Home » Climate Change Adaptation » The Ecosystem Services Framework Gains the White House as a Fan

The Ecosystem Services Framework Gains the White House as a Fan

Just as I focus my students in Law 2050 on spotting and following trends, I try to do the same in my field of environmental and natural resources law. One of the tends I have followed for years is the emergence of the “ecosystem services” framework. Some significant recent developments warrant this post:

The ecosystem services framework focuses on the economic values humans derive from functioning ecosystems in the form of services rather than commodities, such as water filtration, pollination, flood control, and groundwater recharge. Because many of these services exhibit public good qualities, ecologists and economists began forging the concept of ecosystem services valuation in the 1990s as a way of improving land use and resource development decision making by ensuring that all relevant economic values were being taken into account when making decisions about the conservation or development of “natural capital” resources. Research on ecosystem services exploded onto the scene and has been going strong since in ecology, economics, and other disciplines bearing on environmental and natural resources management.

The policy world quickly picked up on the ecosystem services idea as well. For example, in 1998 the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report emphasizing the importance of the nation’s natural capital. The United Nations embraced the concept at the global scale with its Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which assessed the status of ecosystem services throughout the world and explicitly tied ecosystem services to human prosperity.

By contrast, uptake in law was slow to come. Almost two decades after the PCAST report, it is fair to say that the ecosystem services concept has made few inroads into “law to apply” status in the form of legislative and regulatory text. In one prominent example, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a joint regulation in 2008 overhauling their policies on compensatory mitigation under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the agencies adopted a watershed-scale focus and declared that compensatory mitigation decisions would take compensating losses to ecosystem services into account. See 33 C.F.R. 332.3(d)(1). That and the few other federal initiatives to use ecosystem services in decision making, while on the rise, have been ad hoc and uncoordinated.

But that is set to change. On October 7, 2015, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), and Office of Science and Technology (OST) issued their Memorandum for Executive Departments and Agencies on Incorporating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making (the Memorandum). If fully implemented, the Memorandum has game-changer potential to infuse the ecosystem services concept deep into the fabric of environmental and natural resources law.

The Memorandum “directs agencies to develop and institutionalize policies to promote consideration of ecosystem services, where appropriate and practicable, in planning, investments, and regulatory contexts.” The goal of doing so is “to better integrate in Federal decision making due consideration of the full range of benefits and tradeoffs among ecosystem services associated with potential Federal Actions.” The scope of the policy goal is broadly stated to include all federal programmatic and planning activities including “natural-resource management and land-use planning, climate-adaptation planning and risk-reduction efforts, and, where appropriate, environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other analyses of Federally-assisted programs, policies, projects, and regulatory proposals.” To facilitate agencies in achieving its policy goals, CEQ will prepare a guidance document outlining best practices for: (1) describing the action; (2) identifying and classifying key ecosystem services in the location of interest; (3) assessing the impact of the action on ecosystem services relative to baseline; (4) assessing the effect of the changes in ecosystem services associated with the action; and (5) integrating ecosystem services analyses into decision making. In the interim, agencies are by March 30, 2016, to have submitted documentation describing their current incorporation of ecosystem services in decision making and establishing a work plan for moving toward the goals of the policy directive. Id. at 4. Meanwhile, CEQ has assembled a task force of experts from relevant agencies to craft the best practices implementation guidance, which will be subject to interagency review, public comment, and, by November 2016, to external peer review consistent with OMB’s information quality procedures and standards. Once the guidance is released, agencies will adjust their work plans as needed. The Memorandum also acknowledges that “ultimately, successful implementation of the concepts in this directive may require Federal agencies to modify certain practices, policies, or existing regulations to address evolving understanding of the value of ecosystem services.”

Environmental lawyers should watch the Memorandum’s implementation over the next year closely, for if agencies follow its directives faithfully and fully the ecosystem services framework will be teed up to permeate the policies and regulations of a broad range of federal programs that touch our scope of practice. In particular, incorporation of best practices for ecosystem services impact assessments under NEPA would project the ecosystem services framework into state, local, and private actions receiving federal agency funding or approval. To be sure, there is plenty of work to be done before one can evaluate the Memorandum’s impact on the mainstreaming of the ecosystem services framework into environmental law. Significantly, the timeline of the Memorandum directives will deliver the best practices implementation guidance in the final days of the Obama administration, leaving it to the incoming administration to determine where to take it. Nevertheless, simply by declaring the incorporation of ecosystem services into federal agency decision making as an Executive policy and laying out the tasks and timelines for doing so, the issuance of the Memorandum has done more to advance the ecosystem services framework as a legal concept than has any previous initiative. And in the long run, the reality is that the ecosystem services framework is by now so deeply ingrained in ecology, economics, and other disciplines of environmental and natural resources management, it will become increasingly difficult for agencies not to incorporate it. Hence I believe I can safely predict that the momentum the Memorandum will give for mainstreaming the ecosystem services framework into environmental law will not easily be turned around.  Stay tuned!


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