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Estimating Ecosystem Benefits from Rangeland Conservation Practices

Posted by Loretta Metz, National CEAP-Grazing Lands Component Leader, NRCS in Conservation
Feb 24, 2021
Wyoming cowboy herding beef cattle
Wyoming cowboy herding beef cattle. Photo courtesy of Travis Dewitz

Nature provides numerous benefits that people value. In the conservation world, we call these benefits ecosystem services. On rangelands, some ecosystem services can be bought and sold in traditional market systems – like forages, meat, and other animal products from livestock. Other ecosystem services are not typically bought or sold, but nevertheless have value – like cleaner water, better air quality, and reduced risk from drought or flood. Conservation practices can increase the value of both types of ecosystem services. But, how do we put a dollar value on non-marketable services on rangeland? And how do we tie those dollar values to USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation practices?

With these concepts and questions in mind, NRCS partnered with Earth Economics to do a pilot study to estimate non-market ecosystem services in the central Great Plains. Funded by the grazing land component of the Conservation Effects Assessment Project, the resulting Earth Economics study report, “Accounting for Nature’s Value with USDA-NRCS Conservation Practices in the Central Great Plains,” explains the framework and approach used to link practices to ecosystem services and put a dollar value on them.

On rangelands, conservation practices can be associated with many non-market ecosystem services, such as rejuvenation of native grasses and shrubs, whose roots can trap, slow, and filter rainwater and runoff. This filtration not only improves water quality in nearby streams and rivers for downstream drinking water, irrigation, and recreation. It also protects human property from flooding and improves wildlife habitat, leading to potentially better hunting, fishing, and aesthetics. These benefits extend well beyond a ranch’s fence line.

Estimating the benefits of rangeland conservation investments should include the value of both on-site and off-site ecosystem services. Putting a dollar value on these ecosystem service benefits in NRCS policy and program decisions would improve conservation outcomes and perhaps give ranchers even more incentive to adopt NRCS conservation measures.

The pilot study (PDF, 6.4 MB) estimates that brush management and prescribed grazing (two commonly used NRCS rangeland practices) increased ecosystem service values by $15 million to $33 million from 2008 to 2016, an average increase of $1.7 million to $3.6 million per year or $2.28 to $4.93 annually per acre. The ecosystem services that contributed the most to the total value were air quality (35%); water quality (19%); climate stability (12%); disaster risk reduction (10%); recreation and tourism (7%); water capture, conveyance, and supply (7%); soil retention (4%); habitat (3%); and aesthetics (3%).

Watch the recent webinar about the report’s methods and findings presented by Loretta Metz (NRCS, CEAP-Grazing Lands Component Leader) and Angela Fletcher (Earth Economics). For more information on this study, contact

Category/Topic: Conservation