Follow the Money
The Value of Healthy Ecosystems


Tire rotations, oil changes, furnace repairs, piano lessons, college, doctor visits, physical therapy — these are all examples of services when we pay money in exchange for something in return. These services have value to us, whether it is instantaneous, such as getting a haircut, or a buildup over time, like taking music lessons. These are services that we can easily understand: an exchange occurs with a dollar value attached to it.

A big piece of the services patchwork we depend on is often overlooked: ecosystem services. We depend on the environment for everything — food, fuel, fiber, recreation, mental health, cleaning services (air, water, soil), and the list goes on and on. Despite our complete reliance on the environment, these services, historically viewed as ‘public goods,’ are frequently left out of marketplace and policy decisions.

Let’s look into ecosystem services definitions and examples.

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Source: Accounting for Nature's Benefits: The Dollar Value of Ecosystem Services, David C. Holzman
Wetlands
Wetlands are often called ‘earth’s kidneys,’ because they filter water. Wetlands also reduce flooding impacts, provide food and fiber, improve water supply and provide opportunities for tourism. Did you ever think to assign a dollar value of goods and services to a wetland? According to an assessment from 2005, wetlands are valued at over $14 trillion dollars worldwide. Consider the value of cleaner drinking water. We pay for our water to be treated, and the dirtier it is the more treatment costs rise. Wetlands aid in filtering and removing pollutants, a ‘free’ service that has great value. How much more money will be spent on water treatment as wetlands are removed or altered?
Riparian Buffers
A riparian buffer is the strip of vegetation that runs alongside a waterway — stream, river, pond, wetland or lake. Riparian buffers provide numerous benefits, such as filtering pollutants, slowing runoff, reducing sediment loading, reducing impacts of flooding, improved air quality, and forest products including produce, nuts and cut flowers. According to a recent study competed in the Delaware River Basin, riparian buffers were valued at $1 million dollars per acre.

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Soil Health
Healthy soils are essential for food production, human health, water quality and carbon storage, to name a few. According to the Soil Science Society of America, the ecosystem services provided by soil is valued at over $17 trillion dollars.

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Source: Andrew Stevens, Berkeley Food Institute
Conservation Areas
According to a report released in July 2020, expanding conservation areas “could yield a return of at least $5 for every $1 spent and boost global economic output by about $250 billion annually,” (Reuters). This means that by simply leaving natural areas as is leads to massive gains.
Trees
Trees are so valuable that New York City has created an online map, which provides locations of individual trees, species, links on how to care for them, information on recent maintenance completed and assigned dollar values to services provided. Check out the estimated values of the services provided by trees in NYC, including stormwater interception, energy conservation and air pollutant removal.

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Source: New York City Tree Map
Missed Connections
Despite our collective dependence on ecosystem services for survival, these values are not always part of the conversation. Ecosystem services and goods are often not considered in decision-making or a foundational aspect of our economy. Often, priority is given to short-term gains and lower upfront costs, which leads to larger, more expensive issues down the line.