An attack on public lands – and the value of nature

20160802_2710It is disturbing to hear of the current efforts in Washington DC to shrink, sell-off, and plunder the resources of public lands. Twenty-seven National Monuments created under the Antiquities Act of 1906 are under review by the Department of Interior with direction from the Trump administration for either elimination or downsizing. This effort is both self-serving and short-sighted. Much of this effort is driven by the extraction industries, particularly the fossil fuel sector. Today, with the advances in alternative energy technology the fossil fuel industry is on the verge of becoming a fossil itself. Yet they seem to have enough lobbyists to make a significant impact on Congress and the White House. The short term economic gain for long-term environmental damage is not in the best interest of the American people. recreation/tourism-based economies, reflecting what the public actually wants.

Henry David Thoreau noted that “…a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

While money may not grow on trees, trees and all that they provide have a dollar value.

The financial value of plants that improve water quality or wetlands that reduce flooding and property damage from storms is difficult to quantify. However, many ecological and conservation organizations advocate for making such determinations in the interest of land management. Additionally, conservation biologists argue that putting a price tag on nature could weaken the protection of threatened species that have a lower dollar value.

Therefore the core issue in the debate is to what degree will biodiversity be protected by managing for ecosystem services?

To address this question, researchers at UC Santa Barbara developed a new modeling framework that blends a novel mix of ecology and economics. Their findings appear in the journal Ecology Letters.

“We sought to assess the likely consequences of growing efforts to manage for the economic benefits of ecosystems rather than protecting species for their intrinsic value,” explained co-author Steve Gaines, dean of UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management.

Because nature is so complex, scientists rarely know the roles all species play in providing benefits to people. This uncertainty is magnified by the fact that the environment is changing. Not all species contribute to ecosystem services, yet critical ones could be lost without conservation. And scientists don’t know for sure which species are critical.

Still, conservation decisions for ecosystem services must be made today, and, as lead author Laura Dee noted, they incur financial costs. “The framework we developed balances the currents costs of protecting species with the future risk of losing ecosystem services,” said Dee, who earned her Ph.D. at UCSB and is now an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology. “In this way, we can determine the optimal number of species to protect.”

Co-author Christopher Costello, a professor at UCSB’s Bren School, said: “We found that it is always optimal to protect more species than are considered ‘economically critical.’ You can think of this as insurance: If you lose a species that is critical to providing an ecosystem service, then the losses can be substantial and irreversible.”

The framework generates simple criteria for determining how much the value of the service must exceed the costs of management to financially justify protecting all species. This defines the settings whereby protecting all species is the economically optimal choice. The group examined this criterion for six different services and ecosystems, ranging from the pollination of watermelon to carbon storage along coastlines or in tropical dry forests.

In some cases, protecting all species in an ecosystem is financially motivated. In others, management solely for financial benefits may leave many species at risk.

“Our results define when managing for ecosystem services alone could leave significant biodiversity unprotected,” Dee explained. “The analysis also helps identify when additional policies such as endangered species regulation will be needed to avoid biodiversity losses.”


Dee LE, De Lara M, Costello C, Gaines SD. 2017. To what extent can ecosystem services motivate protecting biodiversity?. Ecology Letters.

One comment

  1. All too often I just see democrats wanting to sign angry petition letters, including letters to political leaders, and probably as public comments. Perhaps my many years in the federal government dealing with National Environmental Policy Act and similar environmental laws has taught me that angry letters don’t help the cause because they are not substantive comments, just emotional pleas. I think we need to send in public comments through with a docket number and the succinct reasons why the actions would not be prudent or warranted. For example, I sent a comment letter in on the national monuments attack that was 5 pages long–this is the summary, although the details in the text had the quotes from the act and executive order targeted…so this is just the summary. And because it is ludicrous to comment on 27 different monuments, I felt that listing them was the only way to make sure they were tagged by name as having been commented on. Here is my summary:

    • The presidential designations were done according to law
    • There is a precedent going back to 1906 established on the types of landscapes that were designated under the Antiquities Act
    • There is no requirement for a public comment period
    • Selecting only national monuments from 1996 through the Obama administration can only be construed as being politically motivated; otherwise all such designations dating back to 1906 would have been challenged
    • Public input was never considered by Secretary Zinke when he recommended that Bears Ears National Monument be fragmented into smaller sections of protected lands
    • Fragmented landscapes are more difficult to manage

    I recommend retention of the following national monuments (and equivalent) at their current designation, unaltered:

    • Grand Canyon-Parashant
    • Ironwood Forest
    • Sonoran Desert
    • Vermillion Cliffs
    • Berryessa Snow Mountain
    • Carrizo Plain
    • Giant Sequoia
    • Mojave Trails
    • Sand to Snow
    • San Gabriel Mountains
    • Canyons of the Ancients
    • Craters of the Moon
    • Katahadin Woods and Waters
    • Upper Missouri River Breaks
    • Basin and Range
    • Gold Butte
    • Cascade Siskiyou
    • Bears Ears
    • Grand Staircase-Escalante
    • Hanford Reach
    Marine National Monuments
    • Marianas Trench
    • Northeast Canyons and Seamounts
    • Pacific Remote Islands
    • Papahanaumokuakea
    • Rose Atoll

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