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Nature's gifts and our public lands

Posted: December 27, 2012 - 4:39pm
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo The Moose River, one of many natural resources on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, provides so much more than simply fish and wildlife habitats.  Ecosystem services include fresh water for drinking, wetlands for sequestering carbon and buffering against floods and droughts, blueberries and cranberries for food, backcountry access by canoe and snowmachine, nitrogen fixation by alders, the more tangible economic benefits of supporting commercial and recreational salmon fisheries, and the more intangible spiritual benefits of experiencing wilderness.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo The Moose River, one of many natural resources on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, provides so much more than simply fish and wildlife habitats. Ecosystem services include fresh water for drinking, wetlands for sequestering carbon and buffering against floods and droughts, blueberries and cranberries for food, backcountry access by canoe and snowmachine, nitrogen fixation by alders, the more tangible economic benefits of supporting commercial and recreational salmon fisheries, and the more intangible spiritual benefits of experiencing wilderness.

Naturalist and early advocate for the preservation of wilderness John Muir once said “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

Always pragmatic, ecologists have their own term for nature’s gifts — ecosystem services. Simply defined, ecosystem services are the benefits to people derived from natural goods and functions of ecosystems. Ecosystem services can be classified into four broad categories. Provisional ecosystem services include delivery of natural goods such as food, fresh water and medicine. Supporting services include nutrient cycling, soil formation, and water purification. Regulating services include carbon sequestration, flood and erosion control and pollination. Cultural or social services include providing recreational, educational, scientific, and spiritual benefits or values.

Ecosystem services are generally taken for granted, probably because they are “free” and most ecological processes are not readily noticeable. Through the growing scientific field of ecological economics, however, the economic value of ecosystem services is emerging. In 1997, a group of scientists from the U.S., Argentina and the Netherlands led by Dr. Robert Costanza estimated the global value of 17 fundamental ecosystem services at $33 trillion, nearly twice the value of total global Gross Domestic Product of $18 trillion.

Here in the U.S., Dr. David Pimentel and colleagues estimated the annual economic benefit of biodiversity at $300 billion by considering the role of biota in organic waste disposal, soil formation, biological nitrogen fixation, crop and livestock genetics, biological pest control, plant pollination and pharmaceuticals. While there are many uncertainties inherent in calculating the economic benefits of ecosystem services, what’s becoming very clear is that they are extremely valuable.

Although it’s been said by many, it was my graduate faculty advisor at the University of Connecticut, Dr. Robert McDowell, who first asked me to reflect on public lands as ‘gifts to ourselves.’ “Our nation’s parks, forests and wildlife refuges are gifts that must be stewarded carefully, as they will only grow in value” he’d often say.

Among those gifts is the role of public lands in providing ecosystem services. These services include some of the more obvious and measurable benefits provided by natural goods such as clean water and healthy fish and wildlife populations which support outdoor recreation. In 2000, U.S. Forest Service economists estimated the minimum value of water from our national forests to be $3.7 billion per year.

Just last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the final report of the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. The report documents that over 90 million U.S. residents 16 and older participated in fishing, hunting or at least one type of wildlife-watching such as observing, feeding or photographing wildlife, spending $144.7 billion on these activities in 2011. Public lands, of course, play a critical role in providing places for Americans of all ages to enjoy the outdoors.

It may be that many of the cultural or social aspects of ecosystem services are the most priceless of gifts of all received from our public lands. These benefits are as wide ranging as the interests of people who use or value them for subsistence, recreation, education, scientific or spiritual purposes. They also transcend all of these. Experiences that connect people to nature enhance individual well being and even human relationships. Reflection on the complex but perfect intricacies of the natural world, often inspired by outdoor experiences, for many becomes a catalyst for seeking more sustainable ways to live. As John Muir also said over a century ago, going to wilderness is going home.

Here in our back yard, myriad benefits are provided through the natural goods generated, and ecological processes occurring, on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Clean water, nutrients, flow regimes and natural habitats combine to help sustain our critically important salmon during the freshwater components of their life cycle. A child’s curiosity rewarded through discovery of one of nature’s marvels at a refuge summer camp, a young person’s first successful hunt in the Swan Lake Canoe System made even more special by the presence of family and friends, a hiker’s exhilaration and sense of accomplishment ascending Skyline Trail – all ecosystem services and all priceless.

Dr. McDowell was right. Through our public lands, we’ve given ourselves many timeless gifts. Alaska’s public lands provide an opportunity to maintain a wide array of invaluable ecosystem services while honoring the full spectrum of why and how people value these benefits. In this ever more rapidly changing and increasingly complex world, careful stewardship of these gifts is becoming ever more important.

From the entire Refuge staff, best wishes to all of you for a peaceful and joyful holiday season.

Andy Loranger is the Refuge Manager of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

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