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What are Recreational Ecosystem Services?

- Blog post by Marcus Becker, Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute

How do people reveal their preferences and values for features of the natural environment? We generally are familiar with more conventional aspects of ecosystem services such as the water purification delivered by a wetland, or the storage of carbon in healthy soils and forests that help mitigate the impacts of climate change. However, although many of us partake in outdoor recreation activities, we often overlook the recreational services that features of the natural system provide us. These features include, for example, the game species for hunting, the river for canoeing, or the landscape that provides scenic amenities to backcountry hikers. The way in which we choose to use the environment for recreational purposes can reveal what aspects and how much we value this service.    

Fundamentally, outdoor recreation exists at the intersection between economic activity and the environment. Whether it is camping at a provincial campground, hiking a backcountry trail, or sportfishing at a trophy lake, people are spending their money and their time to engage in activities that are profoundly influenced by the quality and quantity of environmental attributes. Importantly, recreational behaviour provides us (as researchers) with a linkage between aspects of environmental quality and what people value, which is revealed by the choices they make. Does cleaner water in the lake make it more likely to be a destination for fishing trips? If so, recreationists are signalling to us the value they place on clean water.  

The analysis of recreational choices has many practical applications. For instance, in the 1970s the U.S. Clean Water Act paved the way for using this type of analysis to evaluate damage assessments – for instance, what are the costs of pollution in a river? And what are the benefits of enforcing cleaner water standards? Well, a significant portion of those benefits, or costs if the river were to stay polluted, is the value in terms of recreational opportunities. People may choose not to (or be unable to) recreate in that location if the pollution were allowed to continue unabated, thereby reducing their overall welfare.

Another application is to help policy-makers decide between different land-use management actions. Say that an ecologically valuable tract of land that contains habitat for several bird species is currently undeveloped, but that a proposed development is being considered. How would we go about evaluating the costs and benefits of this decision? Often, the (economic) benefits of development options are better understood – this would create X amount of revenue, and provide Y number of jobs. Alternatively, who benefits from leaving the land undisturbed? Perhaps the area provides a valuable outdoor recreation experience to bird-watchers, who travel great distances to observe the diverse bird species congregating each year in the area. Because of the choices these recreationists make with their time and money, we can assume that the benefits of preservation are not zero (of course, we haven’t even touched on intrinsic values). Now, we have a more robust approach to make this decision.

Clearly, recreational uses of the environment provide us with yet another important service to consider. To make decisions that maximize the benefits to Albertans, an ecosystem service approach that includes recreation opportunities is warranted.