Ecosystem Services Assessment and Valuation

Science Center Objects

Ecosystem services are the benefits that nature provides to human well-being: clean air and water, protection from natural disasters, fisheries, crop pollination and control of pests and disease, and outdoor places for recreation, solitude, and renewal. Ecosystem services underlie the functioning of our entire economy. They are neither worthless nor priceless, and by integrating the physical sciences, geography, and economics and other social sciences we can better understand how ecosystems provide value to people, and how to protect and enhance that value.

USGS scientists at GECSC use a variety of modeling and mapping approaches to improve our understanding of the value and distribution of ecosystem services. GECSC scientists pioneered the development of the Social Values for Ecosystem Services (SolVES) tool to map locations on the landscape that are valued by respondents to natural resource management surveys. Working with the USGS Powell Center for Synthesis and Analysis, we are estimating the values derived from migratory species to support new conservation funding mechanisms for valued species. We are also applying the Artificial Intelligence for Ecosystem Services (ARIES) tool to map and value ecosystem service flows at sites across the U.S. and globally. In collaboration with partners from a variety of Federal and State land management agencies, we are working to disseminate this information in support of more sustainable resource management and conservation planning.

Ecosystem Services-Related Research Underway at GECSC

  • Social Values for Ecosystems Services (SolVES): SolVES is a tool developed by GECSC scientists to quantify and map perceived social values for ecosystem services (particularly cultural ecosystem services), calculated from a combination of spatial and non-spatial responses to public attitude and preferences surveys. We and our colleagues are applying SolVES in diverse locations to quantify and map cultural ecosystem services, develop guidelines for transferring mapped values, and pair cultural ecosystem services with biophysically modeled ecosystem services in support of natural resource management. The SolVES tool, user manual, sample data, tutorial, and publications are all available on the SolVES web site.
  • Artificial Intelligence for Ecosystem Services (ARIES): The ARIES modeling framework seeks to advance ecosystem services science in two critical ways. First, ARIES fully accounts for the spatial dynamics of ecosystem services—the spatial mismatch between locations where ecosystem services are provided and where they are used, by quantifying spatial flows of ecosystem services. Second, ARIES is an Artificial Intelligence-equipped semantic modeling system that integrates data and models, enabling ecosystem service assessments to be conducted worldwide while accounting for locally important ecological and socioeconomic factors and using the most locally appropriate data in mapping. An overview of ARIES is available in the PLoS ONE article A Methodology for Adaptable and Robust Ecosystem Services Assessment.
  • Spatial Subsidies: Quantifying Linkages between Human and Natural Systems with Migratory Species: Migratory species may provide more ecosystem goods and services to humans in certain parts of their range than others. These areas may or may not coincide with the locations on which the species is most dependent for its continued population viability. This situation can present significant policy challenges, as locations that most support a given species may be subsidizing the provision of services in other locations, often in different political jurisdictions. The ability to quantify these spatial subsidies could be used to develop economic incentives. Targeted payments for ecosystem services (PES) could provide economic incentives for conservation in areas where none presently exist, serving as a foundation for the cooperative, cross-jurisdictional management of migratory species.
  • Technical Support to Other Department of the Interior Bureaus: GECSC scientists provide technical support to other agencies looking to incorporate ecosystem services into natural resource planning and decision making. Working with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), we cataloged and tested ecosystem service tools to understand their readiness for bureau-wide use, and are continuing work to incorporate ecosystem services into a BLM master leasing plan. With the National Park Service (NPS), we are similarly testing survey-based methods and biophysical models for ecosystem services for incorporation into the NPS planning process. Our work in mapping ecosystem services in the National Forests can support the ongoing effort by the USDA Forest Service to incorporate ecosystem services into planning, per their 2012 planning rule. Finally GECSC scientists participate in a multi-agency working group to help build a consistent approach to using ecosystem services in federal resource management and planning.
  • Linking ridge-to-reef ecosystem services in Hawaii: GECSC scientists are working to model and value the economic benefits provided by Hawaii's coral reefs, connecting changes in land management, rainfall, and ocean conditions under present-day and future scenarios. The work reflects how changes to the land surface impact runoff to coral reefs, affecting diverse values including recreation, coastal storm protection, and fisheries, which will eventually be expanded to provide decision support to diverse settings in the Pacific Islands.
  • Integrated Resource Assessment: GECSC scientists are developing and testing a framework to integrate USGS energy and mineral resource assessments with assessments of other biophysical resources to permit consideration of the interplay between management, landscape change, and environmental/economic costs and benefits. This framework endeavors to address the question of how landscape change is likely to impact a suite of resources and how those impacts can be limited via management activities and constraint designations. Many types of landscape change can be accommodated, such as development of an energy/mineral resource, fire, or urban growth.
  • Economic accounting for ecosystem services: Natural capital accounting—a tool being used in dozens of countries globally and by the private sector—tracks changes in ecosystem services and directly ties these changes to costs and benefits across different economic sectors. Yet, the compilation of a data, modeling, and valuation infrastructure to support natural capital accounting in the U.S. has not yet occurred. With funding from the USGS Powell Center and National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, we are developing pilot natural capital accounts for the United States, increasing the delivery of clear and timely information about nature's value to society.