Mattijs van Maasakkers Publishes The Creation of Markets for Ecosystem Services in the United States

Knowlton School Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning Mattijs van Maasakkers’ recently published book, The Creation of Markets for Ecosystem Services in the United States, opens with an example of effective environmental decision-making. Under the Clean Water Act, increased water temperature is considered a pollutant in waterways through most of the Pacific Northwest because it endangers salmon by preventing them from spawning successfully. A water treatment utility in the Tualatin River basin, close to Portland, Oregon opted for an alternate two-fold solution to cool stream water temperatures, rather than pursue the conventional method of building a mechanical chiller. The company purchased water rights from local reservoirs, allowing for the discharge of cold water into the stream, especially during late summer when water levels are generally low and warm. Secondly, the utility devised a plan to purchase and plant trees along the stream’s path to reduce the solar input into the water. By paying private landowners for planting trees on their properties, and by utilizing volunteer community organizations to plant trees in urban areas on public lands, the utility sought to reduce stream water temperatures and came into compliance with the Clean Water Act.

Interest in this type of ecosystem service market culminated in the mid-2000’s, with federal agencies spending significant amounts of grant funding to implement and support these markets, along with a community of committed advocates for these environmental initiatives. Despite this initial enthusiasm and drive behind the market idea, the potential has largely remained unrealized, as Van Maasakkers indicates, “The reality is that the three most ambitious and well-supported efforts to create markets of this type had little to show in the way of success, and by success I mean on the ground implementation of ecosystem services generating projects that are funded through a market credit mechanism.” He added, “This is the puzzle I am trying to solve: how can this policy relevant idea with such significant backing yield so little in a ten-year time frame?”

To explore this topic the book examines four market creation efforts in three regions of the US: the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the Ohio River basin and the Willamette River basin. Van Maasakkers focused his research on the market idea because he felt it was a particularly powerful way of translating the ecosystem services concept into a manageable institutional framework. “Ecosystem service plans, projections and calculations were quite common, but it wasn’t clear to me how these informed decision-making in a direct way.” He added, “In credit-based markets, the link between the promise of the concept and tangible decision-making was more obvious to me.” Van Maasakkers was further interested in the kinds of markets that bring together different types of ecosystem service credits, rather than single markets for only carbon or water quality, for example. “One of the key promises of the ecosystem services concept for me is the holistic vision of the environment that it enables,” he stated.

The framework for Van Maasakkers’ research and analysis identifies three substantive areas that have served as barriers for creating these markets: displacement, measurement, and participation. The book concludes with suggestions for how ecosystem services can alternatively be incorporated in a meaningful way into environmental decision-making. “I try to describe what a more collaborative way of thinking and acting towards environmental restoration looks like from a procedural point of view, while keeping some of the ecosystem service ideas intact,” Van Maasakkers indicated. “I am still very interested in how communities can make decisions based on sophisticated analyses of environmental conditions to promote ecosystem service production, but not be driven by the market framework.”

Robert Costanza, Chair in Public Policy in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, offered this review of The Creation of Markets for Ecosystem Services in the United States: “This is a thoughtful and engaging history of the often misguided attempts to create markets for ecosystem services in the US and a guide to more participatory institutions that might work significantly better. Essential reading for anyone interested in ecosystem services.”

The Creation of Markets for Ecosystem Services in the United States is available through Amazon.