USDA Wants to Assess Environmental Service Benefits

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer recently announced the intention to establish a U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets and the creation of a federal government-wide Conservation and Land Management Environmental Services Board.

The board will assist the secretary of agriculture in developing new technical guidelines and science-based methods to assess environmental service benefits, which will in turn promote markets for ecosystem services, including carbon trading to mitigate climate change.

"Our nation's farms, ranches, and forests provide goods and services that are vital to society -- natural assets we call "ecosystem services," Schafer said."The Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets will enable America's agriculture producers to better compete, trade their services around the world, and make significant contributions to help improve the environment."

Agriculture producers provide many ecosystem services such as clean water and air, wildlife habitat, carbon storage, and scenic landscapes. Lacking a formal structure to market these services, farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners are not generally compensated for these critical public benefits. Market-based approaches to conservation are proven to be a cost-effective method to achieve environmental goals and sustain working and natural landscapes. Without financial incentives, these ecosystem services may be lost as privately-owned lands are sold or converted to development.

Shafer intends to name Sally Collins director of the Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets (OESM). Collins will assume this position after serving as associate chief of the USDA Forest Service for the past 8 years, where she pioneered concepts for ecosystem services and markets as part of that agency's sustainable land management mission. The board will be comprised of the secretaries of interior, energy, commerce, transportation, and defense; the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers; the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology ; the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; and the Commander of the Army Corps of Engineers. The secretary of agriculture will chair the board. The chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the administrator of Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs will serve as vice-chairs.