What Has Your Ecosystem Done For You Lately?

A Useful But Nebulous Way To Describe The Relationship Between Humans And Nature
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The concept of "ecosystem services" is bound up in assumptions that don't necessarily reflect lived experience.

The condition of the natural world is inextricably bound with the choices humans make. "Built" environments and "wild" areas do not exist distinct from each other; rather, both interact through complex relationships. People consume natural resources and can manage them in ways that nurture their future condition, degrade it, or perhaps a bit of both. These interactions between humans and their surrounding environment have economic, political and other profound consequences.

For at least a few decades, environmental scientists have summed up this idea with the term "ecosystem services." At its simplest, the concept encompasses the benefits that humans derive from nature. Food and water are ecosystem services. So are the health benefits and emotional uplift people get from, say, kayaking on a river. The idea of ecosystem services reaches into a lot of areas of human life — that range makes it useful in understanding a host of environmental issues, but also difficult to convey to people who aren't scientists.

The term started to really catch on in academia during the mid to late 1990s, said Monica Turner, a professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The whole idea can be a bit nebulous, she admits, but it's the crux of much of her work.

Ecosystem services is especially relevant to Yahara 2070, a project that examines the future of the Yahara Watershed in the Madison area. Using scientific data and computer modeling, the project explores what might happen over the next half-century depending on how people in the region manage natural resources like water, air, and farmland. The focus of this research is to better understand how the benefits of nature cannot be passively or carelessly consumed if large numbers of people want to enjoy them over the long run.

"We expect a lot out of our landscapes," Turner said. "No single plot of land gives us everything. So how do we balance the portfolio to give us the whole suite of things that we want, and how do we balance that in the future?"

These questions often lead to tradeoffs for those who rely on resources for their lives and livelihood. One important factor in Yahara 2070 is that if people farm the area too intensely, their actions intensify runoff pollution that degrades water quality. That pits one ecosystem service — the ability to grow food — against others like safe drinking water and recreation in lakes and rivers. The growing prominence of cyanobacteria blooms is one manifestation of that conflict. To strike a balance and let people enjoy all those services, then, requires ongoing informed and nuanced decision-making on the part of policymakers, farmers, businesses, residents and just about everyone else with a stake in the watershed.

"When we think about our children, our grandchildren and we look forward, what we would like to do is make sure that the decisions we make now about our lands and water are consistent with maintaining qualities of life and the benefits we get now long into the future," Turner said.

Taking "ecosystem services" public

The Yahara 2070 project uses narrative and video elements to share its models and findings.One reason for this approach is that the term "ecosystem services" really has not crossed over into public use.

"I think it's the sheer broadness and how it reduces nature to these services — I think that doesn't sit well with people and some people have a problem using it," said Jenny Seifert, who works on Yahara 2070 as an outreach coordinator for UW-Madison's Water Sustainability and Climate Project. She even has tip sheets from public-relations firms that advise against using terms like "ecosystem services" — or even "benefits of nature" — in communication with the general public.

That nebulous aspect of ecosystem services doesn't mean people can't get their heads around the concept. It's just that to communicate effectively, projects like Yahara 2070 need to connect their message with the ways people relate to the world around them. Some of those efforts are detailed in the recent Wisconsin Public Television documentary Yahara Watershed: A Place Of Change.

"I think a lot of ecological terms don't have immediate meaning to a lot of people," Seifert said. "It's easier to say 'prairie' or 'forest' [than 'ecosystem']. Phrasing it in terms of human well-being can resonate broadly."

Like many concepts in academia, "ecosystem services" is bound up in assumptions that don't necessarily reflect lived experience. Just because someone lives near abundant natural resources — clean lakes, plentiful crops, healthy wildlife populations — doesn't mean that person is able to realize the benefits. Economic, social, class and policy factors can limit access to ecosystem services.

Confronting inequalities in access

For the concept to stay relevant, people must dispense with the assumption that more ecosystem services always means greater benefits for all people, said Edward Gregr, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia. In a recent research project, he considered the supply of clams on the coast of Vancouver Island, west of the actual city of Vancouver. These clams are culturally important to Canada's coastal First Nations peoples. But many factors — from simple physical barriers to access to the fact that many First Nations populations were forcibly relocated inland long ago — keep these communities from benefiting from the clams.

"There is a powerful commercial interest based in Vancouver that has control over most of the fishery, so that community benefits more than anyone who lives along the coast," Gregr said. "It's heavily capitalized, and it takes a lot of equipment to actually dig up the clams. Even if you increase the abundance of geoducks," he said, referring to a particular West Coast clam species, "That benefit is not going to be equally distributed."

Gregr's observations about indigenous peoples' access to ecosystem services have clear parallels in Wisconsin in the late 20th century dispute known as the Walleye War. Native American nations in northern Wisconsin have long struggled to balance their tribal fishing rights in the Ceded Territory with the desires of non-native anglers. Two Ojibwe tribes, the state, and commercial and recreational fishers are currently working to reach an agreement over access to fishing in Lake Superior. In another example of how ecosystem services can be understood through policy disputes, the debate over a now-stalled iron mine in northern Wisconsin turned in part on the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians' contention that the mining would pollute rivers, creeks, and wetlands its members use.

Gregr believes that confronting these social and political realities can make the concept of ecosystem services more useful to policymakers.

"It's just like economics," he said. "[If] nationally wages went up 10 percent, that doesn't mean that everyone got a 10 percent raise."

Combining science with a dose of hard reality is a goal for the Yahara 2070 project as well. Each of the future "scenarios" the project games out presents a dramatically transformed vision of the Madison area. What they all have in common, though, is that each hinges on people in a heavily populated area making difficult decisions and perhaps some sacrifices about how they access the benefits of their ecosystem.

"Understanding potential consequences for ecosystem services can help us make better choices today," said Seifert, "in terms of how we might mitigate risks or capitalize on opportunities for sustaining or improving them."

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