Finding a market for 'ecosystem services'

How much is an ecosystem worth?

It's easy to put a price tag on timber harvested from forests or copper mined from the ground, but can we put an economic value on the less tangible services ecosystems provide, such as water purification and flood control?

A group of 30 scientists, lawyers, conservationists, economists and policymakers came together at Stanford on Nov. 16-17 to discuss novel ways to market "ecosystem services" with the ultimate goal of protecting the ecosystem itself.

"The importance of ecosystem services has been recognized since the time of Plato," said Jim Salzman, an environmental law professor at American University who helped coordinate the two-day Stanford workshop.

According to Salzman, ecosystem services are the processes through which natural systems support human life by purifying air and water, detoxifying and decomposing waste, renewing soil fertility, regulating climate, preventing droughts and floods, controlling pests and pollinating plants.

Unfortunately, he noted, most people take these services for granted because they are free.

"We explicitly value and place dollar figures on 'ecosystem goods' such as timber and fish," Salzman said, "but the services underpinning these goods almost without exception have no market value - not because they are worthless, but rather because there is no market to capture and express their value directly."

Watersheds may be among the most marketable of all ecosystems, according to several panelists, because they provide essential services such as water purification and flood control.

"There's a clear demand for improving water quality, and, as a result, a clear demand for protecting watersheds," said workshop organizer Barton "Buzz" Thompson Jr., vice dean of the Stanford Law School and the Robert E. Paradise Professor of Natural Resources Law.

Thompson pointed to the New York City water department's 1996 decision to allocate $1.5 billion to pre

Contact: Mark Shwartz
Stanford University

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