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Noe, R. R., B. L. Keeler, M. A. Kilgore, S. J. Taff, and S. Polasky. 2017. Mainstreaming ecosystem services in state-level conservation planning: progress and future needs. Ecology and Society 22(4):4.

Mainstreaming ecosystem services in state-level conservation planning: progress and future needs

1Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota, 2Department of Forest Resources, College of Food Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, University of Minnesota, 3Department of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota, 4Department of Applied Economics, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, and Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota


Ecosystem services (ES) have become an important focus of the conservation movement but have yet to be mainstreamed into environmental policy and management, especially at the state and federal levels. Adoption of an ES approach requires agency personnel to have knowledge or experience in implementing an ES approach and metrics that link potential actions to impacts on ES. We characterize the degree to which ES considerations are taken into account in setting priorities for conservation acquisitions in the U.S. state of Minnesota. We assess two core dimensions of an ES approach: (1) multiobjective targeting and (2) measuring program benefits in terms of increases in human well-being. We assess the degree to which these two dimensions occur in statute and in conservation program decision making. We find that state statute provides clear support for an ES approach in conservation funding mechanisms. However, we find that many of the programs funded through those mechanisms have more traditional habitat-centric approaches. In contrast to statutory emphasis, water quality related metrics were not prominent. We recommend expanding current prioritization systems to include a broader suite of metrics that are linked to human well-being to further mainstream ES in Minnesota. These metrics can be generated from existing data and would allow program managers to better communicate the public benefits of conservation spending.
Key words: easements; habitat; metrics; policy; water quality


Need for an ecosystem services based approach

There is growing interest by public and private sector decision makers in adopting an ecosystem services (ES) approach to landscape management, including how they allocate funding, plan future investments, and evaluate the potential benefits and costs of proposed projects (Daily et al. 2009, Guerry et al. 2015, Schaefer et al. 2015). In 2015, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget issued a memorandum directing U.S. federal agencies, “to develop and institutionalize policies to promote consideration of ecosystem services, where appropriate and practicable, in planning, investments, and regulatory contexts” (Donovan et al. 2015:1). Governments in other countries such as China, Costa Rica, and the U.K. have also adopted ecosystem services-oriented national policies (Liu et al. 2008, Pagiola 2008, UK NEA 2014, Ouyang et al. 2016). Internationally, more than 100 countries have signed on to the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the World Bank has sponsored work to incorporate ecosystem services in national income accounting (Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services). The private sector has also shown interest in adopting ecosystem services and natural capital accounting frameworks to guide decisions about procurement, manage risk, and to pursue more sustainable business or sourcing strategies (TEEB 2010, Kupers et al. 2015).

An ES approach differs from a business as usual approach to land management because of its emphasis on the multiple benefits landscapes provide, inclusive of both private benefits (e.g., agricultural production or timber revenue) and public benefits (e.g., clean water or clean air). An ES approach explicitly considers human well-being as a desired endpoint of land and water management (MEA 2005). Ecosystem services assessments go beyond biological or chemical endpoints (e.g., habitat quality or units of pollution) to include metrics of human well-being (e.g., health, recreation, property values). Adopting a definition of “final ecosystem services,” we assume an ES approach requires an analysis framework that links actions or interventions directly or indirectly to some aspect of human well-being (Boyd and Banzhaf 2007, Landers and Nahlik 2013).

Despite broad interest in an ES approach, several studies have highlighted the challenges of implementing ES in existing conservation activities (Sitas et al. 2014, Presnall et al. 2015, Galler et al. 2016). Implementation of an ES approach requires agencies and land managers to have both the statutory authority and the capacity to perform the analyses. However, in a survey of over 500 U.S. Forest Service employees, Presnall et al. (2015) found that even when there was guidance encouraging the use of an ES approach, practitioners often felt explicit directives or legal requirements were necessary before incorporating ES into their analyses. Even with strong statutory support, such as that which is found in South Africa’s Constitution, a case study in the region found that confusion from stakeholders on the concept of ES, limited capacity to perform new analyses, incentive mismatches, and conflicting policies hinder management of landscapes for ecosystem services and multiple benefits (Sitas et al. 2014). Quantifying the impact of conservation on the delivery of multiple ecosystem services requires diverse expertise and social and biophysical data collection, posing challenges for managers that are traditionally focused on species conservation and habitat protection.

