Ecosystem Services (Part I): What Are Ecosystem Services?



Today I am starting a 4-part series on ecosystem services.  Ecosystem services are the services that nature provides to humans, society, and the economy.  Research by scientists, economists, and public policy specialists has demonstrated that ecosystems provide critical and extremely valuable services that not only support life generally but also contribute to the functioning of our society and economy.  However, market, public policies, and legal doctrines tend to under-value these ecosystem services.

The concept of ecosystem services raises a variety of interesting questions:  Should we be attaching monetary values to nature and treating nature’s functions and processes as market commodities?  Does the concept of ecosystem services allow for eco-centric (i.e., non-human) values and non-economic benefits to humans?   Is it even possible to assign economic values to ecosystem services in any meaningful or useful way?  How can legal, political, economic, and social institutions incorporate ecosystem services values into their decision making processes?

Nonetheless, a key concept raised by this emerging literature is that land development may be producing short-term economic returns (profits, land value, etc.) at the expense of long-term natural capital needed to sustain nature, society, and the economy in the future. Today, I list below 3 articles that will introduce readers to the concept of ecosystem services and its relevance to law and public policy.  Future installments will address land use and ecosystem services, property law and ecosystem services, and issues in valuing ecosystem services.  


1) Ruhl, J.B. and Salzman, James  E., The Law and Policy Beginnings of Ecosystem Services. FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 290, Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2007.  Available at SSRN:  




Over the past decade, there has been an explosion of interest in ecosystem services from scientists, economists, government officials, entrepreneurs, and the media. This article traces the development of the ecosystem services concept in law and policy. We prepared it in connection with a symposium held at Florida State University in April 2006.

The presentations at the symposium, which then developed into the articles in a special issue of the Journal of Land Use and Environmental Law (volume 22, issue 2), approached the topic of ecosystem services and the law from two perspectives. One set of presentations focused on the law of specific natural resources, and the other set focused on different legal institutions as agents of integration of ecosystem services into law and policy. The resource presentations covered water and watershed resources, agricultural and rangeland resources, and coastal resources, while the institutional presentations addressed land use regulation, common law remedies, public law enforcement regimes, and second generation approaches in energy policy. This article provided the historical and conceptual anchor for the symposium.


2) Salzman, James  E., A Field of Green?  The Past and Future of Ecosystem Services. Duke Science, Technology & Innovation Paper No. 18, Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law, Vol. 21, p. 133, 2006.  Available at SSRN:  


Abstract:   In recent years, interest in ecosystem services has exploded. From cover stories in the New York Times and The Economist, websites connecting buyers and sellers of ecosystem services, and the comprehensive UN-sponsored Millennium Assessment - a report on the state of the world's ecosystem services - to a statement by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture calling for a future where credits for clean water, greenhouse gases, or wetlands can be traded as easily as corn or soybeans, the ecosystem services approach has firmly arrived in the environmental policy world. But what does this approach entail and where is it going?

This short article reviews the state of the field. Although critical to our well-being, ecosystem services are neither explicitly protected by the law nor traded in markets. The first section explains the three major obstacles to protection and commodification of ecosystem services. The second section proposes payments for services as an alternative policy approach to the more traditional instruments of prescriptive regulation and financial penalties. The third section briefly describes examples of service payments around the globe, demonstrating the wide range of approaches. The fourth section considers the difficult issues in structuring payments for services, including the challenges of moral hazard, the polluter pays principle, and norm shaping. The final section describes three exciting recent developments
– the growing interest of conservation and land trust organizations to integrate ecosystem services into their central missions, the launching of an ecosystem marketplace on the web, and negotiations to incorporate ecosystem service markets explicitly into the 2007 Farm Bill. This article was voted by law professors for inclusion in the 2006 issue of the Land Use and Environmental Law Review.  


3) Frischmann , Brett  M., Environmental Infrastructure. Ecology Law Quarterly, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:  




This essay explores how my recent work on infrastructure and commons applies to environmental resources. Part I briefly describes the core idea, which is developed extensively elsewhere. Part II suggests how it might apply to the natural environment. Specifically, Part II (a) frames the difficult environmental valuation and management problems; (b) applies the infrastructure criteria and delineates environmental infrastructure; (c) offers a few insights regarding environmental management and regulation; and (d) considers how infrastructure theory relates to the literatures on ecosystem services and multiple use management.