Scale, management, and ecosystem services

The idea of ecosystem services is appealing to land ecologists.  It promises a new way to convey the value of ecosystems and ecological processes to a broad audience and focus attention on sustainable management of those services.  While this effort gives monetary value to what many of us have only been able to describe in terms of the passion we have for the workings of nature, quantifying ecosystem services to the point where they can be ‘monetized’ is a step or two beyond what most of us had in mind when we entered the profession.  Yet, if we are serious about communicating the value of nature to a public that is unlikely to share our professional interests, putting a monetary value on the goods and services derived from nature is critical.  For the purposes of this post, I will overlook the purist argument that we shouldn’t try to attach an economic value to every aspect of nature—that’s another topic entirely. 
Traditional economics has not been much help.  By and large, economic value of land is determined by either the amount of a commodity (livestock, timber) that can be delivered to a market OR the amount someone was willing to pay to experience the benefits (scenery, hunting).  In both cases, the value of the ecosystem services supplied by a particular piece of land were determined by a set of local characteristics (productivity, diversity) as well as spatial context: distance to a market, accessibility, or the status of the surrounding area.  Some of the more creative economists have been able to come up with predictive models that integrate a host of these factors, but by and large, the value of a particular piece of land was determined primarily by how much someone was willing to pay to use it-whatever their motives. 
Some non-commodity ecosystem services have benefited from having value that transcends their explicit spatial location. Markets for carbon have worked reasonably well because, as with more traditional commodities, there are legitimate markets that provide prices and rules, agreed upon techniques for estimating amounts and ownership, and we can determine transaction costs including measurement and verification.  This provides transparency to buyers, sellers and the public. Most important, carbon markets work because greenhouse gases are globally fungible.  That is, a ton of carbon is a ton of carbon, whether it is emitted from a tailpipe or a cleared rainforest; or whether it is stored in a rangeland soil or a deciduous forest.
Other potentially valuable ecosystem services don’t have that advantage.  A hectare of endangered species habitat can only be valued by knowing where it is located.   Habitat, regardless of the quality, is pretty useless unless there are some populations of the endangered species that are available to occupy it.  Likewise, it is of little value if it is so far removed from other habitat that populations can’t find it.  Regional, landscape and local context, in addition to the local properties of a piece of land, are necessary to determine the true value.  Managing land for water quality is a watershed endeavor.  Managing all the uplands in a rangeland watershed for water quality has little value if drainage ways are poorly managed and the clean upland water gathers sediment in the riparian areas on its way to users.  Pollinators need habitat that allows them to live and reproduce close to the crops for which they provide such valuable pollination services.  Although there are some services that transport bees to the target crops and then move on to the next field, on the whole they are not long-distance commuters.
These complex spatial relationships matter for many ecosystem services and attempts to oversimplify them to get into a market may ultimately diminish the credibility of land ecologists.  The California Rangeland Watershed Management Program struggled for several years because the scientists and technical assistance providers were more comfortable with upland management than focusing efforts on riparian area improvement.  Not until we really started taking a holistic landscape approach did we convince other scientists and regulatory agencies that we were serious about improving water quality, not just promoting range management.  Promoting oversimplified and inaccurate justifications for the value of land may limit confidence in potential markets and detract from our ability to promote science-based ecosystem service valuations. Maybe we should adopt the motto of another influential profession: location, location, location.