Press Release

Ecosystem Services Find Their Federal Footing

May 3, 2016

WASHINGTON—Natural resources produce a wide variety of important services for people, including clean air and water, recreational opportunities, and flood protection, to name just a few. These ecosystem services encourage government planning that works to ensure those benefits. And while efforts to encourage more such planning have gained tremendous traction in the last decade, federal ecosystem services analysis and management has largely remained optional—rather than institutionally mandated.

But a new discussion paper posted today by Resources for the Future (RFF) describes the history and politics of two ecosystem services initiatives backed by more formal federal action and mandates: the Conservation Title of the 2008 Farm Bill and the US Forest Service’s 2012 Forest Planning Rule.

In Ecosystem Services Find Their Federal Footing: A History of the 2008 Farm Bill and 2012 Forest Planning Rule, RFF Senior Fellow James Boyd, who also serves as director of social science and policy at the National SocioEnvironmental Synthesis Center, writes of those two programs: “They demonstrate that ecosystem services analysis and management can clear the significant political, legal, and institutional hurdles associated with national legislation and regulatory reform. The reforms’ history holds a variety of lessons for ecosystem services advocates and practitioners.”

The Forest Planning Rule specifically requires the use of “integrated resource management to provide for ecosystem services and multiple uses.” The Farm Bill requires the secretary of agriculture to “establish technical guidelines that outline science-based methods to measure the environmental services benefits from conservation and land management activities in order to facilitate the participation of farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners in emerging environmental services markets.”

In addition to underscoring important lessons from the evolution of both the Forest Planning Rule and the Farm Bill, Boyd also provides a brief history of the evolution of efforts around environmental services:

  • The very first Conference of Governors, brought together by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, declared the nation’s natural resources “the foundation of our prosperity” and “the material basis on which our civilization must continue to depend.”
  • That idea spawned a dedicated academic discipline, environmental economics. In 1952, Resources for the Future became the first independent organization devoted exclusively to natural resource and environmental issues, helping to pioneer the field of environmental and natural resource economics.
  • The field deepened and flourished in the decades that followed, as environmental issues gained broader social attention with the emergence of ecological economics as a distinct field in the 1980s.  
  • The Forest Service and USDA’s long histories of marrying scientific research to practical forestry and agricultural applications helped pave the way for these ecosystem services initiatives.

In conclusion, Boyd writes: “The Forest Service’s century-old science and public engagement culture, so important to [its] successes . . . is not necessarily replicable. And future federal ecosystem services initiatives will inevitably present challenges unique to other agencies’ mandates, missions, and politics. But the 2008 Farm Bill and 2012 Forest Planning Rule demonstrate an affinity—applicable to numerous future environmental policy innovations—between ecosystem services thinking, contemporary ecological science, and participatory resource planning.”

This study was supported by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Resources for the Future does not take intitutional positions. Please attribute any findings to the authors or the research itself. For example, use "According to research from RFF …" rather than "According to RFF …".

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Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, DC, that conducts rigorous economic research and analysis to improve environmental and natural resource policy.