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With scant evidence that market-based conservation works, argues Douglas J. McCauley, the time is ripe for returning to the protection of nature for nature's sake.
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Selling out on nature
With scant evidence that market-based conservation works, argues Douglas J. McCauley, the time is ripe
for returning to the protection of nature for nature’s sake.
Probably the most important trend in con-
servation science at the moment is ‘ecosystem
services, typically seen as economic benefits
provided by natural ecosystems
. They form
the basis of most market-oriented mechanisms
for conservation. The underlying assumption
is that if scientists can identify ecosystem serv-
ices, quantify their economic value, and ulti-
mately bring conservation more in synchrony
with market ideologies
, then the decision-
makers will recognize the folly of environmen-
tal destruction and work to safeguard nature.
But market-based mechanisms for con-
servation are not a panacea for our current
conservation ills. If we mean to make signifi-
cant and long-lasting gains in conservation,
we must strongly assert the primacy of ethics
and aesthetics in conservation. We must act
quickly to redirect much of the effort now
being devoted to the commodification of
nature back towards instilling a love for nature
in more people.
Gold rush
The proponents of market-based mechanisms
for conservation bolster their argument by
repeatedly citing one example: the Catskill/
Delaware Watershed. Through this project,
New York City invested in conserving a water-
shed that filters its water as effectively as a
filtration plant, and more cheaply.
A growing number of ecologists, economists
and environmental scientists hold this shining
example aloft and proclaim that where there
is one golden nugget, there must be others.
They describe, mostly in hypothetical terms,
a world of win-win scenarios. It is a message
with broad appeal: for the public, which is
notoriously averse to bad news; for business-
oriented politicians, who see an opportunity to
further liberalize markets while appeasing the
environmentally anxious; for philanthropists
who wish to do good without straying too far
from their economic comfort zones; and for
foundations that want to use the familiar capi-
talist rhetoric of ecosystem services to draw
out new or wary donors.
It is both true and obvious that ‘ecosystems,
in some sense of the word, are necessary for
human survival. It is also true that there will
be cases in which it will be lucrative to protect
nature, and that people will derive benefits
from this conservation effort. However, eco-
system services are rapidly assuming an impor-
tance in discussions on conservation that is far
out of proportion to their actual utility.
As conservation tools, ecosystem services
are limited in four fundamental ways. First, the
logic of ecosystem-service-based conservation
rests on the implicit assumption that the bio-
sphere is benevolent — that it provides us with
useful services and protects us from malevolent
abiotic forces such as hurricanes, floods and
rising temperatures. This reasoning ignores
basic ecology: environments don’t act for the
benefit of any single species. There are myriad
examples of what might be labelled ‘ecosystem
disservices. Trees take water out of watersheds
forests may be contributing to global tempera-
ture increases
; wild animals kill people and
destroy property
and wetlands can increase
the risk of disease
. Market-based conservation
strategies, as currently articulated, offer little
guidance on how we are to protect the chunks
of nature that conflict with our interests or
preserve the perhaps far more numerous pieces
of nature that neither help nor harm us.
Markets in flux
Second, although most conservationists would
argue that nature should be conserved in per-
petuity, the strength and direction of market
forces that are now being called upon to moti-
vate nature conservation are anything but
perpetual. The often illusory and ephemeral
relationship of the market to conservation is
well illustrated by the case of a former coffee
plantation, Finca Santa Fe, in the Valle del
General of Costa Rica
. A recent study found
that native bees from two forest fragments
The incentive to conserve the Catskill watershed could be lost if technology replaces natural filtration.
Profit-oriented conservation strategies may fail
to protect animals that conflict with our interests.
Vol 443|7 September 2006
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adjacent to Finca Santa Fe yielded approxi-
mately US$60,000 a year in pollination serv-
ices to the coffee plants. This was hailed as an
example of how conservation can yield ‘double
benefits’ for biodiversity and agriculture.
Shortly after the conclusion of the study,
however, Finca Santa Fe, probably affected by
one of the worst dips in coffee prices this cen-
tury, cleared its coffee and planted pineapple
instead. Pollinators are irrelevant to pineapple
production. So simple logic suggests that over
a period of several years, the monetary value
of the pollinators in forest fragments around
Finca Santa Fe dropped from $60,000 per year
to zero.
