrastructure and treatment facilities, or to develop alternative treatment technologies.
- In the longer term, increasing the stores of carbon in soil is one way to increase soil fertility and productivity. By slowing the rate of change, plant breeders have the opportunity to develop new commercial crop varieties that can flourish under these new climate patterns.
- Natural plant species have evolved and adapted to a slowly changing climate, but they can be severely challenged by more rapidly changing environmental conditions. Species that are highly adapted to certain local environments may have particular difficulty adapting to such change. However, slowing the rate of changing patterns of averages and variability offers the opportunity for many species in various locations to maintain their current levels of biodiversity through adaptation and migration to different areas, either within or outside their original ranges.
- Encouraging a less rapidly changing climate helps maintain stability in biodiversity, which underpins all services that Earth's ecosystems provide.
- For more information on the health benefits of mitigating heat hazards, explore the Heat Hazard Mitigation portion of the Eco-Health Relationship Browser.
- IPCC. Special report on carbon dioxide capture and storage: CH 6 ExitAccessed March 2013.
- Nowak D J and D E Crane. 2002. Carbon storage and sequestration by urban trees in the USA. Environmental Pollution, 116 (3): p 381-9.
- EPA. GHG emissions: Transportation. Accessed March 2013.
- EPA. GHG emission: Agriculture. Accessed June 2015.
- EPA. GHG emissions: Land use change. Accessed March 2013.
- EPA. Climate change: Indicators. Accessed June 2015.
Recreation, Culture, and Aesthetics
Ecosytems provide areas for recreating and engaging with nature
- People enjoy spending time in outdoor environments such as natural areas, parks, forests, and other green spaces.
- Each year in the U.S., hundreds of millions of people visit protected lands, such as National Parks, National Forests, National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, National Wildlife Refuges, National Wild and Scenic Rivers, and National Historic Sites. In 2012, the National Park system alone had over 282 million recreational visits1.
- Outdoor spaces provide opportunities for recreation, adventure, and physical activity. These spaces are important simply because they are unique places that exist. They are also appreciated for their cultural significance, beauty, educational value, abundance of diverse plants and wildlife, and the sense of place they provide.
- Recreation and tourism associated with outdoor environments can play a huge role in local economies.
- Many groups place high value on historically or culturally important landscapes or on individual species because of their societal significance. Many religions also attach spiritual and religious values to ecosystems or their components2.
Stressors and drivers of change
- There are several human activities that can place stress on the natural areas and local parks where people get recreational and cultural benefits.
- Over-exploitation from extractive uses, such as commercial fishing and game hunting, can remove large numbers of species from marine and terrestrial environments, sometimes reducing their numbers to the brink of extinction3.
- People can also harm natural environments and their inhabitant species through overuse. Outdoor recreation may be a positive, healthful activity for humans, but high numbers of visitors to an area can damage plant life, stress local animal populations, and introduce invasive speciesinvasive speciesA type of plant, animal, or other organism that does not naturally live in a certain area but has been introduced there, often by people. An invasive species can spread quickly, especially if it has no natural predators in its new home. An invasive species can hurt native species, disrupt ecosystems, and create problems for people (for example, weeds and insects that damage crops).. Many natural landscape features, such as coral reefs, may also be degraded as a result of too much recreational use.
- Recreation and tourism often result in increased development, which can compromise ecosystem health.
- Land management and use practices, such as constructing roads to increase access to wilderness areas and building amenities to meet public demand, also affect surrounding ecosystems. Roads contribute to habitat fragmentation, the introduction of invasive species4, and animal deaths as a result of collision5, in addition to detracting from the overall wilderness experience. Competing land uses such as mining or energy development can remove or degrade an area's recreation potential.
- Further development of outdoor recreation areas may also affect the quality of people's interactions with the environment or simply replace the natural areas that people enjoy. For example, although it may be desirable to stay in a house on the edge of a lake, too much development on a lake edge alters the viewshed and can detract from the overall experience.