Uptake of ES approaches in U.S. land management will require both policy makers and land managers to update their approaches and tools to include new guidance, data sources, metrics, and models. To inform this effort, we set out to characterize the conservation acquisitions process in one U.S. state, including both the guidance in the enabling statute of funding mechanisms and agency programs, and the metrics used to make decisions. With this information, we can assess the extent to which an ES approach is used and identify specific areas that policy guidance or practitioner’s tools may need to shift to more fully account for the value of investments in conservation. In doing so, we address a global need to identify and address barriers to adoption of ES approaches in conservation policy, planning, and land acquisition.

Using conservation acquisitions in Minnesota, USA as a case study

Minnesota has devoted significant public resources to conservation, most recently through adoption of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy constitutional amendment that dedicates revenue from a 25-year sales tax increase to fund investments in the environment and the arts (Minn. Const. art. XI sec. 15; ORS 2008). Since its passage in 2008, the Legacy Amendment has generated an average of US$221 million each year for environment-focused funds (LCC 2016a). Furthermore, a 1998 constitutional amendment designated proceeds from the state lottery to an Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. Between 2010 and 2016 this fund provided an average of US$30 million annually for, “the public purpose of protection, conservation, preservation, and enhancement of the state’s air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources” (Minn. Const. art. XI sec. 14; ORS 1998, LCC 2016b). Even with higher than average state funding devoted to conservation, demand for these resources outpaces supply, forcing conservation organizations and agencies to look for ways to make the most efficient use of limited public funds.

We assessed the extent to which state policies, metrics, and programs receiving funds under these programs align with an ES approach as defined above. We focused on conservation programs that acquire either conservation easements or land in fee-title. In fee-title acquisition, the buyer purchases all rights associated with a parcel, whereas conservation easements transfer only some the rights. Often, a conservation easement precludes development or agriculture but allows the owner to retain exclusive access to the parcel. As a result, easements are typically less expensive than fee-title acquisition, but public access for activities such as hunting or fishing must be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

We examined the enabling statutes of funds and programs as well as the techniques organizations use to prioritize acquisitions with the goal of identifying opportunities to mainstream ES within existing statutes and programs. We aimed to address the following three research questions in our assessment:

  1. Do Minnesota statutes enable the adoption of an ecosystem services approach?
  2. What metrics or priorities do organizations using public funds for conservation acquisitions currently employ?
  3. Do the metrics and weights used by conservation organizations reflect the conservation and human well-being priorities described in statutes and are they consistent with an ecosystem services approach?


Identifying ecosystem services principles in statute

We performed document review on two sets of documents relevant to conservation acquisitions in Minnesota: (1) the scoring systems created by conservation programs to prioritize acquisitions specific to their mission, and (2) the Minnesota statute that created each conservation program or fund.

To allow for consistent comparisons of the weight assigned to metrics, we limited our analysis to programs that use quantitative prioritization scoring systems, as well as the state funds that contribute to these programs. We included nine programs, six operated by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and three by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR). The DNR and BWSR make up the largest recipient of state funding for conservation easements, together receiving nearly a billion dollars between 2010 and 2016 from Legacy Amendment funds alone (LCC 2016a). We excluded six private conservation organizations because they did not use quantitative prioritization scoring systems.

We then reviewed the statute that created each program or fund for the presence of ecosystem service principles. Because the phrase “ecosystem services” is not yet common in legal contexts, we instead searched for references to the two primary components of an ES approach: reference to multiple benefits and reference to human beneficiaries (Appendix 1, Table A1.1). If the language explicitly called for multiple benefits or listed several broad categories of services, we considered it to meet the multiple benefits criterion. If the language explicitly mentioned humans (including related terms such as individuals, people, the public, citizens, residents, etc.) as the intended beneficiaries, we considered it to meet the human beneficiaries criterion.

