The economic value of services provided by nature

Neil Fleckenstein, Tall Timbers Land Conservancy Planning Coordinator

Aucilla RiverTurn on the tap, out comes the water. Fresh, clean, and seemingly endless. Over the years, I’ve often asked groups visiting Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy where our drinking water comes from. “The faucet” is a common response. Prodded further, there is often a surprising range of responses that accompany the correct answer – groundwater. 

Basic questions like “Where does our drinking water come from?” are important because they force us to think about things we often overlook. For example, the value of certain indispensable ecosystem services in our lives. These services are the natural processes we take for granted that support our lives on earth: water purification, drinking water recharge, climate regulation, and many others.

Many of us think these vital services are free and limitless because they don’t have obvious price tags. However, because we don’t recognize them as having any monetary value, they often are disregarded when decisions are made that affect our forests, wetlands, and other natural areas. The result is serious and costly impacts. For example, the decades-long loss of marshland and wetlands in Louisiana magnified flooding and damage from Hurricane Katrina in coastal areas and the city of New Orleans.

Because development decisions largely depend on cost and benefit analyses, it is critical that we begin factoring in the economic value of these services provided by nature into the decision making process.

Working with Tall Timbers, the University of Georgia undertook the challenge of valuing a wide range of critical ecosystem services provided by many thousands of acres of private forests in the greater Red Hills region. This magnificent area, nestled between the Ochlockonee and Aucilla Rivers, the Cody Escarpment south of Tallahassee, and the historic community of Thomasville, has retained many of the natural features that are vanishing from the landscape of the South. The region’s rolling hills encompass a mosaic of forests, grassy plains, sinkhole lakes, springs, and wetlands. The Red Hills is home to more than 60 rare and threatened species and also nurtures the Floridan Aquifer, which provides drinking water to millions of residents of Florida, Georgia, and Alabama.

The single most important reason that the forests and other natural areas of the Red Hills have thrived when many others long ago vanished is the region is home to more than 80 large quail hunting properties as well as farms and other working rural lands. More than 300,000 acres in the greater Red Hills are held as largely contiguous hunting lands with more than 164,000 acres permanently protected from development through various conservation tools.

The results of the UGA study demonstrate the tremendous economic value of the ecosystem services that are directly benefiting all residents of our region. Economists estimated the total economic value of the ecosystem services provided by the private forest lands of the Red Hills at more than $1.13 billion per year. Water quality protection provided by forests and wetlands and groundwater resupply resulting from vast natural areas of high water recharge are two of the most valuable natural services provided by the Red Hills. The region also provides vital climate regulation, habitat for pollinators essential for the reproduction of many plants including agricultural commodities, and aesthetic beauty valued by residents and visitors alike. 

Ensuring a healthy environment with clean and abundant water, fresh air, wildlife habitat, and scenic beauty is critical for our regional economy and our quality of life. The number one threat to rural lands and the irreplaceable natural services they provide is sprawling urban development. You can help protect these ecosystem services for ours and future generations by supporting efforts to maintain existing rural zoning; supporting policies to maintain the size of our current Urban Services Area [which has decades of room for future growth]; and encouraging activities that enhance the quality of our existing urban and suburban environments. For additional information about this study or other issues related to conservation of the Red Hills, check out

This article was originally published in the Tallahassee Democrat on January 31 under the title: "Greening our community: Nature’s value in dollars and cents".  

« Back to eNews