To calculate the true value of a forest, we need to know how people benefit from it, according to new research published in Nature Sustainability. A healthy forest holds a treasure trove of benefits for people — it can filter water for downstream communities, supply timber for building, and provide a place for people to connect with nature. But a forest — or any other ecosystem — won't necessarily provide the same things to everyone.
"Context matters," says Lisa Mandle, lead scientist at the Stanford Natural Capital Project and lead author on the paper. "If we want to protect the critical natural assets we all depend on, we need actionable policies that incorporate people's diverse needs. It shouldn't be a one-size-fits-all approach when we're talking about people and nature."
After completing her B.S. at Stanford University, University of Texas at Austin ecology, evolution and behavior Ph.D. student Analisa Shields-Estrada joined Stanford Natural Capital Project researchers to co-lead a structured review of the literature to identify key elements of ecosystem service research with high potential for increasing policy impact. She led data analysis and visualization of the findings, drawing on her expertise and interest in quantitative methods.
"In the midst of such a critical time for our climate, it was outstanding to see such a collaborative endeavor by researchers at universities across the globe to provide the field of ecosystem services with clear components for maximizing policy impact," Shields-Estrada said.
There's a growing global movement to invest in nature in order to protect vital resources and improve climate resilience. But for nature to be factored into policies, sustainable development plans, and other management decisions, the researchers say the science behind them needs to be more inclusive and people-centric.
They also say a focus on equity is crucial. People benefit from nature in different ways — a forest might provide valuable timber for one group while providing deep cultural significance for another. When all the individuals or groups receiving those benefits aren't considered, the people who depend on nature the most can be left behind.
"If you don't know who specifically would benefit from which ecosystems, how can you prioritize where and how to conserve?" said Taylor Ricketts, director of University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Environment and a co-author on the paper. "We want to make sure the benefits of ecosystems are shared equitably, so that we don't make existing racial and social inequality even worse."
The authors say that nature-based solutions can create triple-win scenarios for economies, ecosystems, and people. From securing local water supplies to informing coastal development plans, understanding the values that nature provides to people can be a powerful tool for decision-makers. But, too often, the research doesn't pay enough attention to the people part. As a result, the researchers recommend actions for their own scientific community that focus on building understanding around who is benefitting from nature in the communities they're hoping to serve. They emphasize direct engagement with people, so that science and policy can be better equipped to meet societal needs, increase equity, and protect vital resources.
It is also imperative to take into account how the science can be translated into concrete policies for community leaders and lawmakers.
"Policy-level changes are critical to fighting the worsening climate crisis. It is imperative that ecosystem service science is relevant to decision making and policy making," Shields-Estrada said.
Current Stanford Natural Capital Project authors on the paper include Rebecca Chaplin-Kramer, Jeffrey Smith, Adrian Vogl, Gregory Verutes and Gretchen Daily. Author Peter Hawthorne is with the Natural Capital Project team at the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment. Other authors include Matthew G.E. Mitchell of the University of British Columbia, Leah L. Bremer of the University of Hawai'i, Jesse D. Gourevitch of the University of Vermont, Justin Johnson of the University of Minnesota, Brian E. Robinson of McGill University and Laura J. Sonter of the University of Vermont and the University of Queensland.