Landscapes that provide a lot of one services, such as pig production, can be costly because they have fewer of the hidden services, such as the regulation of nutrient pollution, which are also important to people. Photo: M. Edman/Azote

Seeing the hidden services of nature

Researchers develop new approach for managing ecological trade-offs.

Following an intense study of agricultural ecosystems near Montreal, a new tool that enables the simultaneous analysis and management of a wide range of ecological services has been developed by Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne of McGill University's Department of Geography, Elena Bennett of the McGill School of Environment, and centre researcher Garry Peterson.

Risk of missing hidden ecosystem services
Environmental management typically focuses on nature's resources like food, wildlife and timber, but can miss hidden ecosystem services such as water purification, climate moderation and the regulation of nutrient cycling.

The researchers show that ecosystems that maximized agriculture offer fewer hidden ecosystems services than more diverse agricultural landscapes. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on March 1, 2010.

"Landscapes that provide a lot of one services, such as pig production, can be costly because they have fewer of the hidden services, such as the regulation of nutrient pollution, which are also important to people," Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne says.

They also show that in some areas high amounts of agricultural production can go hand in hand with the production of other ecosystem services. The researchers framework can be used to help identify “best-practice areas" and contribute to developing effective resource policies.

Trade-offs and costs must be recognized
Bennett believes Quebec manages its environment fairly well, but that there are still trade-offs and costs to be recognized.

"The big local message is that in terms of the landscape we have to be thinking about more than just one thing — we can't just see corn, we have to see deer hunting, nutrients, and tourism, too," Bennett says.

The area surrounding Montreal was selected because it is typical of near-urban agricultural landscapes in many parts of the world.

"We hope these methods can be applied to many other landscapes around the world," Peterson says, adding the tool will help decision makers trying to balance the goals of farmers, rural villagers and exurban commuters.

See video interview with assistant professor Ann Kinzig on why its important to think about complexity in ecosystems:

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Reference

Citation

C. Raudsepp-Hearnea, G. D. Peterson, E. M. Bennettc. 2010. Ecosystem service bundles for analyzing tradeoffs in diverse landscapes. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Published online before print March 1, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0907284107

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