Value Beyond Markets. Where are the innovative examples that incorporate true value of ecosystem services into decisions?

When USDA established the Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets we had hoped to incorporate into our mission the value of ecosystem services to people. However, as the laser focus on markets grew, OEM shifted to a singular emphasis on markets. The shift came at the expense of fostering a broader understanding of ecosystem service values.  Too often these are not fully incorporated into key decisions, from appraisals to damage assessments to land use planning; decisions with little direct relevance to markets.

The US Forest Service’s new Planning Rule incorporates ecosystem service values into the long-term planning of national forests, an explicit inclusion that reflects the continued evolution of the multiple-use paradigm.  Integrating an ecosystem services framework into the Planning Rule signals that the Agency is grappling with and striving towards institutionalizing the way nature’s benefits to society are accounted for in decisions.

The Big Marsh Ecosystem Services Project on Crescent Ranger District in the Deschutes National Forest is a great example of progressive land managers asking different questions, striving to identify the many ecosystem services this watershed provides, and understand how effective planning can protect these valued services in the long term. Unfortunately, such examples are few and critics are many. Challenges to the new Planning Rule are inevitable. But shouldn’t we encourage and support these innovative approaches when we see them? To critique is easy; to build something new takes courage. How can we help?

Author bio: 
Prior to retiring from USDA, Sally Collins served as the first Director of the USDA OEM. Collins has spent more than 25 years in natural resource management, working at the “field level” as a forest manager for 20 years prior to coming to Washington DC. Her last field assignment was Forest Supervisor of the 1.6 Million acre Deschutes National Forest. She served most recently as Associate Chief for the U.S. Forest Service. Collins currently works with Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) to help the largest forested countries of the world establish secure tenure arrangements and laws for their forested estates. For 6 years, she has served (and continues to serve) as Co-Chair of Megaflorestais, an organization established to informally connect the top forest leaders in the world. This article was written in collaboration with Pete Caligiuri, intern with OEM in 2009, currently Forest Ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in Bend, OR.


Jasper Kenter

Great questions. I am

Great questions. I am currently working on similar issues around values and decisions in the UK and Europe, within the UK's Valuing Nature Network -

Bob Deal

Excellent comment, Sally.  

Excellent comment, Sally.   There are emerging markets and payment programs that are helping with the conservation of ecosystem services.  However, these markets are best suited for private lands with well-defined private property rights.  Ecosystem services markets on public lands is problematic at best and may be inappropriate for a variety of reasons.  The use of markets and payment programs may not be the best incentive for private lands either, as these markets do not adequate value the borad suite of goods and services provided from well functioning ecosystems.  We need to develop a new framework for ecosystem services that can be applied on both private and public lands.,  The Forest Service is using an ecosystem services framework for projects on the Deschutes and Willamette NF.  You mentioned the Marsh project, but on the Deschutes they are also using an ecosystem services framework for the Drink project that integrates and optimizes clean drinking water (water source for Bend, OR), reducing fire risk, and spotted owl habitat.  On the Willamette NF, the Sweet Home District is developing an All Lands approach for management of public and private lands focusing on wood products, watershed restoration and recreation.  Central to all of these projects are efforts that use an ecosystem services framework that applies to both public and private lands.  The ultimate success of these efforts is to apply an ecosystem services framework that values the services provided from public and private lands. 


Les Kaufman (Boston

Les Kaufman (Boston University) and his academic colleagues are conducting a project to model ecosystem services and natural capital in the Gulf of Maine.  It is hard to get funding for such research, since it is not tied into current management approaches (sector management for marine fisheries by the New England Fishery Management Council).  The NEFMC is considering ecosystem approaches to fisheries management which could provide a basis for a pilot test that might include consideration of ecosystem services and natural capital (beyond harvesting living marine resources).  There are Protected Resources (like North Atlantic Right Whales) and Natural Trust Resources (seabirds; marine biodiversity; benthic biota in the sediments; etc.) that are dealt with under separate management or regulatory schemes.  There are multiple state/federal agencies involved in managing ocean acivities/protection with poor coordination amongst these entities.

