Give the Salamander a Hard Hat


“Give the Salamander a Hard Hat: Ecosystem Services”

(Valuing Nature columns were originally published in the Kennebec Journal and the Moosehead Messenger)

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 became an essential calculation and the question of how we develop without losses or who pays for a loss will become even more controversial.imagesYIF6CPBX

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.

Closer to home, Newport’s water supply on NokomisLake is threatened because of current and future development pressures.  Maine’s shoreline zoning act did not protect these and other waters from an accumulation of septic systems near water and recreational use that allowed motorized lake traffic in the winter. A new advanced filtration plant will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and piping groundwater sources near town might cost between $2-$3 million.   Who then, is to be charged the cost of replacing these degraded ecosystem services?

Perhaps that’s too complex a question to answer as residents of Newport certainly didn’t intend to affect the water they use every day.

This “who pays” question does lead to other very sticky issues in Maine.  If harvesting so affected deer wintering areas in WashingtonCounty 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 Newport’s superintendent of the water district 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.

Sandra Neily has experience as an outfitter, guide, and outdoor writer. The author of two publications exploring nature-based economic values (“Valuing The Nature of Maine,” “Watching Out For Maine’s Wildlife’), most recently she was the Executive Director of the Maine Conservation School. 

(Valuing Nature columns were originally published in the Kennebec Journal and the Moosehead Messenger.)