Sandra Neily here: this article was first published in my 2005 “Valuing Nature” column in the Moosehead Messenger. We’re all likely to have a hibernating winter ahead of us. Like salamanders. Sometime in the spring we can crawl out to be social again. Like salamanders. Time now to think ahead when we can be outside with kids or grandkids, turning over logs to find and visit salamanders. (A guaranteed crowd pleaser!)
Under the soil a large army of wiggly, illusive engineers, soil scientists, and food service workers are helping to create billions of dollars of economic value. If we could count each of them working in a factory, we could value them as part of our economy. Just how are we to value these tiny, essential and moist forest workers who add so much value to our lives? Salamanders aerate the soil and support essential biological processes that enhance soil productivity and they are excellent “protein concentrators.” Without beaks, feathers, or scales, every bite of a salamander is an efficient nutritional delivery system for other animals.
Natural ecosystems (like forests) perform fundamental life-support services upon which we depend. Just like the life support team in a trauma center, these services give us life itself and without them, we would most certainly perish. We value forests for timber and recreation but they provide a myriad of other services that clean our air, filter our water, provide over 50% of new medicine development, and regulate our climate. While many people “get” this concept they are unprepared for what comes next. The economics of supporting a healthy ecosystem “service” or replacing a degraded one has now become an essential calculation and the question of how we develop without losses or who pays for a loss will become even more controversial.
Salamanders are part of a vast and shadowy economy referred to as “ecosystem services.” Ecosystem services are the processes by which the environment produces resources that we often take for granted: clean water, habitat for fisheries, or pollination of native and agricultural plants.
(In Maine wild honey bees and their pollination services help support a $75 million blueberry industry, yet bee populations are threatened by pollution and pesticides.)
Sometimes it’s easier to understand an ecosystem service and its value if we have to think about paying to replace it once it is damaged and gone. When New York City’s water supply fell below accepted standards, the price tag for building an artificial filtration plant was $6-$8 billion dollars, a high price for what had been “free” before. The city decided to spend $660 million to restore and protect the watershed (the water source.) These funds purchased land, halted inappropriate development and compensated landowners who improved septic systems.
This “who pays” question does lead to other some possibly sticky issues in Maine. If harvesting so affected deer wintering areas in Washington County that local income from deer hunting was seriously reduced, who should pay the correct price for restoring that particular ecosystem service? If degraded air quality from ancient coal burning plants in the Midwest brings Maine significant costs from illness as well as lost productivity, who pays to replace the values of the service of clean air? If extensive development on shorelines degrades water quality and affects the economic value of publicly owned resources valuable for tourism (rivers, lakes, wildlife), who compensates future generations for that loss?
As New York’s challenge reminds us, a penny spent on prevention is our wisest course. Preventing the loss or degradation of essential ecosystem services is just a smarter, cheaper route to travel. For the salamanders that means encouraging landowners to know amphibian breeding routes, leave shade trees to cover roads on these routes, and buffer vernal pools necessary for creating the next generation of “soil scientists.”
In return, for free, we all receive the ecosystem benefits of creatures who are an important part of forest health.
The journal “Nature” has this message of all of us: “The economies of the Earth would grind to a halt without the services of ecological life support systems, so in one sense their total value to the economy is infinite.” A recent report attempting to calculate the global value of ecosystem services places their worth at somewhere between $16-$54 trillion dollars (or a mean of $33 trillion). The sum total of the world’s gross natural product from all countries is $18 trillion. That’s a lot of salamanders.
Check out this great 202o NY Times article on a Maine couple saving salamanders.
And this one from my very good friend and salamander road warrior, Dr. Sally Stockwell.
Sandy’s novel “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine,” was a finalist in the Maine Literary Awards, a recipient of a Mystery Writers of America national award and a national finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest.. Her second Mystery in Maine novel, “Deadly Turn” is now in Sherman’s Books and on Amazon in Kindle and paperback. She lives in the Maine woods and says she’d rather be “fly fishing, skiing remote trails, paddling near loons, or just generally out there.” Find more info on her website.