To make ecosystem services the foundation
of our conservation strategies is to imply —
intentionally or otherwise — that nature is only
worth conserving when it is, or can be made,
profitable. The risk in advocating this position
is that we might be taken at our word. Then, if
there is a ‘devaluation’ of nature, as in the case of
Finca Santa Fe, what are we to tell local stewards
who have invested in our ideology, and how can
we protect nature from liquidation?
Watershed down
Third, conservation based on ecosystem serv-
ices commits the folly of betting against human
ingenuity. The entire history of technology and
human ‘progress’ is one of producing artificial
substitutes for what we once obtained from
nature, or domesticating once-natural services.
One of the primary selling points for protecting
the Catskill/Delaware Watershed was that the
costs associated with constructing and operat-
ing a filtration plant
would have driven up
water prices in New
York City. However,
recent reports
cate that increased
turbidity might ulti-
mately force New
York to turn to technology to filter its water,
in essence negating this much-ballyhooed eco-
nomic incentive for conservation.
Several other major US cities still rely on
natural filtration, and in some of these cases
it is difficult to imagine that technology will
soon produce a cheaper artificial alternative
to these natural watersheds. Yet it would also
once have been difficult to imagine cost-effec-
tive manufactured alternatives to rubber and
timber. Although we will never replicate all of
the ‘services’ offered by nature, I would argue
that conservation plans that underestimate the
technological prowess of humans are bound to
have short lifespans.
Lastly, although it has been suggested that
in most cases the services that come from
nature are valuable enough to make conser-
vation profitable, making money and protect-
ing nature are all too often mutually exclusive
goals. Take the case of Africas Lake Victoria,
where the introduction of the invasive Nile
perch (Lates niloticus) contributed significantly
to the decimation of local biodiversity while
dramatically boosting the economic value of
the lake. Local people profiting from trade
in the fish hail its introduction as a success,
whereas biologists have condemned the event
as “the most catastrophic extinction episode of
recent history”
. John Terborgh
, discussing
similar issues in tropical-forest conservation,
remarked that these forests are “worth more
dead than alive”. If Ter-
borghs assessment is
not always true, it is
true all too often. So
we must directly con-
front the reality that
conservation may be
expensive and stop
deceiving ourselves and partners in conser-
vation with hopes that win-win solutions can
always be found.
Infinite value
Are there other socially viable paths for con-
servationists besides the commodification of
nature? Yes. Nature has an intrinsic value that
makes it priceless, and this is reason enough
to protect it. The idea is not new.
We view
certain historical artefacts and pieces of art as
priceless. Nature embodies the same kind of
values we cherish in these man-made media.
Some ecologists claim that these intrinsic
values, often referred to as cultural services,
figure prominently enough in their valua-
tion programmes. However, this co-option
seems in many cases incongruous. I suggest
that the aggregate value of a chunk of nature
— its aesthetic beauty, cultural importance and
evolutionary significance — is infinite, and
thus defies incorporation into any ecosystem
service programme that aims to save nature
by approximating its monetary value.
All of this is not to deny a role for ecosystem
services in our general efforts to protect nature.
Individual ecosystem services will occasion-
ally prove to be useful bargaining chips in
specific conservation plans and, as such, can
meaningfully support programmes aimed at
protecting nature for natures sake. However,
to avoid trading in significant long-term con-
servation successes for marginal short-term
gains, philosophical clarity is essential and
caution is needed. When we employ the aid of
ecosystem services to help pay the bills of con-
servation, we must make it abundantly clear
that our overall mission is to protect nature,
not to make it turn a profit.
Some will argue that this view is simply too
optimistic. They may believe that the best way
to meaningfully engage policy-makers driven
by the financial bottom line is to translate the
intrinsic worth of nature into the language of
economics. But this is patently untrue — akin
to saying that civil-rights advocates would have
been more effective if they provided economic
justifications for racial integration. Nature con-
servation must be framed as a moral issue and
argued as such to policy-makers, who are just
as accustomed to making decisions based on
morality as on finances.