Quantifying acquisition prioritization metric weights

We contacted all state agencies and conservation organizations in Minnesota that operate statewide conservation acquisition programs and receive public funding for easements or land acquisitions. We requested documentation of any quantitative scoring system that they use to prioritize acquisitions. To develop a consistent comparison of weights between programs that use disparate metrics, we aggregated individual metrics used in quantitative prioritization systems into 10 categories (Appendix 2). For example, the Wildlife Management Area (WMA) program awards points for parcels that have wetland complexes on them. We assigned the points from this metric to the category of habitat/biodiversity under our system because the scoring guidance stressed the importance of wetland complexes for waterfowl breeding. To avoid double counting, we assigned each point of a metric to a single category only (Appendix 3). We divided the maximum score in a given category by the overall maximum score attainable under each program to determine the weight a program placed on a category. Further assumptions, described in the supporting information, were required to aggregate scores from the DNR’s WMA and Aquatic Management Area (AMA) programs and BWSR’s Wetland Restoration program (Appendix 2, Table A2.1 and A2.2, Appendix 3). Finally, we compared the specific benefits listed in the funding legislation to those prioritized under current metrics and approaches used by conservation organizations and agencies receiving funding.


Do Minnesota statutes enable an ecosystem services approach?

Review of Minnesota statutes showed that almost all legislation either directly called for multiple benefits or specifically listed several distinct benefits (Table 1). Mention of human beneficiaries was also common to all legislation except programs under the Reinvest in Minnesota Resources statute (RIM) and the Native Prairie Bank program. Though RIM did not have explicit references to human beneficiaries, its direction to prioritize protection of drinking water sources provided guidance specific to human well-being. Even programs that did not have elements of an ES approach in their enabling legislation are often funded by the Legacy Amendment and Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, both of which have support for an ES approach in their enabling legislation. We concluded that the legislation enabled and reinforced an ES approach, even though the words “ecosystem services” were not used.

The most commonly mentioned benefits called for in statutory language were water quality, recreation, and habitat quality (Table 1). All enabling statutes reviewed, except for the DNR’s Native Prairie Bank program, called for at least two of these three benefits. Of the conservation programs, only RIM and the Forests for the Future program specifically mention benefits distinct from these areas. Reinvest in Minnesota Resources includes carbon storage and flood mitigation, whereas Forest for the Future calls for the consideration of timber production, air quality, carbon storage, and scenic services in addition to recreation, habitat, and water quality. Of the funding sources, the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund was the only one to explicitly go beyond water quality, recreation, and habitat quality, calling for air and land quality as well as a catchall for other natural resources.

What metrics or priorities do organizations using public funds for conservation acquisitions currently employ?

Habitat and biodiversity related metrics typically made up around half of the score of a program. When metrics closely related to habitat (i.e., habitat/biodiversity, size, and spatial context) are grouped together, they accounted for at least 75% of the total score in all of the programs reviewed except for DNR’s Forests for the Future (Fig. 1). Water quality did not make up more than 5% of the total score of any program. Metrics that took into account the demand for and accessibility of recreation benefits (i.e., recreation accessibility) received between 6% and 17% of the total score and were not considered in four of the programs.

Several programs also considered variables related to the logistics of acquiring and managing the land, market benefits from timber or grazing, the willingness of the landowner to donate a portion of the land’s value, public support for acquisition, and risk of development. These variables collectively accounted for 0 to 36% of a program’s score, with a median of 10% (Fig. 1). Public support for acquisitions was considered only by the DNR Forests for the Future program, in which public support was measured by the presence of letters of support and landowner engagement. Risk of development was measured either through expert-opinion based knowledge of the local market or the presence of other restrictions on the parcel (Appendix 3).

Do the metrics and weights used by conservation organizations reflect the conservation and human well-being priorities described in statutes and are they consistent with an ecosystem services approach?

