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USDA Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets
Julia Levitt, 6 Jan 09

2528521551_c144197bc3.jpgAs people around the world await the inauguration of U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama on January 20, it seems that every week brings news and controversy that heightens expectations for 2009 to be a turning point in the American response to climate change. We recently learned of yet another encouraging development on Capitol Hill, this time in the United States' federal approach to ecosystem services.

On December 18, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer announced that there will be a new office in the USDA: the Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets. According to an official release, this office, along with a federal government-wide Conservation and Land Management Environmental Services Board, will "assist the Secretary of Agriculture in the development of new technical guidelines and science-based methods to assess environmental service benefits which will in turn promote markets for ecosystem services including carbon trading to mitigate climate change."

Worldchanging ally Dr. Trista Patterson, an ecological economist with the USDA Forest Service, tells us that "this new office of Ecosystem Services and Markets will be responsible for coordinating many federal agencies including Agriculture, Interior, Energy, EPA, Army Corps, Commerce, Transportation, Defense, Council of Economic Advisors and White House Office of Science & Technology."

Ecosystem services, which you can read more about in our archives via the links below, are a means of connecting economic systems to ecological systems. Basically, pricing ecosystem services gives us a way to calculate what nature already provides for free into the business plan. All industries on the planet are linked in some way to the natural environment whether the connection is obvious, as is the case for resource industries such as logging or mining, or more indirectly, for many businesses who simply rely on a healthy environment to maintain healthy employees, healthy customers and a functional working and distribution infrastructure.

But the disconnect between the numbers that show up on a balance sheet and the real numbers when it comes to environmental degradation and its impacts, is dangerous. Without factoring in environmental costs and benefits, companies and even governments miss a huge part of the picture when evaluating present and future costs and dividends associated with a project. Placing monetary values on the services that ecosystems provide, from flood control to climate management, is an important step toward making the invisible visible, and creating a set of tools for making clear decisions on difficult issues where business and environmental issues clash.

Schafer has chosen Sally Collins to be the first Director of the Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets (OESM). Collins, who has served as Associate Chief of the USDA Forest Service for the past eight years, has championed work in ecosystem services and markets within that agency, as a concept to promote sustainable land management. According to the USDA, this is how the OESM will work, at least in its first year:

OESM will provide administrative and technical assistance to the Secretary in developing the uniform guidelines and tools needed to create and expand markets for these vital ecosystem services and will support the work of the Conservation and Land Management Environmental Services Board. As directed by the authorizing legislation the first ecosystem services to be examined will be carbon sequestration. The Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets and the Conservation and Land Management Environmental Services Board will be established to implement actions authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill.

The Conservation and Land Management Environmental Services Board, as defined by this charter, in accordance with the 2008 Farm Bill, is chaired by the Secretary of Agriculture, and comprises key White House advisers including the Secretaries of Commerce, the Interior, Energy, Transportation, and Defense; the EPA Administrator; the Assistant Secretary of the Army; the White House Council of Economic Advisors; and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. This new role in developing policy regarding ecosystem services adds yet another dimension when we consider Obama's recent picks for these positions (particularly the choice of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture, which has generated some skepticism). But the inclusion of so many highest-level advisers, across so many departments, is also a sign that the federal government understands the crucial concept of interdependence when it comes to environmental policy.

In 2007, Worldchanging contributors Hassan Masum, David Zaks, and Chad Monfreda posted an interview with team members of the People & Ecosystems program of the World Resources Institute. The Washington D.C.-based think tank has produced tools and leading original research that inform both the scientific and policy communities. In the interview, the WRI team addressed points that stand out now, when viewed against the USDA announcement.

Research analyst Evan Branosky commented on the need for a better understanding of the problem and solutions as obstacles to the creation of a meaningful and unified ecosystem services model:

I've found that potential stakeholders understand the concept of trading quite well. This is due, in part, to the advent of carbon markets. The main criticism (and sometimes, skepticism) is more focused on the regulatory driver and design of the market. No one argues that emissions trading is a tool to efficiently regulate CO2; they argue instead about the science of global warming, the regulatory driver behind the program, the design of the market structure, and the market's geographic scope.

GIS Research Analyst Stephen Adam (who has since left WRI) discussed the need for a federal office to unify the ecosystem services approach:

Based on my experience, what's most needed to move implementation forward is political buy-in. While some individuals, businesses, and local governments will adopt ecosystem-minded policies and practices, it'll take a progressive federal government to allocate the necessary funds and create incentives for long-term programs oriented toward ecosystem goods and services. The debate over ecosystem goods and services will no doubt continue over the next decade, but government intervention and support is vital in the mainstreaming of ecosystems.

Revisiting that interview, it seems that a lot of hopeful progress has been made in the less than 18 months since it was published. Of course, the creation of a federal office is merely the first step of a long journey, and the impact of the office on U.S. markets, domestic ecosystems and even international policies remains to be seen. But recognition at a federal level is a huge step forward, particularly because it seems that the question of "does climate change exist" and "should we do something about it" is quickly fading from U.S. politics (case in point: this recent video message from Obama). We hope to see a lot of progress in this arena in the year to come.

Read more about ecosystem services in the Worldchanging archives:

Ecosystem Services of Tropical Forests to be Protected with Precedent-Setting Memorandum

Ecosystem Goods and Services Series: The Biophysical Basis

Ecosystem Goods and Services Series: Valuation 101

Moving Ecosystems Services from Theory to Reality

A Price Tag on Puget Sound

Photo: Lower Falls, Yellowstone River Canyon, Yellowstone National Park. Credit: flickr/v1ctory_1s_m1ne, Creative Commons license.

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Markets haven't served us very well since Friedman and Reaganomics pushed the public sector to the sidelines. I'm not sure I like the idea of putting markets in charge of something as life-critical as environmental services. No. I'm sure I don't like the idea. Free markets no longer exist (see Herman Daly's critique in For the Common Good) if they ever did. Yet, we pretend they do. There are just some things that are too important to be left to markets -- regulated or otherwise. I hope this incipient depression is a time for reconsidering our reliance on them. Please read this excellent critique on ecosystem service markets by Dr. Morgan Robertson.

Posted by: John Faust on 9 Jan 09

The USDA has been a major disappointment for me and i think all the rest of us who like healthy food. Let's wait and see what happens with this new office they created.

Posted by: Anya Veeroos on 10 Jan 09

I agree that the USDA has been woefully ignorant, corrupt and destructive but I can only see this news as a positive step. Just seeing the federal government acknowledging the idea of ecosystem services puts a smile on my face.
We still need to maintain our grassroots efforts as if this never happened, though.

Posted by: greensolutions on 10 Jan 09

Recognizing the value of ecosystem services is good in cost-benefit analyses, etc. but commodification is dangerous.

Posted by: Regina Gregory on 12 Jan 09

USDA has no idea what it's doing to the country. But i'm sure our fearless leaders will assign more czar's to figure it out.

Posted by: chuck on 11 May 10

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