The track record of achievements by conser-
vationists motivated by a moral imperative to
protect nature for natures sake is impressive:
consider the international ban on commercial
whaling, the national parks of the United States,
and the CITES ivory-trade ban. Meanwhile, the
only ‘successful’ large-scale ecosystem-service-
based conservation project yet achieved is the
imperilled Catskill watershed. But this ‘nugget
may turn out to be fools gold.
We will make more progress in the long run
by appealing to peoples hearts rather than to
their wallets. If we oversell the message that
ecosystems are important because they pro-
vide services, we will have effectively sold out
on nature.
Douglas J. McCauley is in the Department of
Biological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford,
California 94305, USA.
1. Daily, G. C. Nature’s Services (Island Press, Washington,
DC, 1997).
2. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Ecosystems and
Human Well-Being: A Framework for the Assessment (Island
Press, Washington, DC, 2003).
3. Hayward, B. From the Mountain to the Tap: How Land Use
and Water Management Can Work for the Rural Poor (NR
International, UK, 2005); available at
4. Gibbard, S., Caldeira, K., Bala, G., Phillips, T. J. &
Wickett, M. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32, L23705 (2005).
Woodroffe, R., Thirgood, S. & Rabinowitz, A. (eds)
People and Wildlife, Conflict or Co-existence? (Cambridge
Univ. Press, New York, 2005).
6. Willott, E. Restor. Ecol. 12, 147–153 (2004).
7. Ricketts, T. H., Daily, G. C., Ehrlich, P. R. & Michener, C. D.
Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 101, 12579–12582 (2004).
8. DePalma, A. New York Times New York’s water supply may
need filtering (20 July 2006).
9. Wilson, E. O. The Diversity of Life (Belknap Press of Harvard
Univ. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992).
10. Terborgh, J. Requiem for Nature (Island Press, Washington
DC, 1999).
Locals around Africa’s Lake Victoria benefit from
trading in the ecologically detrimental Nile perch.
“We will make more progress
in the long run by appealing to
people’s hearts rather than to
their wallets.
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... The concept of ESs has been criticised as being anthropocentric, as the concept means that ESs do not exist without human presence. Being anthropocentric, in this critique, suggests that humans are the only species that matters, excludes the intrinsic value of ecosystem, and may promote an exploitative human-nature relationship (McCauley, 2006;Raymond et al., 2013;Redford and Adams, 2009). This critique is concerned about environmental ethics regarding whether human actions towards nature should be based on an anthropocentric or biocentric view (Jax et al., 2013;Schröter et al., 2014). ...
... Another critique is that basing conservation on ESs might not safeguard, but rather divert attention away from, biodiversity (McCauley, 2006), as areas with abundant ESs may not necessarily have rich biodiversity. However, there is growing evidence that biodiversity underpins ecosystem functions, characteristics and processes that produce ESs, and areas with richer biodiversity tend to have more diverse, resilient, and valuable ESs than areas with poorer biodiversity (Oliver et al., 2015;Sakschewski et al., 2016). ...
... The main critiques against monetary valuation of ESs include the misconception that valuation implies privatising or commodifying ESs ("selling out" ecosystems), implying that money can be a substitute for ESs, and favouring richer people with higher purchasing power for ESs than poorer people (Hirons et al., 2016;McCauley, 2006;Schröter et al., 2021). However, monetary valuation complements assessment in other units or criteria, and illustrates that ESs are valuable and should not be sacrificed for money or commercial benefits (Chen, 2020b). ...
