Rick Enser: Stop saying “ecosystem services”.


This comment is from Rick Enser, who lives in Hartland.

As someone who recently retired from a career in natural resource management with a state agency, I can tell you that the new management plan for Camel’s Hump State Park and State Forest reflects a common and misguided approach that puts money over the public benefits.

In December 2021, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources released Camel’s Hump Management Unit’s Long Range Management Plan. One of the objectives of this plan is to “maintain and enhance the parcel’s ability to provide ecosystem services such as providing forest products, protecting soil and water resources, and providing recreational opportunities.”

This phrasing was intended to affect Vermonters who felt that the term “ecosystem services” meant something other than providing natural resources to meet human needs. Some may ask, “Aren’t ecosystem services things like nutrient cycling, waste assimilation, soil formation, and carbon sequestration?”

So what are ecosystem services? Let’s start with the basics.

An ecosystem is a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. Natural ecosystems make up the Vermont landscape, the structure and species composition of which are determined by the physical characteristics of the environment, such as climate, topography, soil type, and hydrology.

Ecosystems are typically identified by their predominant vegetation (e.g., grassland, shrubby bog, deciduous forest) and further refined by regional subtypes. In Vermont, the northern hardwood forest, composed primarily of sugar maple, yellow birch, and American beech, is the prevalent upland forest type.

The benefits of ecosystems lie in their inherent natural processes. All ecosystems function as complex webs of biodiversity, with each organism contributing to the functioning of the system. Producers (plants) convert the sun’s energy into food that feeds consumers (animals), and decomposers return nutrients to the soil to support more producers.

Remove too many pieces of the biotic puzzle and the system will collapse.

Ecosystem processes support all species on the planet, but it is the needs and desires of one species – ours – that have profoundly impacted the functioning of ecosystems by removing too many parts. The consequences are the existential crises of climate change and biodiversity loss that we are currently facing.

Environmental economists explain the value of ecosystems in economic terms. Ecosystem processes become ecosystem services and get monetary values ​​that everyone can understand. This process was originally described in a 1997 paper entitled “The value of ecosystem services and the world’s natural capital.

The authors analyzed ecosystem services (nutrient cycles, carbon sequestration, etc.) and goods (commodities, food, medicines, etc.) and estimated their global value at more than 18 trillion US dollars, more than the value of global GDP at the time.

Unfortunately, to simplify the analysis, goods and services have been grouped together under the same heading (Services) to get the total value; not included are the costs associated with the extraction of natural resources (goods). Logging, mining, and drilling always result in a reduction in an ecosystem’s ability to carry out life-sustaining natural processes. Felling trees decreases a forest’s ability to sequester carbon, support complex biotas, and develop resilience to disturbance.

Vermont’s forest once covered most of the state with trees several hundred years old that supported complex biotic communities. Then, in the twinkling of an eye, almost all of the forest was gone, and with it much of the biodiversity.

The European settlers who cut down these forests believed the New World was a gift from God, and with this belief they were entitled to harvest all trees, slaughter wildlife and commit genocide against indigenous peoples.

Today we have slowed our assault on nature to varying degrees, but it will take several hundred more years to restore the former forest to its full ecological potential. Nonetheless, state and federal agencies continue to manage public lands for commodities, whether timber or wild species.

The ecologist Aldo Leopold stated 70 years ago that “we misuse land because we consider it a commodity that belongs to us”. In the years since he wrote those words we have learned nothing.

The Camel Hump’s long-range management plan, like many plans concocted by government agencies to manage public lands, is better described as a business plan that treats ecosystems as service and commodity factories and warehouses.

Livestock species (wild species) are more common in unnatural, young forests. Managers call it ‘early successional habitat’, a title around which a myth has sprung up about how the wildlife that uses this habitat is declining and that we need to cut down trees to ‘create’ more of this ‘young forest’. It’s a win-win for resource producers posing as resource managers: cut down more trees and produce more game for hunters.

Managers ignore the damage done when they do it. We can no longer ignore the damage.

For too long, the monetary value of forests in meeting the needs of a single species – humans – has taken precedence over the ecological value of forests in sustaining all species. It is time for governments to acknowledge their complicity in nature’s abuses and reconsider the management of public lands to most effectively address the climate and biodiversity crises.

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Tags: Attack on Nature, Biotic Mystery, Camel’s Hump State Park, Ecosystem Services, Land as a Commodity, Rick Enser


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