Ecosystem Services in Working Lands: US Northeast


Ecosystem services are generally understood as “the benefits people obtain from ecosystems,” (MEA 2005). The concept was developed to rationalize and economically value the functions of ecosystems (Danly and Widmark 2016). Indicators of ecosystem services — and the value they provide — include clean water, healthy wildlife habitat, soil formation, and nutrient cycling. By definition, ecosystem services of working landscapes include the produced materials or goods with market value, for example, food for humans or livestock, field wood, timber, or carbon sequestration. However, a stringent focus on only the products or outcomes of discrete ecological processes avoids the complexity of socio-ecological systems (Selmen 2009) involved in the production of ecosystem services and de-emphasizes the operations and production processes of working landscapes. Therefore, the framework of landscape multifunctionality (the joint supply of multiple, stacked ecosystem services at the landscape scale, Mastrangelo et al. 2014) is used to situate this report’s assessment of incentive programs that support and encourage producers to deliver ecosystem services on working lands. Incorporating theoretical and applied principles from the fields of landscape ecology, agroecology, and ecological design, landscape multifunctionality is an approach to planning environmental, social, and economic functions of contiguous or regional landscapes while emphasizing land owners, managers, and users as primary stakeholders (Lovell and Johnston 2009). This means that the rural-urban divide can be unified as a continuous, interdependent matrix (Selman 2009) with functions beyond shared locations and single places or processes (Lovell and Taylor 2013). While intentionally designed working landscapes could serve independent functions (e.g. separating forests for timber from places for recreation), the institutional environment in the United States has not traditionally encouraged multiscalar thinking and cross-boundary collective action among landowners, resource managers, and policy makers (Rickenbach et al. 2011). As a result, few resources exist to evaluate the design of multifunctional landscapes independently (e.g. at the scale of the whole farm) and in aggregate (e.g. across multi-state regions) (Lovell et al. 2010). Both of these evaluation methods are important in designing and evaluating programs and policies that support a producer’s capacity and ability to deliver ecosystem services on working lands, to sustain economic viability, and to build resilience across working landscapes. Figure 1 illustrates example configurations of landscape multifunctionality and can be described through the lens of working landscapes. Unlike a mono-functional landscape (a), multifunctional landscapes support multiple functions in the same place and at the same time (b). For example, an acre of land used to exclusively produce corn can provide fewer ecological functions than an acre of land used to produce a mix of annual vegetables, perennial berries, and a cover crop. In addition, different landscape functions can be supported in the same place during different times (c); for example, inland floodplains function as stormwater retention after heavy rainfall and can serve as seasonal breeding habitat for amphibians. Last, different landscape functions can be supported by different places that interact (d), and these spatial combinations can differ in scale (e). e.g. upland forests support cleaner downstream waters that can be used as supplemental irrigation by farmers and healthy fishing ecosystems for anglers. Ultimately, the value of landscape multifunctionality depends on the ways in which stakeholders interpret different functions (f). e.g. the same field hedgerow could be seen by a farmer as a windbreak and by a hunter as deer habitat.

Figure 1. Depictions of landscape multifunctionality, created by Rolf et al. 2019 (based and extended as reported by the authors in the text below. From Brandt & Vejre 2004 and Selman 2009)


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