All of the conservation programs in our review included metrics of habitat quality in their scoring system, consistent with the statutory language calling for habitat benefits from conservation investments in all of the statutes reviewed, with the exception of the Clean Water Fund (Fig. 1; Table 1). For example, the WMA program statute states that wildlife management areas, “shall be established to protect those lands and waters which have a high potential for wildlife production and to develop and manage these lands and waters for the production of wildlife, for public hunting, fishing, and trapping, and for other compatible outdoor recreational uses” (Minnesota Statutes 2017 section 86A.05 subd. 8; ORS 2017). Consistent with this language, WMA scoring systems emphasized habitat quality over other potential ES benefits (Fig. 1). Habitat quality in and of itself is not an ecosystem service, but may be strongly linked to the final ES of recreation.

Although recreation benefits were called for in all of the conservation funds and all programs except for the DNR’s Native Prairie Bank and BWSR’s RIM, the metrics we reviewed lacked an emphasis on access, proximity to population centers, or the preferences or behavior of recreationists that would more directly link investments in habitat quality to improvements in hunting, angling, wildlife viewing, or other metrics of human well-being. Only the DNR WMA, AMA, and the Trout Stream Easement programs take into account the local population and demand, giving the category a weight of 6%, 6%, and 17%, respectively (Fig. 1).

Water quality was mentioned in statutory language authorizing two of the three funds and five of the nine programs reviewed (Table 1). The programs that did mention water quality as a goal include RIM and the Clean Water Fund, which are among the most well-funded of all the programs. Despite millions of dollars of funding dedicated to water quality and frequent mention as a priority in statutes, water quality metrics were missing from all but two of the scoring systems used to prioritize conservation acquisitions. The BWSR’s Wetland Restoration and DNR’s Forests for the Future programs weighted water quality at 5% and 3% (Fig. 1).


Mainstreaming an ES approach that prioritizes managing for multiple benefits and human beneficiaries is particularly challenging when the responsibility for promoting different ES is divided between multiple government agencies or conservation organizations. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) seeks to ensure protection of Federal Trust Species, whereas the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with reducing pollution. There are few incentives for these agencies to work collaboratively to manage landscapes for multiple benefits, and it remains unclear what trade-offs exist, what value-added opportunities are being missed, and what policies or programs can be developed to promote greater efficiency. A further challenge is that agencies are largely focused on meeting biophysical standards related to their management goals and do not always consider how these environmental changes affect human well-being or impact they have on other agency goals. For example, compliance with the Clean Water Act requires monitoring and assessment of water quality in the U.S., but monitoring programs do not necessarily consider how changes in pollutant loads have an impact on the health, recreation opportunities, or livelihoods of residents, nor do they consider the consequences to a broader suite of benefits. Ignoring spatial heterogeneity in the demand for multiple ES means that public agency investments are unlikely to be delivering the greatest public benefits at the lowest cost. In addition, the current compartmentalized approach to managing ES has the potential to result in the duplication of efforts and missed opportunities for maximizing total benefits while pursuing a single objective. An ES approach addresses this challenge by serving as a framework for balancing trade-offs and prioritizing mutually beneficial actions of organizations with diverse missions (Galler et al. 2016).

However, there remains a gap between theory and practice and few examples of how an ES approach differs from business-as-usual. This gap is evident in our review of statutory language and targeting metrics used by state programs in Minnesota. Similar to the best practices for integrating ecosystem services into federal decisions outlined by Olander et al. (2015), we were looking for evidence of benefit relevant indicators that link the provision of multiple ecosystem services (e.g., changes in water quality) with metrics relevant to specific human endpoints (e.g., drinking water quality). Even with state laws that emphasize multiple benefits and human endpoints, we found that most publicly funded Minnesota land conservation programs are focused on a limited set of benefits, mostly habitat-based metrics, and few use benefit-relevant indicators to prioritize investments. This gap is especially apparent for water quality services, in which the only two programs using water quality metrics to prioritize investments do not weight them more than 5% of the total score.

This pattern may in part be explained by the funding structures in Minnesota state government. Funding mechanisms enabled by the state constitution (i.e., Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund, and the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment), have a clear mandate to target multiple services and provide benefits to Minnesota residents. However, large portions of these funds are distributed to the state agency programs reviewed, which may not have clear direction on multiple benefits or human well-being in their enabling legislation (Table 1). The statutory emphasis on habitat, recreation, and water may be the result of the high level at which legislation is written. Legislators are not experts in ES or conservation science, and these three terms encompass environmental benefits for many. Statutes passed by legislators are implemented by agencies staffed by resource professionals, many of whom know the importance of ES. However, as Presnall et al. (2015) demonstrated, many practitioners will not implement an ES approach unless it is an explicit requirement.

