Paying nature to do its thing

A ridge in the Blue Ridge Mountains is ablaze in Fall colors October 18, 2008 on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah Park, Va.

Tess Vigeland: Ever feel like you're slaving away and getting no recognition for it at all? Well, that's how nature feels. It turns out the environment is doing all sorts of things for us. In return, we plow it up and tear it down.

Reporter Sabri Ben-Achour of station WAMU in Washington visited a place where nature is actually getting a paycheck for all its work.


Sabri Ben-Achour: Here in central Virginia, the Blue Ridge mountains are beginning to turn green with buds as spring creeps up the hillsides. Richard Hudson stands in a pasture in the valley below. His family has farmed this land for almost 200 years.

Richard Hudson: I'm the sixth generation of my family to own this farm, and there have been livestock here since the beginning.

In this pasture though, the cows have been kicked out. This pasture will become a forest.

Hudson: Fifteen-hundred pine trees are going to be planted in there and the tree planting is scheduled to happen in about two weeks, so I'm looking forward to that.

Virginia's Department of Forestry is paying Hudson about $1,000 an acre to take his land out of production and return it to forest.

Hudson: I've signed an agreement to maintain this to the specifications that they require for 20 years.

But this isn't just money for trees -- this is money for what trees do.

David Powell: The forest cleans water.

David Powell is a forester with Virginia's Department of Forestry. He says when you look at a forest, just sitting there, it's actually doing stuff. For you.

Powell: Forest are very good at filtering out and preventing erosion and sedimentation; it also helps clean out the air.

This is what's called an ecosystem service -- when nature does stuff for people. The trouble is, even though people benefit from nature just doing its thing, nobody gets paid for letting nature do its thing. Actually, they get paid to do the opposite: forests get cleared, roots dug up -- benefits gone. That's just the markety world we live in. So Virginia's forestry department wants to pay for the benefit and maybe get consumers to do so too later down the road.

Buck Kline is director of Forestland conservation with Virginia's Department of Forestry.

Buck Kline: What we're doing is developing a process to link rural landowners with the users of water, which represents the urban suburban population.

Using models, they'll quantify the benefit of a forest to a water source, wrap it up and put a price tag on it and make it a product. But who pays how much and for what?

That's a challenge with ecosystem services, but the general idea -- putting a value on what nature does for humans -- is becoming more popular around the world, says Craig Hanson with the World Resources Institute.

Craig Hanson: Decision-makers are recognizing that ecosystems are an often overlooked underpinning of national economic development.

He points to Costa Rica, where a hydroelectric plant actually does pay landowners to plant trees so its dam doesn't get clogged with mud. Or Belize, where a cargo ship was fined for destroying a reef based on how much that reef contributed to the economy. This concept is a new approach to conservation.

Hanson: For decades, we've been talking about saving nature for nature's sake and that's worked to some degree -- we have a lot of protected areas around the planet, etc. -- but there are limits. For a lot of governments, a lot of people, a lot of companies, that's not a convincing argument.

And so he says the concept of an ecosystem service is an economic argument to save nature for people's sake.

In Washington D.C., I'm Sabri Ben-Achour for Marketplace.

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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