Our Impact: Guidance for Ecosystem Services Assessments

Initiative Helps Natural Resource Managers Connect Decisions to Things People Care About

This is the third installment in a 12-part series highlighting the environmental policy impacts of the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability over its first decade.

A few years ago, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) did something that is changing the way the nation’s forests and grasslands are managed. What began as a mission to protect supplies of water and timber commodities—a matter of national security—and later to sustain provision of multiple products and services—think outdoor recreation and habitat protection, for example—has evolved into a directive to reflect in the agency’s performance measures and public engagement all the values provided by the national forest system’s regulating, supporting, and cultural services. In short, the agency has begun to incorporate consideration of ecosystem services in its planning and decision making.

The USFS is not the only federal agency thinking about the relationship between natural resources and people. Other agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are now exploring how to explicitly link natural resource management choices to things people care about in a clear and analytically robust manner--a challenge recently taken on by the National Ecosystem Services Partnership (NESP), an initiative of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability.

In 2012, NESP, under the direction of Nicholas Institute Ecosystem Services Program director Lydia Olander, and its collaborator A Community on Ecosystem Services (ACES) began convening federal agency representatives to discuss how to integrate ecosystem services concepts into planning and management. The enterprise faced some obstacles.

“One of the first things we learned is that the agencies felt that they lacked capacity and tools to assess ecosystem services,” said Olander. “We also discovered that there was some concern about incorporating the ecosystem services concept into planning and management processes—mainly because methods and tools were new to managers. Are these methods and tools plausible and persuasive? Can they be consistently employed? How can they be shared, and how can their use be coordinated among agencies when there are institutional limits to this activity?”

The agency representatives requested guidance on developing a framework and methods for ecosystem services assessment as well as information about relevant tools and a mechanism to share best practices.

NESP responded with the launch of the Federal Resource Management and Ecosystem Services (FRMES) project, which in December 2014 published the Federal Resource Management and Ecosystem Services Guidebook, an online resource that provides a framework and methodology to enhance the credibility and consistency of ecosystem services approaches to planning and management. The guidebook also explains the legal basis for these approaches, describes how federal agencies are exploring or applying them, and presents 13 case studies.

More than 150 individuals from agencies, universities, NGOs, and think tanks participated in the FRMES project—and more than 80 people contributed directly to the guidebook’s contents. Olander coordinated the dozens of meetings that brought the experts together and spearheaded development of the user-friendly interface to their distilled knowledge. 

“The guidebook is primarily written for federal resource agencies that undertake land and waters planning and management,” Olander said, “but its framework, methods, and examples can be applied broadly—for example, to inform rulemaking and permitting decisions as well as to inform natural resource management decisions by states, land trusts, corporations, and others who manage significant natural resources.”

Because many ecosystem services are not bought and sold in the marketplace, natural resource agencies possess no prices, inventories, sales volumes, or other data points that would highlight the services’ existence, their importance to people, and the purpose to which they should be managed. That’s the problem that the guidebook addresses by providing a framework and methodology for capturing the systemic effects of management decisions on ecological outcomes and for linking those outcomes to their social consequences. By helping decision makers more clearly and transparently assess tradeoffs, says Olander, an ecosystem services approach to resource management can help them identify options that yield the greatest benefits for local stakeholders and the public at large.

Olander and other contributors to the guidebook say that attention to ecosystem services is simply the next step in natural resource management’s evolution—an evolution driven by public awareness of the role that population growth and economic trends play in creating resource scarcities and losses and by changes in natural and social sciences that have allowed researchers to explore nature-society relationships in new and more accurate ways.

“The time is ripe for the land-management agencies to embrace an ecosystem services framework,” said John Allen, a U.S. Forest Service supervisor at Deschutes National Forest. “The Forest Service is starting to understand that this is a great tool for helping our communities and public-interest groups become involved in how this country manages its public lands.”

Olander and NESP view the guidebook as a living resource for agencies and other users. They are continuing to engage federal and other natural resource managers in efforts to add new examples of ecosystem services-based management, to develop detailed methodological cases that are applied to specific decision contexts, and to create learning opportunities.


--Story by Erin McKenzie