Ecosystem Services

The National Wildlife Federation believes that Americans should be working together to protect wildlife and wild places for their own sake.  Wildlife is important to the heritage, culture and heart of America and we want to preserve it as a legacy for our children. 

Although you cannot put a value on all the ways that the natural world enriches our lives, there are many tangible benefits to living in a world with strong and healthy ecosystems.  We have a stronger economy, diverse food products and advancements in medical research all as a result of wildlife and natural ecosystems.

 Chipmunk with acorn in its mouth

What Does Wildlife Do For Us?

The value of nature to people has long been recognized, but in recent years, the concept of ecosystem services has been developed to describe these various benefits.  

An ecosystem service is any positive benefit that wildlife or ecosystems provides to people.  The benefits can be direct or indirect – small or large. 

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), a major UN sponsored effort to analyze the impact of human actions on ecosystems and human well-being, identified four major categories of ecosystem services:  provisioning, regulating, cultural and supporting services.

Types of Ecosystem Services


When people are asked to identify a service provided by nature, most think of food.  Fruits, vegetables, trees, fish and livestock are available to us as direct products of ecosystems.  A provisioning service is any type of benefit to people that can be extracted from nature. 

Along with food, other types of provisioning services include:  

  • Drinking water
  • Timber
  • Wood fuel, natural gas and oils
  • Plants that can be made into clothes and other materials
  • Medicinal benefits

Kayaking through mangroves


Ecosystems provide many of the basic services that make life possible for people.  Plants clean air and filter water, bacteria decompose wastes, bees pollinate flowers and tree roots hold soil in place to prevent erosion.  All these processes work together to make ecosystems clean, sustainable, functional and resilient to change.  A regulating service is the benefit provided by ecosystem processes that moderate natural phenomena. 

Regulating services include:

  • Pollination
  • Decomposition
  • Water purification
  • Erosion and flood control
  • Carbon storage and climate regulation


As we interact and alter nature, the natural world has in turn altered us.  It is has guided our cultural, intellectual and social development by being a constant force present in our lives. The importance of ecosystems to the human mind can be traced back to the beginning of mankind with ancient civilizations drawing pictures of animals, plants and weather patterns on cave walls.  

A cultural service is a non-material benefit that contributes to the development and cultural advancement of people including,

  • How ecosystems play a role in local, national and global cultures
  • The building of knowledge and the spreading of ideas
  • Creativity born from interactions with nature (music, art, architecture)
  • Recreation


The natural world provides so many services that sometimes we overlook the most fundamental.  Ecosystems themselves could not be sustained without the consistency of underlying natural processes, such as photosynthesis, nutrient cycling, the creation of soils and the water cycle.  These processes allow the Earth to sustain basic life forms, let alone whole ecosystems and people.  Without supporting services, provisional, regulating and cultural services would not exist.   

In Focus: The Ecosystem Services of Wetlands

Wetlands are one of the most threatened ecosystems in the United States.  We have lost over 50% of wetlands in the contiguous United States. Just a quick overview of some of the services provided by wetlands shows how important they are to people and why we should work to protect and restore them. 

  • Many of the fish we rely on for food spend at least part of their lifecycle in wetland habitats.
  • Wetlands retain and control flood waters. 
  • Wetland plants absorb nutrients and chemicals from the water and they act as a natural filtration system.
  • Wetlands are a vital habitat for migratory birds, fish and mammals.  Their loss impacts recreation and biodiversity. 
  • Wetland plants and soils store large amounts of carbon that if released, would contribute to global warming.


National Wildlife Magazine Articles:

How Much is Clean Water Worth



Increasing Vulnerability to Hurricanes

Medical Benefits of Endangered Species



UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment - A Framework for Assessment Document

Environmental Protection Agency

Wetlands and Agriculture: Private Interests and Public Benefits - USDA Economic Research Service Report

Precious Heritage.  Adams, J.S., L.S. Kutner and B.A. Stein, ed.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Sustaining Life.  Chivian, E. and A. Bernstein, ed.  New York, Oxford University Press, 2008. 

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