Ecosystem Services – What Your Garden and Nature Does for You
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Gardeners, farmers and landowners who manage their land are drawn to those vocations and hobbies for many reasons. Some they can name, but some are felt deep inside of them that are hard to define. It is our connection to the land, the plants and the animals that give the natural world meaning to many of us. Yet, there are an indefinable number of things that nature does for us every day without humans having to raise a finger. There are also an equal number of negative things that can happen when we do or do not do certain things. There is a name for this concept: “Ecosystem services”. By understanding what they are and how we benefit from them, we can make sure we are utilizing our natural resources efficiently, while also enhancing the naturally-occuring benefits of nature in our own backyards.
What are “ecosystem services”?
It is a known cliche that “we are all connected”. This can be encompassed by the concept of ecosystem services. The National Wildlife Federation defines ‘ecosystem services’ as “any positive benefit that wildlife or ecosystems provide to people”. They play an important role in supporting economic activity, development and general human well-being. We eat the fruits of plants and the flesh of animals on our farms or ones we hunt in the wild. The fruit was caused by pollination when pollinating animals visited them without our intervention. The animals eat the plants we grew thanks to the soil under our feet and climate we live in.
Scientists and economists have been working for decades to try to define these services and translate them into economic terms, to make them easier to comprehend, since many of them are not directly linked to “making money”. For example, in a 2022 report by Texas A&M and the Texas Forestry Service, the benefits of urban forests in Texas were more than $5,000 per acre, just by existing.
It is important to remember these benefits then, as Lee County continues to grow and our land use changes. More than 75 percent of the land area of Lee County is considered “natural and working lands”, yet almost all of this is not conserved, according to the Duke Nicholas School’s Natural and Working Lands Conservation Dashboard.
The non-economic benefits can be direct or indirect, small or large. There are four different types of services outlined by the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: provisioning services; regulating services; cultural services; and supporting services.
These are the resources that we get directly from nature, such as the timber we cut in western and southern Lee County and the tobacco we harvest around Broadway.
These services are a little more complicated. We see the benefits and challenges of these services everywhere. We are impacted by these during long periods of drought and heat, and the negative effects of that on our health, our plants and our crops. Yet, we can benefit when the winter is delayed into November or December, as our crops and plants get a few more weeks to grow. We benefit from the heavy rains brought by storms and hurricanes, as the water recharges our rivers and wells.
This is that feeling that you cannot put a name to. Cultural services are defined by the “recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits” of nature. We have a tobacco-tying contest at the Lee Regional Fair because of how integral tobacco is to our economy and how the heritage of the people of Lee County is tied to the crop. Folks who grew up wandering through the woods and bluffs around Deep River Road for the sake of wandering and hunting know these services.
The foundations of life are in the supporting services. We could not grow any plants without soil, and those who use compost and mulch in their gardens and on their farms know the benefits to their plants through their use. We enjoy tomatoes every summer because bumblebees visit the flowers and pollinate the plants. The plants can grow because they capture light from the sun and use that energy to synthesize sugars within their tissues. All of these benefit humans’ ability to live.
We are not separate from nature and we benefit daily from ecosystem services, whether or not we garden or farm. It is important to make that connection to understand how what we do can impact our communities and our lives. Even the simple act of gardening and farming can have a profound impact on our local ecosystems, as any gardener or farmer can tell you.
Amanda Wilkins is the Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.