Ecosystem services, stated simply, are the benefits humans derive from the environment. Food, clean air and water, fiber for clothes….these are obvious and significant examples of supplies upon which we are dependent. What keeps the water and air clean? How can the land keep providing food to feed billions of people? Why am I happier when out in ‘nature’? Is my home worth more because of its proximity to a resource (e.g., lake, river, park, forest)?
Turns out, the environment is providing more for us then we tend to think about. The myriad processes that occur ‘outside’ give rise to the services we need and desire. Scientists have grouped the activities and products of nature into four categories: First, Provisioning Services. These are the services we are most familiar with (and grateful for) such as food, potable water, wood and fiber, and fuel. Then, we have the Regulating Services. These occur on a scale that may be imperceptible, when things are good, but relate to services very important to us including flood regulation, water purification and quantity, and disease regulation (think Ebola). Those services are still pretty tangible (and relatively easy to monetize). Services for which we have an innate desire are the Cultural Services. These include having a spiritual connection to nature, enjoying the aesthetic quality of the environment, and of course recreational activities (boating, hiking, camping, etc). Probably the most overlooked but important of all the Ecosystem Services provided by nature are what are known as the Supporting Services. The supporting services are the processes and functions of nature that give rise to all the other services listed above. We desire breathable air, plentiful food, and fiber, so we plant trees and shrubs that take up carbon dioxide and provide raw materials and fruits for consumption. Nutrient cycling mediated by plants and microbes help keep our water clean, our food nutritious (high in nutrients and other compounds), and slow climate change. A diverse, species rich landscape full of animals and plants gives us a sense of peace and fulfillment. Without nature and the environment doing what it does through the Supporting Services, we would not have the other services of interest. It is for the protection and sustainability of the environment that the Supporting services are so often studied by scientists and at heart, our regulations and protections are in place (e.g., minimizing nutrient pollution, deforestation, impervious cover). As human populations increase, our footprint on the landscape grows, and our need for ‘natural capital’ becomes greater to support mankind, it will be the protection, regulation, and protection of the Supporting Services that will ensure sustainability of all Ecosystem Services required and desired for the wellbeing of mankind.