Ecosystem Services: Meanings, origin, and status of the approach in BC Ecosystem Management.

Ecosystems contribute immensely to our quality of life in BC. Imagine our homes, culture, and economy without forest ecosystems to supply wood and wood products, medicinal plants used in First Nations traditions, and clean drinking water for our communities. Or, imagine a landscape without beautiful aesthetics, spiritual inspiration, and cultural heritage, which contribute to our high-quality of life. These, as examples of ecosystem services, are all valid things to recognize and make efforts toward sustaining in natural resources management.

The diverse values for ecosystems can be captured, quantified, and expressed as ‘ecosystem services.’ The ecosystem services approach gained its fame as a means to make a case for conservation by quantifying the value of nature in monetary terms, which led one study’s estimate that the value for Earth’s ecosystems sits around $32 Trillion – a number twice the global GDP. Lately, the approach has advanced significantly as researchers and the broader community come to recognize the breadth of ecosystem services provided by nature, many of which cannot be reduced to a simple dollar value.

The ecosystem services approach has been implemented alongside many tools, frameworks, and applications (see the review here) to improve the efficiency of ecosystem management around the world. For instance, the approach has been adopted as a central framework in nearly all aspects of land management in Europe, mandated by the White House for adoption in all US public policy (including the US Forest Service), and launched internationally through a system of natural capital accounting by the United Nations. So where does Canada stand? Is the term being passed around the water coolers of BC Forestry offices or is yet to migrate this far north?  

The ecosystem services approach is still far from becoming mainstream in BC forest management, but there have long been signs of its arrival. In 2010, the David Suzuki Foundation estimated the value of natural capital in Vancouver’s Lower Mainland at over $5 Billion. Also, Canadian federal research and natural resources institutions have taken up ecosystem services as a research approach and policy tool. For instance, Natural Resources Canada and Statistics Canada have implemented case studies inventorying ecosystem services in Canada’s boreal forests and other ecosystem types across Canada.


 Diamond Head Consulting (2017)

Diamond Head Consulting (2017)

In BC’s urban areas, the approach appears to be having having greater on-the-ground influence, especially in municipal planning for urban forestry. For example, many BC municipalities have started to  adopt the ecosystem services approach in their efforts to create livable cities that are resilient to a changing climate. Services like cooling by urban trees, stormwater management, recreation, stress reduction, connection to nature, and so on, are in high demand in cities. In our work with municipalities, we help to identify and measure the ecosystem services that are in demand and promote environmental management alternatives to enhance their supply. Because the approach is practically supported, through applications like i-TREE, scientific literature, Metro Vancouver’s carbon inventory etc., it can be holistically applied to capture the diverse monetary and non-monetary values that residents hold for their urban forests and green spaces. A key strength of the ecosystem services approach from a public policy and planning perspective is that it provides a compelling and relatable platform for communicating planning objectives to the public.

Despite progress in urban areas, I am not aware of the approach being widely adopted in BC’s forest management and planning. That is not to say that ecosystem services are being entirely neglected. Ecosystem services are somewhat synonymous with forest values and forest legislation and regulations do protect multiple values in forests. However, ecosystem services are yet to clearly enter our province’s forest planning or legislative lexicon and the province has sometimes struggled to answer criticism that non-timber values are adequately accounted for and managed. That being said, practice of urban forestry and the ecosystem services approach is increasingly on the radar for BC’s Professional Foresters, so it is likely that the ecosystem services approach will also have a greater influence when it comes time to rethink forest management planning in BC.

Ira Sutherland