What are “ecosystem services”? Those are the essential life-giving services provided by Mother Nature – items we take for granted – such as the air to breathe, the water to drink, and the soil to grow our food, give us shade and shelter, and so forth. Nature doesn’t just have unlimited resources on hand, many have to be constantly recreated and recycled, and depend on many, many moving parts – a whole system of interrelated effects and creatures.
The natural environment provides the infrastructure on which our human society is built. Over our history, we have often disregarded and undervalued what our natural systems provide, and we have continually tinkered with our environment, or changed it wholesale, without understanding what it did or how it worked. Our activities are now affecting this natural infrastructure in unprecedented ways. Nowadays, when nature doesn’t “act” the way we want it to – maybe there is algae on our ponds, or sediment in our streams, or water in our basements, or grubs or dandelions in our lawns, or holes on our foliage – we just want it to stop. We tend to apply chemicals, or consider dredging, or complain to our villages, or our neighbors, without pausing to understand why these things are happening, or whether some may be positive, or whether our actions have helped create the situations. Ofttimes, on the one hand, we do complain to our villages, and also strongly protest against any increases in tax levies that could be used to repair problems created by our urban/suburban practices. How can we make our economic and life activities compatible with our ecological foundations?
An example of the magnitude that smart management of ecosystem services can provide is New York City’s management of the Catskill/Delaware watershed which supplies about 97% of New York City’s drinking water. The watersheds feed more than a dozen reservoirs and controlled lakes, and travels through aqueducts and tunnels to the City. The City has a land acquisition program in the watershed to insure its protection. The water is treated with fluoride and disinfected at two locations (one by ultraviolet light). The water system has been designed to allow gravity to propel the water with enough force to supply six-story buildings without additional pumps. The City realized years ago that taking care of the watersheds, and protecting the waters from illegal dumping, would save the city billions of dollars in capital costs and ongoing operational costs associated with building the more common water treatment facility complexes. The city is one of only five major municipalities allowed to supply unfiltered water, and it releases an annual water quality report to the public.
If we take the time to understand our natural environment better, recognize which of our actions – or those of our predecessors – have created the challenge, there are many actions we can take both individually and in concert with our neighbors to improve the functioning of ecosystem services, benefit ourselves and our community at the same time, and save money. When we give nature “room to work,” we reap the benefits. In the graphic below, Citizens for Conservation and the Barrington Greenway Initiative quantified the benefits this way, based on studies done by the Lake County Forest Preserve District and the Conservation Fund, and T. Elmquist’s 2015 article on the benefits of restoring ecosystem services in urban areas (Environmental Sustainability, 2015). Based on these values, CFC’s preserves are providing between $12 and $16.6 million PER YEAR in benefits to the community. We are fortunate to have the Lake County Forest Preserves and the Cook County Forest Preserves contributing ecosystem value to our watershed area too.
Gretchen Daily in her 1997 book, Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems, defines natural services this way:.
Natural ecosystems perform critical life-support services, upon which the well-being of all societies depends. These include:
– purification of air and water
– mitigation of droughts and floods
– generation and preservation of soils and renewal of their fertility
– detoxification and decomposition of wastes
– pollination of crops and natural vegetation
– dispersal of seeds
– cycling and movement of nutrients
– control of the vast majority of potential agricultural pests
– maintenance of biodiversity
– protection of coastal shores from erosion by waves
– protection from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays
– stabilization of the climate
– moderation of weather extremes and their impacts
– provision of aesthetic beauty and intellectual stimulation that lift the human spirit
Again from Daily (1997), the ecosystem services we depend on for daily life are produced “by a complex interplay of biological, geological and chemical cycles driven by solar energy and operating across a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. Soil fertility, for instance, is a product both of bacteria, whose fleeting lives may take place in a space smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, as well as of the aeonic [long lasting], planet-wide cycles of major chemical elements such as carbon and nitrogen. pest control is created by both natural enemies (e.g., birds; bats; parasitic wasps;, ladybugs, spiders, and other predacious arthropods; fungi; viruses) and by climate patterns generated globally. The strospheric ozone layer that shields Earth’s surface from ultraviolet radiation was originally produced primarily by the photosynthetic activities of blue-green algae and by photochemical reactions occurring high in the atmosphere. Ecosystem services operate on such a grand scale and in such intricate and little-explored ways that most could not be replaced by technology.”
Human economic activity is now affecting these complex systems significantly. We must figure out ways to manage our impacts and ensure a world that supports human life. That’s what’s meant by protecting ecosystem services.