Limitations of the study that may affect interpretation of findings

The quantitative metrics we reviewed do not fully capture the decision-making process used by conservation organizations to set priorities and identify opportunities. In addition to these metrics, many programs rely on expert opinion, insights from field staff, and landowner submissions to determine which parcels are considered. Local expertise can aid in identifying conservation opportunities that are likely to be successful or will generate significant value. This expertise is not easy to represent in generalizable metrics that can be applied to all locations.

We do not capture the implicit weight that programs such as the BWSR’s Wildlife Riparian Buffers and Grassland Reserve place on water quality through their existence. Previous research has suggested that targeting habitat can result in protection of multiple benefits (Polasky et al. 2012), however, our study did not assess the outcomes achieved by the acquisitions of the programs reviewed, only the scoring systems. The activities performed by these programs are likely beneficial to water quality, however, the scoring systems employed did not predict the magnitude of change in pollutants such as nitrogen or phosphorus relative to other potential acquisitions.

It is also challenging to isolate the weight attributed to the broader service categories required to make the comparisons between organizations. Metrics related to recreation potential are especially difficult because of their overlap with habitat and water quality related metrics. The size of a parcel and the presence of nearby natural features, opportunities for hunting or wildlife viewing, and the clarity of water bodies all contribute to the recreational value of a parcel but are not included in this category. The intertwined nature of services highlights both the potential for providing multiple public benefits with a single investment and the difficulty of managing those services and communicating the value of these public investments in terms of the specific services they provide and to whom.

Recommendations for ecosystem services researchers

Broad citizen support for conservation, legal authority, public funding, and the availability of comprehensive spatial environmental data make Minnesota well-positioned to emerge as a national leader in state efforts to implement an ES approach. However, current approaches to land conservation and prioritization are still heavily biased toward habitat protection, lack consideration of a broad suite of public benefits, and do not sufficiently link ecosystem service flows and human well-being. Ecosystem services researchers can address these gaps through the development of metrics that capture the value of ES to households and communities.

Simple metrics such as slope, erodibility, and proximity to waterways miss the nuances of where, why, and how much people care about water quality (Keeler et al. 2012). Metrics must take into account the spatial relationship between where an ecological function is performed, and where it ultimately benefits humans to fully implement and prioritize based on an ES approach (Tallis and Polasky 2009). Accounting for spatial links between the production of ES and beneficiaries is particularly relevant for programs that acquire easements that do not allow for public access to the parcel itself. In this case, considering the accessibility of benefits requires identifying public benefits that are influenced by the management practices on a private parcel, such as reduced sedimentation in public waters used for recreation, or whether or not it is visible from a public park.

Refining research on beneficiaries will allow policy makers and practitioners to target the land that maximizes human well-being instead of ecological function. The research community must also do more to make these methodologies and associated datasets accessible to practitioners, policy makers, and the public (Sitas et al. 2014). Olander et al. (2017) suggest that researchers who are focused on publishing novel and increasingly precise methodologies often produce tools that are too complicated to run or are not suited for the decision contexts practitioners must contend with.

Research, which will better identify land that is both ecologically valuable and at risk of development or degradation due to invasive species, climate change, or other threats, is also needed. Current efforts to prioritize based on risk of development or other threats are typically based on expert opinion and are not heavily weighted (Fig. 1). Improving the quality of these predictions will improve a program’s ability to protect the most vulnerable lands in addition to the most valuable lands for supplying ES.

Recommendations for policy makers and practitioners

Minnesota statutes already enable an ecosystem services based approach, but does not provide guidance to define and prioritize among competing objectives. Similarly, the guidance on considering human beneficiaries is never more specific than “residents of Minnesota.” Examples of formulas exist within Minnesota statutes to promote the equitable distribution of resources for parks and trails to regions of the state based on factors such as local population and quantity of nonlocal visitors (Minnesota Statutes 2017 section 85.53 subdivision 3; ORS 2017). Similar approaches could be used to ensure that other environmental benefits are equitably distributed. Those managing state conservation funds could do more to advocate for the adoption of ES approaches by more explicitly linking the ES objectives in their enabling statute to the requirements for receiving public funds. This would create greater incentives for cross-agency collaboration, data sharing, and a more comprehensive approach to prioritizing the multiple benefits of land conservation investments.

