Assessing Future Ecosystem Services: a Case Study of the Northern Highlands Lake Dist
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04-10-2010, 11:42 AM

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This article is presented by:

Garry D. Peterson
T. Douglas Beard Jr.
Beatrix E. Beisner
Elena M. Bennett
Stephen R. Carpenter
Graeme S. Cumming
C. Lisa Dent
Tanya D. Havlicek

Assessing Future Ecosystem Services: a Case Study of the Northern Highlands Lake District, Wisconsin


The Northern Highlands Lake District of Wisconsin is in transition from a sparsely settled region to a more densely populated one. Expected changes offer benefits to northern Wisconsin residents but also threaten to degrade the ecological services they rely on. Because the future of this region is uncertain, it is difficult to make decisions that will avoid potential risks and take advantage of potential opportunities. We adopt a scenario planning approach to cope with this problem of prediction. We use an ecological assessment framework developed by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment to determine key social and ecological driving forces in the Northern Highlands Lake District. From these, we describe three alternative scenarios to the year 2025 in which the project and implimentationed use of ecological services is substantially different. The work reported in this paper demonstrates how scenarios can be developed for a region and provides a starting point for a participatory discussion of alternative futures for northern Wisconsin. Although the future is unknowable, we hope that the assessment process begun in this paper will help the people of the Northern Highlands Lake District choose the future path of their region.

The 20th century was a period of tumultuous global change. The number of people living on Earth quadrupled. The economy grew 14 times larger, energy use increased 15 times, carbon dioxide emissions increased 17 times, and water use increased nine times. The area of cropland doubled, whereas forested areas declined by 20% (McNeill 2000). Current project and implimentationions of global population growth estimate that there will be 7.8 x 109 people living on the planet by 2025 (Board on Sustainable Development 1999). These people are likely to live in a world that is substantially different from the world today due to changes in climate, disease, technology, trade patterns, societal values, and population structure. Variations in these regional social and ecological characteristics will produce radically different transformations.

Regional transformation offers the potential for human development but also presents a variety of dangers. Many citizens, businesspeople, and civic leaders want to know how they can improve rather than degrade the regions in which they live. How can they produce sustainable development? How can social well-being be increased?

How can people improve their lives and those of future generations? How can they produce a world that is peaceful and prosperous?
The services provided by ecosystems are critical to sustaining human societies. Ecological services supply humans with clean water, clean air, climate moderation, pollution dissipation, and desirable things such as beautiful places, game, and wild animals. Unwanted ecological degradation has led people to try to manage the impact they themselves have on the ecology. Management depends on choosing the best approach from a set of alternatives. Evaluating alternatives depends on understanding the future consequences of current actions. That is, managing ecosystems and ecological services depends on ecological prediction. However, ecological predictions have fundamental problems that limit their usefulness (Clark et al. 2001). They are often contingent on drivers that are difficult to predict and include uncertainties such as nonlinearities, unknowns, and surprises that can make prediction nearly impossible.

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