- Other stressors on recreation and aesthetic experiences include poor air and water quality; haze can reduce visibility in natural areas such as the Grand Canyon6 and poor water quality can reduce aesthetics and potentially preclude some forms of recreation in affected areas. Local urban parks can be affected by over-use, the presence of crime, and the presence of garbage.
Health impacts and benefits
- Various outdoor areas, such as parks, forests, wetlands, and urban green spaces, can have significant cultural value and provide opportunities for people to enjoy nature and recreate in green settings.
- In urban areas, people who live close to green spaces may visit them more frequently. Healthy ecosystems and aesthetically pleasing outdoor environments encourage people to spend more time outdoors, often participating in physical activity.
- Spending time in green environments, especially participating in physical activity while in these environments, can lead to better overall health and wellness by reducing stress and blood pressure, among other benefits.
- Evidence also suggests an increase in self-esteem following green exercise and a greater ability to focus attention. For example, children with ADHD function 10% better after physical activities in green settings, when compared to activities indoors and activities in the built outdoor environment9.
- Although difficult to quantify, feelings of a sense of place and pride in local communities from outdoor green spaces contribute to an area's overall livability.
- Wetlands are important recreation destinations for activities such as birding and have significant historical, scientific, and cultural values7. They also have a wide variety of plant and animal life, which draw people who want to hunt, fish, and recreate in these areas.
- In the U.S., the national forest system receives over 173 million visits per year, where roughly 2/3 of those visits result in people participating in physical activities such as hiking, walking, downhill skiing, fishing or hunting8.
- Usable outdoor areas can also result in economic benefits through the creation of supporting businesses and jobs and increased property values and tax revenue, thus increasing the livability of a neighborhood10.
- For more information on the health benefits of recreating in and engaging with nature, explore the Aesthetics & Engagement with Nature and Recreation & Physical Activity portions of the Eco-Health Relationship Browser.
National Park Service. 2012. Annual Visitor Report: 2012. Accessed March 2013.
Rosser Alison and Mainka, SA. 2002. Overexploitation and Species Extinctions. Conservation Biology, vol 16 (3), p 584 - 6.
Mortensen, David A. et al. 2009. Forest Roads Facilitate the Spread of Invasive Plants. Invasive Plant Science and Management. 2(3): 191 - 99.
Gunther KA, Biel MJ, Robison HL. 1998. Factors Influencing the Frequency of Road-killed Wildlife in Yellowstone National Park. International Conference on Wildlife Ecology and Transportation, Fort Myers, FL.
National Park Service. Grand Canyon National Park View. Accessed March 2013.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1995. America's wetlands: Our vital link between land and water. Office of Water, Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds. EPA843-K-95-001.
Kline JD, RS Rosenberger, EM White. 2011. A national assessment of physical activity in US National Forests. Journal of Forestry 109(6): 343-51.
Faber Taylor A, F Kuo, W Sullivan. 2001. Coping with ADD: The surprising connection to green play settings. Environment and Behavior 33(1): 54-77.
Fleissner, D., Heinzelmann, F. 1996. Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design and Community Policing., in Research in Action. National Institute of Justice.
Food, Fuel, and Materials
Ecosystems provide conditions necessary for food, fuel, and materials
- Humans depend on provisioning services, such as food, fuel, timber, and other materials which are provided by a combination of functioning ecosystemecosystemAll living things and nonliving things in an area, as well as the interactions between them.s, human innovation, and technology.
- Ecosystems provide the conditions necessary for commercial food production as well as for subsistence living.
- The demand for these life-sustaining services increases as the population continues to grow. Between 1960 and 2000, global food production increased by roughly two-and-a half times, wood harvests for pulp and paper production tripled, installed hydropower capacity doubled, and timber production increased by more than half.1
- Productive soils, a favorable climate, and clean and abundant water resources are all essential for growing crops, raising livestock, and for ecosystems to continue to provide the critical provisioning services that humans need.
- Biodiversity underpins these services; without variation in plants and organisms, the multitude of available food crops and game species would not exist. Abundant water resources are also central to the production of energy and most of the material goods that people enjoy.
- Adequate pollinator habitat is also necessary for many types of crops.
