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Ecosystem Services: Measuring the Value of Nature

A coral reef aswarm with ocean life. A honeybee busy over a flower. A forest standing silent guard over a river. These everyday sights of nature bring us joy, wonder and comfort.

But can we quantify the benefits nature gives us—not just aesthetic, but tangible? In a world with so much poverty and hunger, how can we justify paying so much attention to conservation and the environment?

The answer is simple: Human well-being depends on the benefits that nature provides for free, everyday and everywhere. Humans depend on ecosystems such as forests and coral reefs for clean water, fertile soils, food, fuel, storm protection, minerals and flood control.

The Nature Conservancy: A Leader in Thought and Implementation for Nature’s Benefits

But measuring just how much nature’s benefits are worth to a community or the world isn’t easy—and often, the tremendous importance and economic value of these benefits are appreciated only upon their loss.

That’s why The Nature Conservancy is a global thought leader in the effort to quantify nature’s benefits. And the Conservancy also sets the pace in incorporating those values into on-the-ground conservation projects that help people and biodiversity.

Measurement: The Conservancy is a founding member of The Natural Capital Project—a partnership with WWF, Stanford University and the University of Minnesota—that helps governments and industry incorporate the value of nature’s benefits into their development and conservation decisions.

The Natural Capital Project:

  • Provides tools (such as sophisticated mapping) that help decision-makers protect biodiversity and secure full benefits from ecosystems;
  • Catalyzes new ecological science that better links land-use decisions to how those decisions will effect the delivery of nature’s benefits; and
  • Develops new financial, market and policy instruments that fund the protection of those benefits in a fair and credible manner.

The Conservancy is also partnering with numerous corporations, such as Dow Chemical Company, to help transform the way businesses make use of natural resources. The five-year collaboration with Dow will help identify the true value of fresh water, clean air and other "green infrastructure" to the corporate bottom line.

And, to ensure that our conservation projects are not only benefiting nature but people as well, the Conservancy and Resources for the Future (RFF) are developing ways to measure the ROI ("return on investment") of conservation's benefits for humans.

Implementation: The Conservancy routinely builds consideration of nature’s benefits to human beings into its work—and works with governments, corporations and other groups to help them do the same.

Examples include:

  • We have helped establish more than a dozen water funds in South America—into which urban water producers pay for rural watershed conservation, thus securing stable supplies of drinking water for nearly 40 million people on the continent.
  • We work in both the Caribbean and the Pacific to help establish scores of marine protected areas where fishing-dependent communities plan sustainable harvesting practices that also protect the coral reefs in which fish and other ocean life thrive.
  • In the Farming for Wildlife Project, the Conservancy is advising Washington state farmers on how to rotate crops with wetlands to improve habitats for wildlife.
  • Through our Sustainable Rivers Project, the Conservancy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers explore new ways to strike a balance in how people use and protect the many benefits of rivers, from electricity to drinking water to recreation.
  • The Nature Conservancy’s Working Woodlands is a model forest conservation program integrating private land protection, certified forest management, and ecosystem services markets for the restoration and management of high quality ecological and economic values to priority forest landscapes.
  • Our efforts to restore oyster reefs—one of the most imperiled habitats on Earth—will help protect coastlines from storms, filter pollutants and create habitat for fish and other marine life.
  • In partnership with the Lauru Land Conference of Tribal Communities, the Conservancy is working with local communities in the Choiseul province of the Solomon Islands to create a three-dimensional model to help plan local coastal land and resource management in response to climate impacts.

Knowing the value of what nature gives us—and, through that knowledge, helping others work more sustainably—is at the forefront of biodiversity conservation work today and critical to the Conservancy’s vision for a healthy and prosperous planet.

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