Recent studies on the efficacy of ES approaches in policy have shown that capacity to perform assessments is often a limiting factor, and that being perceived as unbiased is crucial for acceptance (Mckenzie et al. 2014, Sitas et al. 2014, Posner et al. 2016). Policy makers could do more to foster transparency in ecosystem service based decision making by requiring, and providing capacity for, consistent quantitative evaluation of parcels between organizations and programs. Organizations could supplement this analysis with metrics specific to their mission, but a baseline assessment common to all organizations would enable a more rigorous accounting of the public benefits of public investments in conservation. Analyzing and publishing consistent quantitative data on all proposed acquisitions would help programs communicate the value of their work in terms of direct benefits to people and better justify the selection of parcels that best represent the public interest. Another key element for successful implementation of an ES approach, identified by Olander et al. (2017) and called for in the IPBES framework, is the codevelopment of ES knowledge and conservation priorities and interventions in partnership with stakeholders, landowners, restoration professionals, and implementing agencies (Cash et al. 2003, Tengö et al. 2014, Díaz et al. 2015).

Given the prominence of water quality in Minnesota statutes, practitioners’ current emphasis on metrics related to habitat quality stands in contrast to the absence of metrics devoted to water quality. Current prioritization systems may exclude inexpensive and ecologically beneficial parcels in their quest for the highest quality habitat. Recent advances in science, technology, and data acquisition have enabled analysts to better capture the complex processes that make up multiple ecological production functions as well as the human demand for ecosystem services. Many of the programs reviewed could better target human well-being objectives by using, or more substantially weighting, readily available, detailed, and reliable census data. Furthermore, use of metrics such as the EPA’s vulnerability indicators (US EPA 2016) could help to prevent and correct environmental justice issues in conservation acquisitions.

Implications for global conservation efforts

Although the focus of our analysis was on implementation of an ES approach in conservation programs in a single U.S. state, our observations on the difficulty of implementing an ES approach are relevant for other regions as well as for conservation efforts at national and international levels. At the international level, IPBES and other global initiatives, such as the Bonn Challenge for forest landscape restoration and the United Nations World Ocean Assessment, are investigating how best to protect and restore ecosystems so that they continue to provide ES (Díaz et al. 2015, Chazdon et al. 2017, United Nations 2017). In making recommendations about conservation investments, IPBES and the implementing partners at the national and subnational levels will need to provide guidance on how to institutionalize and mainstream an ES approach that balances trade-offs between multiple objectives and aims to enhance human well-being and biodiversity protection. As demonstrated in Minnesota, clear statutory guidance to target multiple benefits and human well-being does not always translate to implementation. Conservation organizations and programs with roots in biodiversity and habitat protection continue to choose metrics on habitat quality over ecosystem-service based metrics that more explicitly connect to human well-being. The recommendations we outline also have relevance to these international initiatives as leaders and implementing partners debate how to best mainstream ES approaches into guidance and decision making at multiple scales.


The decision-making process used to prioritize investments in conservation easements and acquisitions in Minnesota is not directly targeting multiple benefits or maximizing benefits to humans, despite the legal authority to adopt these elements of an ES approach. With current advances in science and data collection, practitioners have the data and supporting science to target investments that not only maximize the return from multiple ES, but also to account for benefits in terms that are directly relevant to human well-being. The legal framework for this approach already exists in Minnesota statutes, but further collaboration between conservation organizations and increased capacity for ES analysis will be required to leverage current and future ES science advances and codeveloped decision-making processes to maximize returns to human well-being from investments in conservation.


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This work was funded by a grant from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR): M.L. 2015, Chp. 76, Sec. 2, Subd. 09k.


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Table1  | Figure1  | Appendix1  | Appendix2  | Appendix3