Stressors and drivers of change
- Over the past several decades, over-exploitation of resources has been a significant stressor in many parts of the country. In some cases, over-exploitation of a resource to meet one need has damaged the resources available to meet another need. One example is sacrificing important salmon habitat for the sake of timber harvest or crop production.
- Over-exploitation can lead to soil erosion which can impact soil productivity.
- Best management practicesBest management practicesThe most effective and practical ways to control pollutants and meet environmental quality goals. BMPs exist for forestry, agriculture, stormwater and many other sectors. (BMP's) have been developed for agriculture, mining, and timber harvest to help reduce the negative impacts to these services. Adherence to BMP's can help minimize the damage to critical natural resources and lead to a more sustainable use of our resources.
- The production of commodities can be affected by many factors. For example, many crops need pollinators for successful production. By protecting or creating vegetated buffer strips, pollinator habitat can be protected. Eliminating pollinator habitats may result in the need to transport them in from other areas. Monoculture crops and timber stands yield high harvests but may be more susceptible to pest infestations, damage the soil, and require the use of more pesticides and fertilizers than mixed crops.
- Increasing populations are driving land use change, resulting in more forested and agricultural lands being converted for residential, commercial, and transportation uses. This development results in the loss of land dedicated to commodity production.
- Climate changeClimate changeClimate change refers to any significant change in measures of climate (such as temperature, precipitation, or wind) lasting for an extended period (decades or longer). Climate change may result from: Natural factors, such as changes in the sun's intensity or slow changes in the earth's orbit around the sun; Natural processes within the climate system (e.g. changes in ocean circulation); Human activities that change the atmosphere's composition (e.g., through burning fossil fuels) and the land surface (e.g., deforestation, reforestation, urbanization, desertification, etc.) is also an important driver of change. Climate change can alter species compositions and may affect our ability to grow specific crops in certain areas. Climatic changes may also make some areas more prone to pest infestations, such as in the western U.S., where a bark beetle infestation has plagued millions of trees. Many scientists believe that drought and warmer winters have been at least partially responsible for the infestation.2
Health impacts and benefits
- Food, fuel, and other materials are critical for food security, energy resources, and a productive economy.
- There are currently over 321 million people in the United States3 who depend on the nation's natural resources for food supply and availability, among other goods. According to the USDA, 85% of American households were food secure in 2011, meaning that they had access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.4
- The U.S. also depends largely on ecosystems for providing sources of energy. For 2011, it was estimated that roughly 35% of the nation's energy came from petroleum, 20% from coal, 25% from natural gas, and less than 10% from biomass and wind energy.5 These renewable and non-renewable energy sources, which are all obtained from natural elements, allow for the lighting, heating and cooling of homes, transportation, the production of the material goods that people enjoy, and the worldwide transport of these goods.
- The U.S. is a leader in goods manufacturing and has the highest gross domestic product worldwide, largely due to the nation's access to a wide range of valuable natural resources.
- Local food production can have unique benefits by providing high quality food, local jobs, a sense of community through farmers markets, and reduced transportation costs and environmental impacts of transporting food.
- Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis.Exit Island Press, Washington, DC. p. 5.
- Bentz, Barbara. 2010. Western U.S. Bark Beetles and Climate Change. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Climate Change Resource Center.
- US Census Bureau. U.S. and World Population Clocks. Accessed June 2015.
- Economic Research Service. 2012. ERS Report Summary: Household Food Security in the United States in 2011.
- US Dept of Energy. 2012. Annual Energy Review 2011.
Ecosystems help maintain and depend on biodiversity
- BiodiversityBiodiversityRefers to the variety and variability among living organisms and the ecological complexes in which they occur. Diversity can be defined as the number of different items and their relative frequencies. For biological diversity, these items are organized at many levels, ranging from complete ecosystems to the biochemical structures that are the molecular basis of heredity. Thus, the term encompasses different ecosystem, species, and genes. is the variety of all forms of life and it is essential to the existence and proper functioning of all ecosystemsecosystemsAll living things and nonliving things in an area, as well as the interactions between them..
