The Truckee River Canyon. Credit: Michael Conner.

Natural capital isn’t something we hear about very often, and it certainly isn’t a new idea. Aldo Leopold and other conservationists recognized the role that natural ecosystems play in our lives as early as the 1940’s. But understanding and measuring that role hasn’t been easy. That’s where the Natural Capital Project comes in.

The project focuses on ecosystem services – the natural processes that ecosystems provide and humans benefit from. Those include how forests filter our drinking water, how wetlands provide protection from storm surges, and how bees and other pollinators support our agricultural industry. While these services may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to nature, researchers are discovering that they’re vital to human health and decision makers are starting to factor that it.

A few examples:

In the 1990’s, New York City’s water quality dropped below EPA standards. The obvious option was to built a new water filtration plant – with a hefty price tag: $6-8 billion for construction and $300 million in yearly operating expenses. Instead, the city decided to invest in the natural processes that help keep water clean. That meant looking upstream to the Catskills watershed where intact ecosystems could help filter the water. The city bought land upstream and improved sewer treatment plants – all at a much lower price: $1-1.5 billion.

In China, the Yangtze River Basin experienced devastating floods in 1998. Many believed the vast deforestation of the surrounding area had been the major cause, since it had eliminated the natural buffer that existed. Since then, the Chinese Government has adopted a system of ecosystem payments – giving subsidies to farmers to plant trees and preserve forested areas.  All in all, their program in budgeted in the billions.

The Natural Capital project has created an online tool known as InVEST that’s freely available to the public. It allows users to map ecosystem services in any landscape. The project’s co-found Gretchen Daily is hopeful that the tool will make it much easier for natural capital to be part of land use decision-making – especially in countries where development pressures are strong. “It’s stunning to see how rapidly things are changing globally. We’re losing trillions of dollars of value in natural capital in the form of rain forests and other key natural assets” Daily said. The project is already working with the government of Colombia to use InVEST and to improve their resource permitting process. You can read more about where else they’re working here.


Listen to the Putting a Price on Nature radio report online.


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Reporter’s Notes: Putting a Price on Nature 12 June,2013Lauren Sommer


Lauren Sommer

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, Science Friday and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.

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