Wisconsin is a state blessed with abundant natural beauty and was home to one of America’s first conservationists, Aldo Leopold. Leopold recognized that beyond commodities, nature provides services that sustain our planet – such as clean air, clean water and recreational opportunities – and that these services are worth something. He also recognized the importance of providing incentives that reward proper land management. Leopold’s vision still resonates as the 4th annual Ecosystem Markets Conference takes place this week in Madison, Wisconsin. “Ecosystem services” refer to the benefits people gain from nature, including water, timber, fiber, and fish, and support services such as flood protection and water filtration. One way to improve how people use these ecosystems and conserve natural resources is to create a market-based approach, one that rewards landowners for implementing conservation practices.
Investments such as these can save money down the road. In the Catskills region of New York State, for example, New York City ensured its supply of clean drinking water by paying landowners to protect land surrounding the watershed. In the process, the city avoided building costly drinking water treatment plants and additional infrastructure to meet water quality standards. The city has committed approximately $1.5 billion (averaging $167 million per year) to protect the ecosystem, whereas a new water filtration plant would have cost at least $6 billion to build and another $250 million per year to maintain.
Ecosystem markets and associated partnerships offer an innovative, cost-effective way to protect nature and its benefits. One success story is in Wisconsin where the Ecosystem Markets Conference is taking place. The Sand County Foundation works to effectively manage and enhance ecosystems, following in the footsteps of Leopold himself. The Foundation manages active private landowner conservation projects, including dam removal, wildlife management, and wetland and prairie restoration. Another example of a successful ecosystem market-based project is Agricultural Incentives, in which the Foundation works directly with farmers in distinct watersheds to implement land management practices that improve water quality by reducing the flow of nutrient pollution from their fields.
In order to build viable ecosystem markets and realize the potential of ecosystem services, we need to replicate examples such as these by many orders of magnitude in the United States and worldwide. The Ecosystem Markets Conference brings together experts, innovators, and hands-on users of ecosystem markets to assess recent progress and exchange ideas, with the goal of breaking through barriers that keep good projects from getting off the ground. The conference offers a tremendous opportunity for dialogue, mutual learning and strengthening partnerships. With participants from both the private and public sector, we expect to hear practical and promising new approaches to overcome constraints and scale up solutions, so that society can make ecosystem markets work for the good of people and our nation’s valuable natural resources.
As Aldo Leopold said so well, “Our job is to sharpen our tools and make them cut the right way.” This week’s conference should provide a set of tools to carve out the path forward for ecosystem markets.