- Biodiversity supports habitats for all species by providing many unique environments in which species can exist; these include ecosystems of all types and sizes, rare ecosystems, and corridors between habitats.
- Many scientists believe biodiversity, as it represents all forms of life on earth, provides or supports the core benefits that humans derive from their environment.
- Biodiversity is fundamental for the provision of ecosystem services, which we depend on for food, air, and water security, and multiple other natural benefits.
Stressors and drivers of change
- Many human activities can have a negative effect on biodiversity.
- The growing human population and the land development that comes with population growth can be especially detrimental because land conversion and subsequent loss of habitats can affect the stability or continued existence of species.
- Habitat loss is a challenge for virtually all species, as humans convert natural habitats to other land uses.
- Overexploitation from extractive uses, such as commercial fishing and game hunting, can greatly reduce species numbers, sometimes to the brink of extinction1.
- An extreme decline was observed in U.S. stocks of Atlantic cod following overexploitation and stock depletion.
- The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that in 2008, approximately 32% of fish stocks were overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion2.
- Upsetting the viability of a single species can have far-reaching impacts for the balance of an entire ecosystem.
- People can also harm biodiversity by putting stress on environments and species through overuse. Outdoor recreation may be a positive, healthful activity for humans, but high numbers of visitors to an area can damage plant life, stress local animal populations, and introduce invasive speciesinvasive speciesA type of plant, animal, or other organism that does not naturally live in a certain area but has been introduced there, often by people. An invasive species can spread quickly, especially if it has no natural predators in its new home. An invasive species can hurt native species, disrupt ecosystems, and create problems for people (for example, weeds and insects that damage crops)..
- Invasive species can outcompete or consume native species to the point of extinction. Some invasive species that are found in the U.S., such as kudzu and the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle, can completely alter ecosystems, affecting overall biodiversity.
- All forms of pollution, from chemicals to nutrient loading, can also pose serious threats to aquatic and terrestrial species.
The benefits of conserving biodiversity
- Biodiversity supports food security and sustained livelihoods through overall genetic diversity.
- Genes regulate all biological processes on the planet and increase the ability of organisms to cope with environmental stressors.
- Preserving genetic diversity ensures the continuing existence of a wide-range of crops that may be able to withstand disease, and potentially useful biochemicals such as those used in healthcare. It also means availability of species for pollination and pest control. Losses in genetic diversity will decrease organisms' coping ability and risk losing potentially beneficial biological information3.
- Biodiversity has greatly contributed to modern medicine and advancements in human health research and treatment.
- Many modern pharmaceuticals are derived from plant species, including the anti-tumor agent Taxol from the Pacific yew tree, the anti-malarial artemisinin from sweet wormwood, and the cardiac drug digoxin from the digitalis plant.
- Pharmaceuticals can also be derived from non-plant species, such as the drug ziconotide, which has been highly effective in relieving nerve pain and severe pain in cancer patients and is derived from the venom of predatory cone snails4.
- Without the species that provide these drugs, it is possible that treatments for ailments like malaria, tuberculosis, cancerous tumors, congestive heart failure and multiple other illnesses may never have been discovered.
- As conversion of habitats and subsequent losses in diversity take place, the potential for losing cures for some of the world's most troubling ailments increases.
- In addition to the many medicinal benefits from biodiversity, human health can be positively affected simply by spending time in outdoor environments, which has been linked to increases in life satisfaction and happiness, and decreases in blood pressure, anxiety, and cardiovascular disease symptoms.
- Conserving biodiversity and protecting a wide range of habitats maintains the many benefits that this diversity provides for all species. Highly diverse environments, such as Yellowstone National Park, are prime ecosystems that support many species in addition to being aesthetically beautiful, educational, and interesting recreation sites.
- Biodiversity conservation efforts are essential in maintaining functioning ecosystems, a steady food supply, and the multiple other benefits including aesthetics, recreation, and spiritual purposes to Native American tribal nations5.
- Rosser Alison and Mainka, SA. 2002. Overexploitation and Species Extinctions. Conservation Biology, vol 16 (3), p 584 - 6.
- FAO. 2010. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture: 2010Exit Accessed March 2013.
