Ecosystem services: Am I going to get a bill?

Spent last Friday in a departmental faculty retreat – you know, the “vision thing”  – S.W.O.T. analysis, where are we going to be in five years, etc.  But we actually got some things accomplished. One of the more interesting aspects was discussing trends in horticulture, both popular and practical, and how we could respond. One of the reoccurring themes throughout the day, especially related to urban agricultural/horticulture, was ecosystems services. I’ve heard the term mostly from environmental science and urban forestry folks.  But also seems fairly appropriate for us horticulturists, who are constantly trying to explain what, exactly, we do.

The definition offered by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (“Bringing biology to informed decision making”) is pretty good:

Ecosystem Services are the processes by which the
environment produces resources that we often take for granted such as
clean water, timber, and habitat for fisheries, and pollination of
native and agricultural plants. Whether we find ourselves in the city or
a rural area, the ecosystems in which humans live provide goods and
services that are very familiar to us. [They include:]

  • moderate weather extremes and their impacts
  • disperse seeds
  • mitigate drought and floods
  • protect people from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays
  • cycle and move nutrients
  • protect stream and river channels and coastal shores from erosion
  • detoxify and decompose wastes
  • control agricultural pests
  • maintain biodiversity
  • generate and preserve soils and renew their fertility
  • contribute to climate stability
  • purify the air and water
  • regulate disease carrying organisms
  • pollinate crops and natural vegetation”

Horticulture, as a discipline, touches on so many of these areas.

My question to our readers: does the term ecosystem services mean much to you? Or do you consider it jargon, best kept to grant proposals and impact reports?

8 thoughts on “Ecosystem services: Am I going to get a bill?”

  1. I use this concept in practice often. I use it to play devils advocate when a client wants to remove grass or trees for gravel or other hardscape. I explain all the things they will lose and gain based on which choices they make in the gsrden.

  2. Speaking only from my humble opinion, you should leave it as jargon (for those in the know). I’d be worried that too many people would confuse it with “environmental services”, which here in New England means they’re about to pump your septic system out.

  3. Until I read your post, I had no idea what ‘ecosystem services’ were. Seeing this list makes it entirely clear, and so much more understandable! Maybe use the jargon as shorthand in the proposals and reports, with quick reminder-explanations like this one to educate the rest of us.

  4. I think it depends on the audience being addressed. In public seminars or when talking to clients, it’s just jargon. When talking to a group of Master Gardeners or industry professionals, it may have use as shorthand. If/when the meaning becomes widely understood, it will be easier to use when explaining concepts instead of listing the whole gamut of things involved. When I first saw the phrase, I figured it was some new business concept, not what nature does “naturally.”

  5. I guess the alternative, much shorter definition for ecosystem services is… nature.
    SandyG noted exactly what I thought when I first heard the term a few years ago, hence the title for my post. Thanks for the input – that’s exactly what I was hoping for (plus the tidbit from Gil – ha!)

  6. Well to me ecosystem itself means everything within any specific environment which includes not only plants, but also the microbes, birds animals fish etc that work and live together. Adding Services to the word Ecosystem adds a meaning of replicating that in the urban landscape, Home Garden or even Agriculture, as in the case of Agroforestry. Replicating and utilizing nature’s instincts instead of working against them. I always group similar ecosystem plants together when designing landscapes and quite often for the purpose of not only beauty, but also the beauty of wildlife, especially birds & beneficial insect which quite often helped the plants.

  7. By legislative mandate, Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency is trying to quantify some ecosystem services through their Minimal Impact Design Standards (MIDS)process (see for details). Stormwater mitigation is not cheap, and MPCA is attempting to offer stormwater credits for specific green infrastructure BMP’s. Bioretention, bioswales, tree trenches, along with permeable pavements, filtration and harvest/re-use will be at play.

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