In the “The value of conservation

The air we breathe, the water we drink, the soils that sustain our pastures, forestry, orchards and crops are examples of environmental goods that benefit humans. Without them, life on Earth would be impossible.

These goods – air, water and soil – arise from interactions between living things, such as chemical reactions and mechanical processes. Ecosystem processes that benefit humans are called “ecosystem services”.

When fungi, worms and bacteria convert sunlight, carbon and nitrogen, the resulting soil is an ecosystem service that farmers and gardeners use. When the marine environment allows tuna, snapper, hoki, squid and other commercial species to thrive, it is providing an ecosystem service to the fishing industry.

Ecosystem services deriving from public conservation lands appear in many forms:

Provisioning services

  • Ecosystems and habitats that nurture fish and game, and other species that are harvested, either commercially, for customary or subsistence use, and/or for recreation.
  • Ecosystems and habitats that provide opportunities for bioprospecting.
  • Ecosystems and habitats that provide resources for scientific research.
  • Ecosystems that provide fresh water for drinking, hydro and irrigation.

Regulating services

  • Ecosystems and habitats that may capture carbon and regulate the effects of human-caused climate change. •
  • Vegetated catchments that regulate supply of water, mitigate flooding, reduce erosion, and reduce the rates of silting up of harbours and estuaries.

Supporting services

  • Native bees, which are varroa bee-mite resistant, may provide important pollination services for horticulture and pastoral farming.
  • High-biodiversity ecosystems and habitats, such as wetlands, that provide nutrient recycling and environmental detoxification services to improve aspects of the environment such as water quality.
  • Ecosystems – e.g. bacteria, flies, worms, fungi – that decompose decaying organic matter into essential minerals and other resources such as soil and purified water.

Cultural services

  • Ecosystems and habitats that provide attractive places to visit for recreation (e.g. tramping, mountain-biking, camping, sightseeing, photography, snorkelling and diving), and for conservationists.
  • Ecosystems and habitats in which people may pursue improved health and wellbeing, and/or for spiritual and/or cultural purposes.
  • Ecosystems, habitats and scenery that provide the backdrop to New Zealand’s clean, green image, and draw overseas tourists and film-makers to New Zealand.

Ecosystem services are often taken for granted, because they are “free”, that is, not traded directly in markets – unlike fish, vegetables and timber. The value to society of ecosystem services becomes more apparent when:

  • They are in decline – when air and water is polluted, when erosion and overgrazing degrades soils, when deforested catchments lead to flooding in heavy rain, when whitebait catches fall on the removal of wetlands and streams for farming.
  • There are conflicting demands on use – between hydro companies, irrigators, kayakers, anglers and rafting companies for river flows; between diving tourism companies, recreational snorkelers and fishers for healthy marine environments.

In these situations, the ecosystem services are no longer free, but, in the absence of markets and well-defined property rights it is unclear how they should best be managed. Also, ecosystems are so complicated that it is impossible to reproduce them artificially. Rather, humans impact on ecosystems, and in some cases the impacts are irreversible. The more the ecosystems are modified, the simpler they are likely to become and provide fewer services.

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