- Groom M J, Meffe G K, & Carroll, C R. 2006. Principles of Conservation Biology, 3rd ed. Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA: Sinauer Associates.
- Co-operation on Health and Biodiversity. 2010. Biodiversity and Human Health Policy BriefExit. Accessed March 2013.
- United Nations Environment Program. 2005. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Current State and Trends. CH 4: BiodiversityExit. Accessed March 2013.
Ecosystem Markets can help protect ecosystems
One approach to safeguarding ecosystem services is through incentive mechanisms for conservation, including markets. With ecosystem services markets, companies, communities, and other beneficiaries pay landowners and managers to protect, restore, or mitigate for impacts to ecosystems.
USDA Office of Environmental Markets, EPA, and Forest Trends’ Ecosystem Marketplace Exit have partnered to incorporate environmental markets data into EnviroAtlas. The environmental markets data layers show where markets for wetlands and streams, watersheds, forest carbon, and imperiled species/habitats have been implemented by various organizations. The data layers also provide information about the markets and the policies or conditions that have enabled them.
By integrating these data layers with other EnviroAtlas data, the market data can be viewed in the context of ecosystem services. The integration allows users to understand trends, gaps, and opportunities, as well as make inferences about demand and enabling or limiting conditions for environmental markets. Learn more about where to find these data in EnviroAtlas.
Ecosystem Markets Data Available in EnviroAtlas
Ecosystem Markets data layers are available for the nation, showing point and polygon data for ecosystem market initiatives and enabling conditions operating at a variety of scales, from national to local. These data are organized according to the targeted asset – wetlands and streams, watersheds, forest carbon, imperiled species/habitats — or enabling conditions.
- Data are available for markets (i.e., entire region that shares market infrastructure and rules, or a larger program encompassing many smaller projects) and projects (i.e. land areas comprising project sites) addressing ecosystem services protection in the United States.
- Data are also available for enabling conditions, including enabling policy, regulatory drivers, and guidance.
- The data were collected via surveys and desk research conducted by Forest Trends’ Ecosystem Marketplace from 2008 to 2016.
- Additional wetland/stream and imperiled species/habitats data were obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Regulatory In-lieu Fee and Bank Information Tracking System (RIBITS) database in 2015.
- The data were produced by Forest Trends’ Ecosystem Marketplace for EnviroAtlas in order to support public access to and use of information related to environmental markets.
About Ecosystem Markets Asset Types
- Globally, investments in watershed health and services compose the largest category of payments for ecosystem services in terms of annual transaction values.
- Watershed markets and payments invest in naturally water-rich ecosystems, such as wetlands, forests, and healthy river systems.
- Mechanisms for watershed markets range from simple contracts between a buyer and seller to deliver cleaner or more reliable water, to sophisticated markets for trading water quality credits or water rights to restore instream water levels.
- Buyers in these markets are willing to pay to restore or protect healthy landscapes in exchange for benefits like clean water, aquifer recharge, and reduced flooding risk.
- All investment mechanisms originate with a utility, government, business, or other party that assigns value to a watershed service or set of services and agrees to pay providers of that service accordingly.
- For example, a beverage company might be willing to pay local farmers $100,000 per year to reduce pesticide use, when treating polluted water would otherwise cost $150,000 per year. In this scenario, an individual farmer might be willing to limit their pesticide use for $3,000 per year, if this amount covered their costs to switch to other methods or compensated them for foregone income.
- Watershed markets and payments are sometimes used to comply with regulations, such as elements of the Clean Water Act. In other cases, investing in “green infrastructure” may be a voluntary strategy to save money, reward good stewardship, or demonstrate good corporate citizenship.
- Forest carbon offset transactions may be either voluntary or compliance-driven. A voluntary carbon marketplace refers to carbon offsets sales that are purchased with the intent to re-sell or retire offsets to meet “carbon neutral” or other environmental goals, rather than for compliance purposes under a regulated carbon market.
- Voluntary demand for carbon offsets is driven by companies and individuals that take responsibility for offsetting their own Greenhouse Gas emissions, as well as entities that purchase pre-compliance offsets before emissions reductions are required by regulation.