“Accounting values” (quantity * unit value), assessed with an assumption of a constant unit value, are often used in creating macroeconomic aggregates like Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This approach has also been used to estimate the total value of ecosystem services (ES) - the benefits humans receive from functioning ecosystems. In China, this has been referred to as Gross Ecosystem Product (GEP). While the concepts of value and ES may be understood from multiple perspectives, ESs' accounting values contribute important information to the discussion of land use trade-offs in China's protected areas (PAs). These trade-offs include (1) whether additional conserved lands should be opened to tourism development, since tourism brings both positive and negative impacts; (2) whether PAs should be reduced, maintained, or expanded, since PAs safeguard sustainable wellbeing but also require maintenance; and (3) how to undertake conservation on lands traditionally used for human livelihood development, since conservation and livelihood may conflict. Previous studies have suggested (1) joint evaluation based on both GDP and ESs' values may lead to more sustainable decision-making than solely GDP-oriented evaluation; (2) the benefits of maintaining terrestrial PAs in China is $2.64 trillion/yr, over 14 times greater than the costs; (3) integrating ES valuation into environmental impact assessment helps link environmental impacts with human wellbeing and financial costs (e.g., land encroachment of a tourism highway in the Wulingyaun Scenic Area was estimated to cause permanent loss of ES values at $0.5 million/yr); and (4) integrating non-marketable cultural ESs into payment for ESs schemes can further balance conservation with livelihood development. Future research should consider (1) option and non-use values to present a more comprehensive picture of PAs' contributions to sustainable wellbeing and human interdependence with the rest of nature (2) both PAs' quantity (e.g., optimal coverage of PAs); and quality (e.g., management effectiveness, connectivity); (3) more sophisticated and feasible valuation methods (e.g., more cost-effective and engaged deliberation) to improve the credibility of aggregate values over large spatial scales; and (4) interaction between environmental components and ESs.
... El mismo aspecto, por el contrario, hace que el enfoque sea repudiado por muchos autores y organizaciones que resisten la idea de la 'comodificación' de la naturaleza (i.e., la transformación de los bienes y servicios naturales en commodities o bienes transables). Según esta perspectiva, el enfoque de SE trivializa la complejidad de la conservación de la naturaleza, abandona los principios básicos de la conservación y desatiende los bienes intangibles de los ecosistemas, como la biodiversidad o los valores culturales o espirituales (McCauley 2006). ...
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... RSPB, 7 August 2020). Does Project Speed continue McCauley's (2006) belief that we are "selling out on nature"? Further, the ecosystem services approach which assigns value to particular ecological systems and structures still perpetuates tradeoffs (Paavola and Hubacek 2013). ...
... It is fairly intuitive and straightforward for some aspects of the coastal system, but it is not appropriate or sophisticated enough when intangible and non-monetary characteristics, like aesthetic values or ecological impacts, are criteria identified as important factors in the decision-making process. The process of monetization leads to giving a monetary value to social or environmental non-market components (McCauley, 2006;Chan et al., 2012;Bryce et al., 2016). In contrast, MCDA is based on evaluation units that are specific to each of the selected criterion, which is one of the reasons why several European Union countries and United Nations' documents recommend the use of MCDA rather than CBA (Gamper and Turcanu, 2007). ...
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Coastal socio-ecological systems are complex adaptive systems with nonlinear changing properties and multi-scale dynamics. They are influenced by unpredictable coastal hazards accentuated by the effects of climate change, and they can quickly be altered if critical thresholds are crossed. Additional pressures come from coastal activities and development, both of which attracting stakeholders with different perspectives and interests. While coastal defence measures (CDMs) have been implemented to mitigate coastal hazards for centuries, a lack of knowledge and tools available to make informed decision has led to coastal managers favouring the choice of seawalls or rock armours with little consideration for socio-ecological systems features, and stakeholders’ priorities. Though it is not currently widely applied in coastal zone management, multicriteria decision analysis (MCDA) is a tool that can be useful to facilitate decision making. PROMETHEE, an outranking method, was chosen to support the multicriteria decision analysis for the evaluation of CDMs in the context of four study sites characterized by distinct environmental features. The aim was to determine the relevance and benefits of a MCDA by integrating coastal zone stakeholders in a participatory decision-making process in order to select CDMs that are better adapted to the whole socio-ecological system. First, in a series of five workshops, stakeholders were asked to identify and weigh criteria that were relevant to their local conditions. Second and third, CDMs were evaluated in relation to each criterion within the local context, then, hierarchized. Initial results show that vegetation came first in three of the four sites, while rock armour ranked first in the fourth site. A post-evaluation of the participatory process indicated that the weighting phase is an effective way to integrate local knowledge into the decision-making process, but the identification of criteria could be streamlined by the presentation of a predefined list from which participants could make a selection. This would ensure criteria that are standardized, and in a format that is compatible with the MCDA. Coupled with a participatory process MCDA proved to be a flexible methodology that can synthetize multiple aspects of the problem, and contribute in a meaningful way to the coastal engineering and management decision-making process.
