The Patterns of a Conservation Economy
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This mist-shrouded forest is providing a range of ecosystem services, including water and air purification, climate stabilization, flood control, and recreation.
Image by Adrian Dorst.

Ecosystem Services

Critical services like water purification, biodiversity maintenance, and climate stabilization are spontaneously generated by healthy ecosystems. Because these services are chronically under-valued in the marketplace, they are highly vulnerable to degradation.

Ecosystem services are those valuable, ongoing streams of benefits provided by thriving ecosystems. Just as economic capital provides steady financial returns, Natural Capital provides steady environmental returns in the form of ecosystem services. These services are inherently renewable, but require that the physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically deteriorated.

Some of the most significant ecosystem services include: — purification of air and water — mitigation of floods and droughts — detoxification and decomposition of wastes — generation and renewal of soil and soil fertility — pollination of crops and natural vegetation — control of agricultural pests — dispersal of seeds and nutrients — maintenance of biodiversity — protection from ultraviolet rays — stabilization of climate — moderation of temperature extremes and the force of winds and waves — support of diverse human cultures — beauty and spiritual sustenance A recent study in the journal Science estimated the value of replicating just the most readily quantifiable of these services at $30-$40 trillion per year, which is roughly equivalent to the total Gross Planetary Product. Of course, ecosystem services are also beyond price, providing a source of cultural identity, of kinship with life, of learning, of evolutionary processes, and of soil, air, water, and Biodiversity which as yet have no engineering substitutes.

Ecosystem services are ultimately dependent on a system of Ecological Land-Use that maintains the integrity of the entire landscape. They also require freedom from systematic contamination, which can be achieved through Sustainable Materials Cycles.

Ecosystem services can provide an important new source of economic incentives for land conservation. In the case of the New York City water supply, water purification services provided by the Catskills watershed over the last century have been the basis for the municipal water supply. When the municipal system began to deteriorate in the 1990s, the City faced a choice between investing up to $8 billion in a state-of-the-art treatment system or about $1.5 billion to protect and restore the Catskills watershed. In this case, the choice to protect the watershed was made essentially because of the economic benefits provided by the watershed's stream of ecosystem services.

Protect the health of ecosystems in order to maintain their flow of ecosystem services. Identify and value streams of ecosystem services as a way to provide incentives for conservation.

Examples of this pattern in action:

Pacific Forest Trust
The Pacific Forest Trust works to enhance, restore and preserve the private productive forestlands of the Pacific Northwest, with a focus on California, Oregon and Washington. PFT's goal is to keep private forests healthy, whole and providing a wide range of services.

Organizations whose work incorporate this pattern:

Oregon Water Trust

Trexler and Associates


Daily, Gretchen C. Nature's Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems. Island Press. Washington, DC. 1997.

Daily, Gretchen C and Ellison Katharine. The New Economy of Nature. Island Press. Washington, DC. 2002.

Heal, Geoffrey. Nature and the Marketplace: Capturing the Value of Ecosystem Services. Island Press. Washington, DC. 2001.

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Pattern Index

A Conservation Economy

Social Capital

Fundamental Needs

Subsistence Rights

Shelter For All


Access To Knowledge


Social Equity


Cultural Diversity

Cultural Preservation

Sense Of Place

Beauty And Play

Just Transitions

Civic Society

Natural Capital

Ecological Land-Use

Connected Wildlands

Core Reserves

Wildlife Corridors

Buffer Zones

Productive Rural Areas

Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable Forestry

Sustainable Fisheries


Compact Towns And Cities

Human-Scale Neighborhoods

Green Building

Transit Access

Ecological Infrastructure

Urban Growth Boundaries

Ecosystem Services

Watershed Services

Soil Services

Climate Services


Economic Capital

Household Economies

Green Business

Long-Term Profitability

Community Benefit

Green Procurement

Renewable Energy

Sustainable Materials Cycles

Resource Efficiency

Waste As Resource

Product As Service

Local Economies

Value-Added Production

Rural-Urban Linkages

Local Assets

Bioregional Economies

Fair Trade

True Cost Pricing

Product Labeling