- Purely voluntary buyers may consider corporate social responsibility, ethics, and reputational or supply chain risk when purchasing offsets.
- Voluntary carbon markets co-exist with compliance offset markets, which operate at a significantly larger scale and are driven by mandated caps on GHGs. Compliance carbon markets are marketplaces through which regulated entities obtain and surrender emissions permits (allowances) or offsets to meet predetermined regulatory targets. In the case of cap-and-trade programs, participants – often including both emitters and financial intermediaries – are allowed to trade allowances to make a profit from unused allowances or to meet regulatory requirements.
- Voluntary carbon markets are often smaller than compliance offset markets and more flexible – spinning off innovations in project finance, monitoring, and methodologies that also influence regulatory market mechanisms.
Imperiled Species and Habitats
- Imperiled species and habitats markets are designed to reduce negative impacts on biodiversity. These avoidance and compensation mechanisms finance conservation and restoration projects that deliver environmental benefits comparable to or “above and beyond” any negative impacts being offset. Typically, this mitigation is driven by a policy goal of “no net loss” of species, habitat, and/or cultural and human use values.
- In the United States, the need to be compliant with an existing or anticipated future regulation drives many imperiled species and habitats markets.
- These markets are typically structured around the ‘mitigation hierarchy,’ which establishes that market-based tools should be used only after efforts have been made to (first) avoid damage, (second) minimize impact, and (third) mitigate negative impacts to species and/or habitats.
- The government can set a regulatory limit on allowable negative impacts to a species or habitat and then allow the market to resolve the cost of offsetting impacts above that limit or ‘cap.’
- Biodiversity compensation can also be voluntary rather than regulation-driven. Companies may be motivated to voluntarily mitigate their impact of biodiversity because of corporate social responsibility policies, profit motivations, consumer demand, or in advance of anticipated new regulation (known as “pre-compliance”).
Wetlands and Streams
- Wetland and stream markets are designed to reduce negative impacts on aquatic resources.
- These compensation mechanisms finance conservation and restoration projects that deliver environmental benefits comparable to or ‘above and beyond’ the mitigated adverse impact. In the United States, the need to be compliant with a regulation drives most wetland and stream markets.
- The largest market for wetland conservation in the United States is a national wetland and stream offsets program (called “compensatory mitigation”) driven by the Clean Water Act (§404) and the principle of “no net loss” of wetlands.
- Markets are typically structured around the ‘mitigation hierarchy,’ which establishes that market-based tools should be used only after efforts have been made to (first) avoid damage, (second) minimize impact, and (third) mitigate negative impacts to natural resources.
- Compensatory mitigation ranges from rigorous and measurable offsets to less direct efforts to compensate for impacts through financial donations and land protection
Ecosystem Markets Enabling Conditions
Enabling policies, regulation, and guidance facilitate the development and operation of ecosystem markets by creating the drivers, legal frameworks, or direct funding sources for ecosystem services conservation. Enabling conditions are found at multiple scales, ranging from the watershed scale to state- and national-scale policies.
Learn More about Environmental Markets:
- Forest Trends Association. 2016. Mitigation hierarchy. ExitBusiness and biodiversity offsets program. Accessed March 2016.
- Forest Trends’ Ecosystem Marketplace. 2015. Ecosystem markets and finance: A global primer. Exit Accessed March 2016.
- Salzman, J. 2005. Creating markets for ecosystem services: Notes from the field. ExitNew York University Law Review 80(6): 101–184.
- Forest Trends’ Ecosystem Marketplace. 2014. Gaining depth: State of watershed investment 2014( About PDF) .ExitForest Trends, Washington, D.C.
- Goulder, L.H., and A. Schein. 2013. Carbon taxes vs. cap and trade: A critical review. ExitWorking Paper 19338, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 38 p.
- New Forests. 2014. Conservation assets: Forest carbon and mitigation banking. ExitNew Forests Sector Overview. Accessed March 2016.
- USDA Office of the Chief Economist, Office of Environmental Markets, Accessed October 2016.