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... For instance, lacking the recognition of other services, especially the non-value ones, may lead to strategies that consider highly touristic and urbanized beaches as more important and "valuable" than pristine beaches with little urbanization, which, for example, may have higher biodiversity and ecological importance for local persistence of the species pool. While certainly an important tool, the use of monetary value for ecosystem services in decision-making should be used with caution to avoid falling into what critics call the "commoditization of nature" (McCauley 2006), which may generate negative feedback for conservation. For this reason, sociocultural and ecological approaches should be targeted in further studies, which can be complementary approaches to the groundwork that is being established by economic valuation, leading to a better understanding of the value of different categories of services (Hattam et al., 2015;Villegas-Palacio et al., 2016). ...
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In recent years, the identification and economic valuation of ecosystem services have been identified as an important tool to recognize and translate nature’s contribution to people’s well-being. It is understood that assessing the economic value of ecosystem services contributes to better decision-making process regarding ecosystems, since it helps evaluation of trade-offs in alternative scenarios. Sandy beaches are among the most valuable coastal ecosystems, especially in regards to cultural services; however, they are still commonly subjected to several impacts that compromise the ecosystem integrity and capacity to provide multiple services, especially in the Global South. For this reason, management policies are crucial to reduce negative impacts. Assessing ecosystem services should be seen as a strategic approach to provide empirical support to these policies. We reviewed studies assessing and valuing sandy beach services in Brazil to identify strengths and gaps that could guide future studies. Our analysis showed that, despite Brazil being one of the leading countries in the published literature on sandy beach science, the number of studies assessing and valuing ecosystem services are small. Most of those studies are published in the native language, Portuguese, limiting the possibility of discussion and experience exchange at the international level. The services related to the use of beaches for tourism and leisure are the main category evaluated, and studies seem to focus on tourist beaches, especially those providing monetary evaluation, which follows the global trend. An increase in the number of published studies in recent years suggests a growing interest in the research subject. Based on the literature review, we discuss the results and make recommendations to guide and foster studies assessing beach services in the context of the Ocean Science Decade.
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Studies on the ecosystem service value (ESV) of gardens are critical for informing evidence-based land management practices based on an understanding of the local ecosystem. By analyzing equivalent value factors (EVFs), this paper evaluated the values of 11 ecosystem services of gardens in the Yellow River Basin of China in 2019. High-precision land use survey data were used to improve the accuracy of the land use classification, garden areas, and spatial distribution of the ESVs of gardens. The results showed that garden ecosystem generally had high ESVs, especially in terms of the ESV of food production, which is worthy of further research and application to the practice of land use planning and management. Specifically, the value of one standard EVF of ecosystem services in 2019 was 3587.04 CNY/(hm2·a), and the ESV of food production of gardens was much higher than that of croplands. Garden ecosystem provided an ESV of 1348.66×108 CNY/a in the Yellow River Basin. The areas with the most concentrated ESVs of gardens were located in four regions: downstream in the Shandong-Henan zone along the Yellow River, mid-stream in the Shanxi-Shaanxi zone along the Yellow River, the Weihe River Basin, and upstream in the Qinghai-Gansu-Ningxia-Inner Mongolia zone along the Yellow River. The spatial correlation of the ESVs in the basin was significant (global spatial autocorrelation index Moran’s I=0.464), which implied that the characteristics of high ESVs adjacent to high ESVs and low ESVs adjacent to low ESVs are prominent. In the Yellow River Basin, the contribution of the ESVs of gardens to the local environment and economy varied across regions. We also put forward some suggestions for promoting the construction of ecological civilization in the Yellow River Basin. The findings of this study provide important contributions to the research of ecosystem service evaluation in the Yellow River Basin.
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Cette thèse explore l’évaluation et la cartographie du service de protection contre le risque de submersion marine offert par les systèmes écogéomorphologiques du domaine intertidal du Golfe normano-breton. Plusieurs méthodologies, combinant mesure des vagues in situ et données d’imagerie aéroportée (drone, satellite, laser), sont expérimentées afin de déterminer les sources de données et les modèles statistiques les plus pertinents pour modéliser spatialement l’atténuation des vagues induite par les systèmes écogéomorphologiques. Les perspectives d’améliorations techniques et méthodologiques puis d’application à d’autres objets littoraux, tempérés ou tropicaux (mangroves), et d’autres champs disciplinaires sont examinés.
