Rick Enser: Stop saying “ecosystem services”

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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 state park and state forest management plan for Camel’s Hump reflects a common and misguided approach that elevates money above the public interest.

In December 2021, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources released the Long Range Management Plan for the Camel’s Hump Field Unit. One of the objectives of this plan is to “maintain and improve the capacity of the parcel to provide ecosystem services such as the provision of forest products, the protection of soil and water resources and the provision of recreational opportunities. “.

This formulation should relate to Vermonters who thought that the term “ecosystem services” meant something other than the provision of natural resources to satisfy human needs. Some might 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 Vermont’s landscape, with the structure and species composition of each determined by the physical characteristics of the environment, such as climate, topography, soil type, and hydrology.

Ecosystems are generally identified by their dominant vegetation (eg, grassland, shrub bog, deciduous forest) and refined by regional subtypes. In Vermont, the northern hardwood forest, composed primarily of sugar maple, yellow birch, and American beech, is the common upland forest type.

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

Remove too many pieces of the biotic puzzle and the system breaks down.

Ecosystem processes sustain all species on the planet, but it is the wants and desires of one species – ours – that have had a critical impact on how ecosystems function by removing too many pieces. The results are the existential crises of climate change and biodiversity loss that we currently face.

Environmental economists explain the values ​​of ecosystems in economic terms. Ecosystem processes become ecosystem services and are assigned monetary values, which everyone can understand. This process was originally accomplished in a 1997 paper titled “The Value of Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital Around the World”.

The authors analyzed ecosystem services (nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, etc.) and goods (raw materials, food, medicines, etc.) and estimated their overall value at over $18 trillion, at the era more than the value of world GNP. .

Unfortunately, to simplify the analysis, goods and services have been combined under the same heading (services) to obtain the total value; the costs associated with the extraction of natural resources (goods) are not taken into account. Logging, mining and drilling always lead to a decrease in the ability of an ecosystem to carry out vital natural processes. Cutting down trees reduces a forest’s ability to sequester carbon, support complex biota and develop resistance to disturbance.

Vermont’s forest once covered most of the state with trees hundreds of years old and supporting complex biotic communities. Then, in the blink of an eye, almost all of that forest disappeared, and much of the biodiversity with it.

The European settlers who felled these forests believed that the New World was a gift from God, and with this belief they were justified in harvesting all the trees, cutting down the wildlife, and committing genocide of the native peoples.

Today, we have more or less curbed our attacks on nature, but it will still take several hundred years to regain the full ecological potential of the ancient forest. Nonetheless, state and federal agencies continue to manage public lands for commodities, whether timber or game species.

Ecologist Aldo Leopold observed 70 years ago that “we abuse the earth because we consider it a commodity that belongs to us”. In the years since he wrote those words, we have learned nothing.

The Camel’s Hump Long Range Management Plan, like many plans concocted by government agencies to manage public lands, is best described as a business plan in which ecosystems are treated as factories and warehouses of services and of basic products.

Merchantable fauna (game species) is more abundant in young man-made forests. Managers call it ‘early successional habitat‘, a title around which a myth has been created about the decline of wildlife that use this habitat and the fact that we need to cut down trees in order to ‘create’ more. of this “young forest”. It’s a win-win situation for commodity producers posing as resource managers: cutting down more trees and producing more game for hunters.

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

For too long, the monetary value of forests for supporting the needs of a single species – humans – has trumped the ecological value of forests for supporting all species. It is time for governments to recognize their complicity in the mistreatment of nature and rethink the management of public lands to deal as effectively as possible with the climate and biodiversity crises.

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Tags: assault on nature, biotic puzzle, Camel’s Hump State Park, ecosystem services, earth as a commodity, Rick Enser

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