Ecosystem services are the benefits that we receive from nature every day. Some are tangible, (such as clean drinking water and recreational opportunities) and some less visible (such as climactic regulation through the uptake of carbon by plants). These benefits are provided to people at both local and global scales. However, not all ecosystems are created equal in regard to their value to humans. Some ecosystems provide many more services to us than do others. Ecologists and conservation groups often single out these hardest working ecosystems—called ”hotspots”—for their exceptional conservation value.
Our recent study in the state of Massachusetts in the United States sought to measure the provisioning of ecosystem services and quantify how hotspots have changed over the past 10 years. We used a series of models and spatial databases to measure changes to eight different benefits that nature provides to the residents of Massachusetts and assigned any areas of the state that provided five or more high-value services, or five or more services that are producing in the top 20th percentile, as hotspots. We found that over the past decade, hotspots have increased in Massachusetts, particularly in urbanizing areas such as those surrounding Boston.
However, more hotspots may not be a good thing. Over the past ten years in Massachusetts, urban development has increased by more than 6 percent, at the expense of forests, grasslands, and agricultural lands. When we lose intact forests, we lose stable flows of clean water, climate regulation, recreational opportunities, and wildlife habitats, just to name a few, leaving the remaining forest to pick up the slack. The increasing number of hotspots reflects an ongoing division of the natural landscape into smaller units, which must still produce high amounts of services to meet demand, but now with less. The scale at which these hotspots are defined, both in terms of the provisioning and delivery of services, is also important. For example, conserved lands in cities provide many local services to large numbers of people, such as water filtration, recreational opportunities and a reduction of the urban ”heat island“ effect. However, large, intact forests in unpopulated areas offer resources to a broader regional to global community, such as climate regulation through the uptake of carbon, timber harvest for wood products, and high-quality habitat for many species.
Our study points to several important considerations for land managers and lawmakers when including ecosystem services and hotspots in their conservation plans. In order to meet the wide-array of goals that conservation plans often strive for, a cross-scale approach is required. Local entities must join forces with state to regional groups to define and implement conservation actions that benefit the greatest number of people. Only then will we be able to maximize the diversity and magnitude of ecosystem services supported by the landscape.
For more information please read Land-use impacts on the quantity and configuration of ecosystem service provisioning in Massachusetts, USA