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Ecosystem Markets Conference: Innovative Ideas Drive Ecosystem Markets Forward

Using markets to protect and restore ecosystems – and the many services they provide – is gradually becoming a reality. Market-based systems have already protected hundreds of thousands of acres of land while still meeting human economic and development needs. They can help ensure that environmental benefits, from wildlife habitat to water purification, will be preserved for future generations.

But what are the critical elements for success? What progress has been made? What are the innovative ideas that will push these markets forward? The World Resources Institute and the American Forest Foundation recently convened some of the world’s leading experts on ecosystem markets in Madison, Wisconsin to address these questions. Held over two days, the 4th Annual Ecosystem Markets Conference hosted private landowners, government officials, corporate leaders, and NGO representatives in over 50 panels on topics ranging from the role of corporations in protecting ecosystem services to using forests to produce clean water. WRI staff members presented on several particularly promising ongoing projects:

Improving Drinking Water Quality with Cost-Effective Green Solutions

WRI economists Erin Gray and John Talberth presented their work on Maine’s Crooked River, evaluating whether comprehensive watershed management is a more cost-effective way to protect Portland’s drinking water than further water treatment plant upgrades.

Their soon to be published cost-benefit analysis provides support for the argument that protecting ecosystems such as forests and wetlands which naturally purify water may in many cases be less expensive than traditional technical infrastructure improvements, while at the same time providing wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, carbon sequestration and a host of other co-benefits.

Proactively Protecting Species on Private Lands

WRI Conservation Incentives and Markets Senior Associate Todd Gartner spoke on a panel with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army officials, and other NGO representatives about a market-based system to reduce the need for the gopher tortoise from being listed under the Endangered Species Act.

By giving private landowners financial incentives to preserve and enhance tortoise habitat on their lands, this component of WRI’s Southern Forests for the Future Project could give developers and public agencies more flexibility in meeting their land use needs while protecting this keystone species in the longleaf pine ecosystem. If a forthcoming pilot project is successful, the initiative could serve as a model for proactive, market-based species protection across the country.

Reducing Stormwater and Agricultural Pollution Using Payments for Ecosystem Services

Speaking on multiple panels, WRI Water Team members Cy Jones and Evan Branosky described the benefits of using forests and wetlands to reduce stormwater and agricultural runoff pollution which together degrade water quality in nearly 137,000 miles of rivers and streams and almost 2.3 million acres of lakes and ponds.

Drawing on their experience designing strategies to reduce nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the pair detailed whole watershed management options that would likely be less costly than traditional technical upgrades while producing aesthetic, recreational, and species protection benefits.

Throughout the discussion of these and other potential strategies, opportunities emerged for further work within the Ecosystem Markets community to make market-based conservation a reality on a larger scale. WRI is working to connect the corporations, government agencies, and other actors who may be interested in purchasing habitat, nutrient or carbon credits with the medium to small-scale private landowners who make up in the supply side of ecosystem markets. Through stakeholder engagement and innovative pilot projects, WRI will continue to advance market-based conservation and the cleaner air, safer water, and richer biodiversity it provides.

For more information on these projects, contact Nick Price at

This piece was written with Catherine Rothacker, an intern at the World Resources Institute.

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