The Big Picture
Role of NRCS Benefit Estimation in USDA Conservation Programs
Policy-makers need information about FACTS and VALUES to make effective environmental investment decisions. Those who control federal and regional environmental spending (e.g., green payments) have access to three sources of information about FACTS and VALUES. Scientists work to provide them with as much "value-free" information as possible about the FACTS. Interest groups spend to provide them with their spin on VALUES. NRCS benefit estimation provides them with a source of unbiased information about VALUES. As difficult and controversial as value-based research is, it is the only objective source of information that policy-makers have about VALUES. Often it is the only credible basis for opposing the interpretations of VALUES provided by special interests, and the only basis for preventing wasteful environmental investments.
This Section is to assist field staff in the development of conservation benefits indicators and criteria to rank environmental investments based on expected environmental benefits. The section does not provide specific sets of indicators or even specific methods for indicator development. We recommend that this section be used as a tutorial for NRCS to better understand currently proposed methods for assessing relative ecosystem value in non-monetary terms. We encourage feedback on the usefullness of the approaches presented.
Until a comprehensive system and applying conservation benefit indices is developed, this section is for general reference purpose on concepts and methods for developing environmental benefits indicators.
Overview of Relative Ecosystem Values
To get an idea of the potential application of indicators of relative ecosystem value consider the nine conservation alternative depicted in Figure 1a. Applying any of the three practices at any of the three sites may be worthwhile. However, assume that "green payments" are available to fund only one of the practices at one of the sites. Suppose further that each of the nine alternative costs about the same. The question then would be: Which conservation practice at which site would provide the greatest benefits ? The indicators outlined in this section will help answer this question.
Which alternative will provide the greatest environmental benefits?
The types of indicators described in this section will help answer this question.
Clues about Relative Value Indicators
A clue as to how relative value indicators are developed and can help is provided in Figure 2. It puts the Sites shown in Figure 1 in their respective landscape contexts. A site's landscape context, quite apart from its onsite characteristics, has significant impact on the values it provides. And landscape context does not only include the proximityof the site to other natural features. It includes its proximity to man-made features of the landscape, to people, and to problems caused by people. As subsequent sections will show the landscape context of an ecosystem, in its broadest sense, includes many factors that determine the mix of functions and services it will provide, who has access to them, how scarce they are, how useful they are, how replacable they are, and so on.
Another Clue about Relative Value Indicators
To further illustrate the basis oft the indicators described in this section assume that you are asked to conserve or restore one of the two wetland areas depicted in Figure 3. The two wetland sites are shown to be identical in size and shape, and, for purposes of illustration, assume that they are also identical in terms of biophysical characteristics (e.g., soil, hydrology, and vegetative cover). Based on site conditions alone, therefore, the benefits from investing at both wetland sites would appear to be identical. However, a careful look at the different landscape contexts of the two wetlands provide many clues that investing in the wetland at Site A would be far more "valuable" than investing in the wetland at Site B. The challenge of developing relative value indicators, in this case, is to quantify the observable differences in ways that reflect what we know about the landscape factors that enhance or inhibit the flow of benefits from a wetland.
Indicators described in the folowing sections illustrate why conserving or restoring a wetland at Site A would provide far greater environmental benefits than conserving or restoring a wetland at Site B.
Investing in the environment (Natural Capital), like investing in children (Human capital) or highways (Manufactured Capital), produces public benefits in many "roundabout" ways. For example, investments that reduce nutrient deliveries to nearby water bodies may result in more Algae and Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) and generate pathways of benefits as depicted in Figure 6. Measuring effects of specific investments on each pathway of benefits may be difficult or impossible. However, "leading indicators" can be used to determine the likelihood that a specific investment will contribute to certain benefits.
The indicator development tools presented in this Section are based on three conventional concepts that are central to most economic analysis:
The indicators described in this section focus primarily on differences in landscape context of environmental investment sites as a basis for ranking them in terms of their expected environmental benefits. The logic behind this type of indicator system is based on four testable hypotheses:
Four Testable Hypotheses
Resources to support indicator development include topographical maps, soil maps, land use maps, natural resource and habitat maps, and demographic and socio-economic data. With some up-front investments in GIS applications the benefit indicators related to specific environmental services that would result from environmental investments at a particular site could be accessed merely by providing the zip code or lat./long. coordinates of the site.
Methods of incorporating information about public preferences for various environmental services (service weights) are not discussed here. However, they include various types of non-dollar valuation surveys, the use of consensus-building or focus groups, and citizen “valuation” juries.
Regional Survey Results
Click for a Checklist of data resources.