What We Need to Know about Ecosystem Services

By Amanda D. Emert

Amanda–out doing field research and meeting up with familiar friends!

Ecosystem services, defined as benefits to humans freely provided by our ecosystem, are foundational to our way of living. It would be difficult to imagine a world without clean water or productive soils because, without these basic necessities–we would surely be unable to sustain ourselves or our future generations. However, in our daily activities, we often take these services for granted. How often do we think about where the water from our faucets come from?

We may think of ourselves as wholly separate from the “natural world,” but we are as much a part of it as any other living thing in our ecosystem. This being the case, we also have the potential to shape the world by our activities and habits, in turn, affecting our ecosystem and its capability of producing the services we need. When breaking down what this really entails, there are four categories that all ecosystem services fall into:

Infographic Source: The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB)

Provisioning services are the services that we most often associate with natural resources (i.e. water, timber, crops, etc.), but there are numerous equally important services that benefit our physical and mental wellbeing indirectly. The aesthetic merit of our ecosystem is inherently valuable. Put more simply, how do we feel when we step outside to admire the sights and sounds of our environment? For those that hold religious or spiritual beliefs, natural settings may offer an opportunity to commune with their higher power. For persons born and raised in a particular environment, these cultural ecosystem services may even provide us with a sense of place making the responsible stewardship of these resources all the more personal.

In North America, we have many natural wonders that are easy to appreciate. Forested ecosystems, mountainous terrains, and coastal wetlands are some of the landscapes that may come to mind as the embodiment of all things natural and aesthetically pleasing. However, for those of us that live and work in the Southern High Plains of Texas, we know it may take a more familiar eye to recognize the importance of the ecosystem services that are available to us here. To someone just passing through, the landscape may look relatively flat and unremarkable, but that couldn’t be further from reality.


Our region has provided us with an abundance of services, such as arable cropland and groundwater from the Ogallala Aquifer for the nourishment of our immediate physical needs, but it also has some of the highest densities of playa wetlands in the Great Plains. Playa wetlands are the main hydrologic feature in a region lacking in rivers and streams but provide for us in countless ways. Unmodified playas, by definition, are ephemeral water sources that are only filled for part of the year. When dry, they may only be recognizable by observing low spots in the landscape with vegetation and soils that differ from upland, grassy areas. Though, when playas receive adequate rainfall to fill the basin, it becomes clearer why they are considered a keystone ecosystem. The biodiversity of our region is contingent on the presence of playas, as they offer refugia for migratory birds, breeding amphibians, and highly diverse macroinvertebrates. Economically valuable big game species use these areas as an important source of surface water in an otherwise semi-arid environment. Additionally, as they begin to fill, playas act as effective groundwater recharge zones where surface water can percolate into the aquifer.

As our population grows, the diligent conservation of our natural resources becomes increasingly important in the Southern High Plains. The ecosystem services that we are provided are not inexhaustible, and sustainable use of these services will be rewarded in present and future generations. Whether you are a farmer or rancher that may be intimately familiar with the land or you are just a person who wants to affect positive change in your community, the wise use and management of our natural resources is in all of our best interest.


Photos (courtesy of Amanda Emert)

Amanda Emert, an OC Intern alum (2019), grew up in Cotton Center, TX and is currently an M.Sc. graduate student in the Department of Natural Resource Management at Texas Tech University.  She will be pursuing a Ph.D. in the Department of Environmental Toxicology this fall at Texas Tech.

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