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Identifying the benefits of nature can help protect it

In order to calculate the true value of nature, we must focus on how much people benefit from it, according to researchers at Stanford University. For example, forests provide so many different benefits, even just as a refuge to connect with nature, but these benefits are not the same for everyone. 

“Context matters,” said study lead author Lisa Mandle, who is the lead scientist at the Stanford Natural Capital Project. “If we want to protect the critical natural assets we all depend on, we need actionable policies that incorporate people’s diverse needs. It shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach when we’re talking about people and nature.”

Worldwide, there is a growing movement to invest in nature in an effort to protect invaluable resources and improve climate resilience. For policies and management decisions to account for nature, however, the researchers say the science behind them needs to be more inclusive and people-centric.

The experts also emphasize the need for a focus on equity. For some people, a forest has deep cultural significance, while for others it is a source of timber. When all of these benefits are not considered, many people who depend on nature will be left out of important management decisions.

“If you don’t know who specifically would benefit from which ecosystems, how can you prioritize where and how to conserve?” said study co-author Taylor Ricketts, director of University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Environment. “We want to make sure the benefits of ecosystems are shared equitably, so that we don’t make existing racial and social inequality even worse.”

“People need to see themselves – their values and needs – supported in conservation efforts. Often, research will try to assign an overall dollar value to nature without thinking about who will benefitting from it,” said Mandle. “That’s like saying you have $50 of food in your pantry, but you don’t know what kind of food it is or who will be eating. You can’t plan your meal without knowing what you have and what your diners need.”

The researchers are calling for the scientific community to help build an understanding around who is benefitting from nature in the communities they are hoping to serve. They emphasize direct engagement with people, so that science and policy can be better equipped to meet societal needs, increase equity, and protect vital resources.

“This is a call for us all to do a better job. We can better deliver the information needed to move towards a more sustainable and equitable future,” said Mandle. “And that’s what we’re all working toward.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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