• Eliza Letourneau

Payment for Ecosystem Services

Updated: Jan 27

“Ecosystem services” is the term used to describe any positive benefits the natural world provides to humans. There are four general categories used to describe these services. Provisioning services are the material or energy outputs of ecosystems, including food, water, raw materials such as wood and oil, and more. Regulating services are provided through the regulation of natural systems, including flood control and water purification, pollination, and many more. Supporting services are the underlying natural processes that allow life to continue on earth, such as habitat and nutrient cycling. Lastly, cultural services are ways the natural world shapes our culture and society, including recreation, tourism, aesthetics, and spirituality. The health of our ecosystems, and the ways we take care of them, impacts how well they can maintain and provide these services to us.

In Vermont, our ability to hunt, fish, hike, produce food through farming, and enjoy our land and water in many other ways is controlled by all these ecosystem services. Our tourism and agricultural industries, a large portion of our economy, rely heavily on our natural resources and support of their continued health. Investment in ecosystem services makes economic sense in a variety of ways, including water purification costs and protection from flood damages. New York City receives 90% of its drinking water from the Catskill region upstate, investing $1.7 billion since the 1990s to protect the watersheds to meet strict water quality standards. While this seems expensive, if water quality declined, the city would have to spend $10 billion to build a filtration plant and another $100 million annually to operate and maintain it. Healthy and functioning floodplains and wetlands in Middlebury saved the town as much as $1.8 million in reduced damages during Tropical Storm Irene and save up to $450,000 in damages for the town each year. Investing some money to protect these watersheds and allowing them to function properly saves millions of dollars. 

The Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) Working Group, made up of farmers, agricultural organizations, and state and federal regulators, is searching for a way to improve the ecosystem services our land provides through payment to land managers. There are 1.2 million acres of agricultural land in Vermont, managed by farmers who are paid only for the direct food products they produce, and not for the ecosystem services their land management provides for everyone in the state. For these farmers, and particularly for the dairy industry, where low milk prices over the last few years have led to financial difficulty, the current system incentivizes them to work the land to produce as much as possible, leaving unhealthy soils. Many farmers voluntarily implement conservation practices, but to make improving ecosystem services viable for all land managers, a payment system is needed. The working group is tasked with providing guidance on creating a financial incentive system that will pay farmers for using practices that improve soil health, enhance crop resilience, increase carbon and stormwater storage, and reduce agricultural runoff. The group began met five times from September through January. They produced a report for the legislature January 15th outlining eight key recommendations with a request to be funded through December 2021. The group hopes to better gather information on the relationship between soil health and ecosystem services as well as existing and emerging monitoring and modeling tools for PES in order to develop a model for PES that will work for Vermont. You can find the final report, meeting summaries, and webinar summaries as well as learn more about the group at agriculture.vermont.gov/pes.

Abe Collins, an advocate of contracting farmers to create measurable improvements in ecosystem services, demonstrates a measurement tool he calls “the Grazibrator” on Choiniere Family Farm in Hiighgate.


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