Ecosystem services and their benefits vary with land use

Ecosystem services are any ecological product or process that benefits humans. They can range from the provision of food and water, pollination, carbon storage, nutrient cycling, recreation, and aesthetics. With such a wide array of services, different land uses provide different levels and types of services based upon their composition and management.

The Tall Timbers’ Fire Ecology Program recently published a paper measuring various ecosystem services provided by land uses common throughout the Red Hills region. We were particularly interested in how levels of ecosystem services changed over time with the restoration of pine savanna on former agricultural land. Thanks to several private landowners in the region, we were able to sample vegetation, soil, and bees on the following land uses: row-crop agriculture, restored pine savanna 5-100 years since the abandonment of agriculture, native pine savanna (i.e., never plowed), pastures, pine plantations, and unmanaged (fire-excluded) forest.

Our results showed that ecosystem services increased over time in restored pine savannas. We recorded increases in native plant biodiversity, total ecosystem carbon, and decreases in soil plant pathogens, water runoff, and soil erosion. As seen in the figure, most services measured surpassed levels seen in row crops within 5-15 years, but required 75-100 years to reach levels equal to native pine savanna. However, it is important to note that not all services were restored to the same level provided by native pine savanna. Row-crop agriculture, pastures, and pine plantations naturally had the highest levels of services for their target products (e.g. food, fodder, timber, etc.), but provided lower levels of many other ecosystem services compared to pine savannas (e.g. plant biodiversity, ecosystem carbon, symbiotic soil fungi). Closed-canopy forested lands, whether planted pine or unmanaged, had lower water yield (water that is returned to lakes, streams, and groundwater reservoirs) than other land uses, as well as lower bee pollinator abundance. While these sites do have greater ecosystem carbon levels, it comes at the expense of herbaceous plant diversity and their associated insects, e.g., bees.

These results highlight the promise of pine savanna restoration for providing ecosystem services. However, many of these services were not provided until decades after restoration began, thus calling into question the benefit of short-term government incentives programs and underscoring the importance of long-term or permanent investments in restoration and conservation. The tradeoffs in ecosystem services seen among pine savannas and alternative land uses suggests that a multiple land use or mosaic approach that includes restored and native pine savanna is a balanced approach for provision of ecosystem services and economic viability.

Figure 1. Ecosystem services provided by different land uses. Symbols indicate different ecosystem services along a slider bar for each land use. As symbols move toward the right, higher levels of service are provided by that land use.



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