The ocean lacks a property rights regime and there are multiple users with conflicting interests (in addition to the public which is supposed to benefit from conservation and recreational opportunities).  President Obama proposed a National Ocean Policy (NOP) which was designed to balance ocean uses and conservation of wild places, wild things.  This is a work in progress.  The New England Ocean Action Netowork (NEOAN) was created  to support the NOP and its implementation by the Northeast Regional Ocean Council (NROC).  The NOP Strategic Action Plans (SAPs) draw on recommendations from the U.S. and Pew Ocean Commissions.  NROC is a planning and coordination group with no management or regulatory authority (which is reserved for the appropriate federal/state agencies).  It remains to be seen whether the NOP endeavor will be effective in implementing an ecosystem approach to management (EbM is one of SAPs) amongst its membership (state and federal bureaucrats).


Without changes in our management schemes and incentives, EbM will not become a reality.  Since some constituents view EbM as an example of "ocean zoning" which is innimical to traditional (fishing) or new (wind farms) uses, the NOP faces an uphill struggle for public acceptance and legislative approval.  I don't know whether attaching financial values to ecosystem services and natural capital will improve the management of the these public resources in the ocean commons, but I feel that the NOP is worth a try (since traditional management approaches have failed).


Morgan Robertson

This is a concise iteration

This is a concise iteration of a very old question... The problem with this framing is that "value" itself is always understood to be a single, transcendental thing that market prices capture imperfectly.  This is not the case -- or if it were, we should all be Platonists.  Do we really think there's some substance out there called "value" that we perceive imperfectly?  Is it like flubber, ooblick, phlogiston or gravity? (oops, sorry there theoretical physicists!)  The time in which we posited inscrutible "essences" in order to explain things we didn't understand is for the most part over -- gravity is one of the last holdouts.  This, indeed, is the point of the Baconian tradition in science.

The second problem is that for the most part, even if there were a non-market essential value, people tend to elide immediately back into talking about dollars.  Thus we get discussions about "greening national accounts" or providing inputs into a Cost-Benefit Analysis -- neither of which necessarily involves market exchange -- as the main framework for discussing "non-market values".

Let me go waaaaay outside the box for a second and riff on a talk on an entirely unrelated topic by my friend Martin Foys, a medievalist at Drew University and designer of the Digital Mappaemundi environment for annotating documents (like maps) online.  He came to the University of Kentucky last Friday and talked about how most people approach the digitization of medieval maps as a process of rectifying "inaccurate" hand-drawn maps onto an "accurate" modern graticule defined by the grid of latitude and longitude.  Sure, he says, this can be done.  But it is in a sense perverse, because it reduces the richness and complexity of the medieval map into a matter of an error term relative to a modern understanding of "location" that is assumed to be so correct that challenging it indicates some kind of mental deficiency.

Martin argued that we can still digitize the information on these maps without violating their own sense of location and perspective -- that is, without stretching and bending them to fit onto a modern grid.  The kind of "inaccuracies" present in a Ptolemaic map (to take a classical example) are themselves indicative of a different logic of locating one's self in the world, and as Martin said many of the medieval maps are basically cognitive maps.

By the same token, the question of how to value nature could be taken as one of how to rectify the awkwardly idiosyncratic and sloppy world of nature onto the coordinates of the money form.  And this assumption underlies both the discussion of how to value nature in markets AND how to value it "beyond" markets but in dollars.  What would it look like to be descriptive rather than to rectify relative to a money standard?  So yes, we could look at the "Mons Ardens" drawn on medieval maps and say "well, it's too big and not quite in the right place, and uses totally nonstandard symbology".  And then we could try to express information about it in coordinates.  What does that lose?

We can also look at a forest and say "well, there a lot of unknowns about nutrient processing and biodiversity here".  And then we could try to express information about it in dollars.  What does that lose?  What it gains is clear: calculability.

Sure, as Sally says, "the critique is easy".   But Martin's example goes beyond the critique by developing a web-based system for taking data while not imposing an inappropriate grid. What would it look like to try to use this approach to getting information about nature without forcing that information into a form that may or may not be appropriate?  This approach is less "calculable", sure, but in allowing incompatible formats to live together and inform discussion you open up a wider debate. 

Sally asked for examples of ES calculation and I gave an example about rectifying medieval maps.  So, perhaps not so helpful!  But I submit that the problem is not the multiplicity of Values, and the lack of any transcendental value that is not social.  The problem is that we want to calculate values and come up with a number.  Martin shows us that there are ways to move forward without doing so.


Wetlandia -- a blog about ecosystem services and other things.