Biodiverse ecosystems play a key role in maintaining life on earth. In response to rapid declines in biodiversity throughout the world, the UN Biodiversity Summit 2020 brought together world leaders to discuss potential solutions. We draw on cognitive linguistics, critical discourse analysis and ecolinguistics in analysing the summit contributions. All speakers blended vocabulary from the fields of BUSINESS and NATURE; in doing so, they were able to advocate solving biodiversity loss by implementing approaches commonly found in business. In addition, three main ‘moves’ were employed in these speeches: (i) the state of nature was lamented, (ii) the interdependent relationship between humans and nature was mentioned and (iii) a call to action was given. It is argued that relying on the BUSINESS–NATURE blend for solutions to environmental problems serves to maintain the status quo and may obscure pathways to transformational change. Linguistic strategies for more effective environmental communication are suggested.
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1] When changing from grass and croplands to forest, there are two competing effects of land cover change on climate: an albedo effect which leads to warming and an evapotranspiration effect which tends to produce cooling. It is not clear which effect would dominate. We have performed simulations of global land cover change using the NCAR CAM3 atmospheric general circulation model coupled to a slab ocean model. We find that global replacement of current vegetation by trees would lead to a global mean warming of 1.3°C, nearly 60% of the warming produced under a doubled CO 2 concentration, while replacement by grasslands would result in a cooling of 0.4°C. It has been previously shown that boreal forestation can lead to warming; our simulations indicate that mid-latitude forestation also could lead to warming. These results suggest that more research is necessary before forest carbon storage should be deployed as a mitigation strategy for global warming.
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Can economic forces be harnessed for biodiversity conservation? The answer hinges on characterizing the value of nature, a tricky business from biophysical, socioeconomic, and ethical perspectives. Although the societal benefits of native ecosystems are clearly immense, they remain largely unquantified for all but a few services. Here, we estimate the value of tropical forest in supplying pollination services to agriculture. We focus on coffee because it is one of the world's most valuable export commodities and is grown in many of the world's most biodiverse regions. Using pollination experiments along replicated distance gradients, we found that forest-based pollinators increased coffee yields by 20% within ≈1 km of forest. Pollination also improved coffee quality near forest by reducing the frequency of “peaberries” (i.e., small misshapen seeds) by 27%. During 2000–2003, pollination services from two forest fragments (46 and 111 hectares) translated into ≈$60,000 (U.S.) per year for one Costa Rican farm. This value is commensurate with expected revenues from competing land uses and far exceeds current conservation incentive payments. Conservation investments in human-dominated landscapes can therefore yield double benefits: for biodiversity and agriculture. • bees • ecosystem service • landscape • pollination
Cambridge Core - Ecology and Conservation - People and Wildlife, Conflict or Co-existence? - edited by Rosie Woodroffe
The benefits of wetlands are now widely appreciated. Less widely known is that historically many wetlands were drained to help control malaria and other deadly diseases. This essay's general theme is that there are pros and cons to restoration or creation of wetlands. The specific theme is that mosquitoes pose practical and theoretical problems. In particular, abundant mosquitoes should not be regarded as an after-the-fact surprising side effect but rather, abundant mosquitoes should be viewed as a primary and foreseeable effect of providing habitat suitable for them. Yet our funding mechanisms and educational institutions often fail properly to address the reality that restoring or creating wetlands has a downside.
New York Times New York's water supply may need filtering
  • A Depalma
DePalma, A. New York Times New York's water supply may need filtering (20 July 2006).
  • E Willott
  • Restor
Willott, E. Restor. Ecol. 12, 147-153 (2004).
  • G C Daily
Daily, G. C. Nature's Services (Island Press, Washington, DC, 1997).
From the Mountain to the Tap: How Land Use and Water Management Can Work for the Rural Poor (NR International
  • B Hayward
Hayward, B. From the Mountain to the Tap: How Land Use and Water Management Can Work for the Rural Poor (NR International, UK, 2005); available at assets/Water_book.pdf.
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  • G C Daily
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Ricketts, T. H., Daily, G. C., Ehrlich, P. R. & Michener, C. D. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 101, 12579-12582 (2004).