Letting Nature Do Its Thing for Our Benefit

by Yee Huang

April 17, 2013

In the decades since Congress and state legislatures passed most of the nation's most significant environmental laws, our knowledge about ecosystems has increased dramatically. We know much more about the “goods and services” that ecosystems provide—more, for example, about the migratory species that sustain agriculture by functioning as pollinators, and more about how healthy ecosystems help to filter and clean our water. But our policymakers haven’t yet taken advantage of much of that new knowledge. As ecologists learn more about the complex and dynamic interactions that produce these valuable services, decisionmakers and advocates should adopt an ecosystem services approach to implementing laws that affect the environment.

Such an approach to environmental protection focuses policy and decisionmaking on restoring and maintaining the natural infrastructure and resources that the public values. It combines scientific assessment tools to understand both our dependence and impacts on ecosystems and public participation to identify the most important services. The approach sets goals for environmental protection and helps direct policymakers and natural resource managers to identify and apply the legal, regulatory, and market-based tools to achieve them.

An ecosystem services approach integrates advances in ecology with the law. It also fosters creative thinking about how to restructure laws and regulatory programs to mimic the connectedness of ecosystem functions. The approach requires performance-based evaluations to measure success or failure of management decisions, and it depends on public participation to prioritize those services that the public values most, thus ensuring long-term public support for and investment in achieving the identified goals.

Today CPR publishes Letting Nature Work in the Pacific Northwest: A Manual for Protecting Ecosystem Services Under Existing Law, a white paper that defines the approach and identifies both prerequisites and principles for implementing it. For example, policymakers and advocates should consider principles of ecological integrity, fairness, and resilience when selecting legal tools to protect ecosystem services. The paper then applies the ecosystem services approach in the context of floodplain restoration, focusing on flood hazard mitigation and the broad range of services provided by floodplains. It marks the beginning of a long-term discussion on how to adapt environmental, natural resources, and other laws to our dependence on functioning, dynamic ecosystems.

The white paper was written by CPR Member Scholars Robert W. Adler, Robert L. Glicksman, Daniel J. Rohlf and Robert R.M. Verchick, and me. An archived webinar on the publication is available here, and other project resources are available here.

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