Estimating Ecosystem Services in Southern Ontario

Valuing Ecosystem Services

Estimating Ecosystem Services in Southern Ontario - Full Report (PDF 4.7Mb)

By: Spatial Informatics Group, Austin Troy & Ken Bagstad (2009)


Valuing Ecosystem Services
Valuing Ecosystem Services.


This study was commissioned by the Southern Region Planning Unit of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), in partnership with Corporate Management Division’s Socio-Economic Unit and the member organizations of the Integrated Land Management (ILM) Program: the Eastern Ontario Model Forest,  St. Lawrence Islands National Park, the United Counties of Leeds & Grenville, and the Frontenac Arch Biosphere Reserve.  Financial support, in part, was provided by Natural Resources Canada’s Geo-connections Program.


Executive Summary:

Ecosystem services are the benefits that people obtain, either directly or indirectly, from our ecological systems.  These services can be understood in ecological terms and they can also be translated into economic terms through valuation studies. These services are the foundation of human well-being and they also represent a significant part of the total economic value of our landscape and economy.  And yet their value is most often uncounted, assumed to be ‘zero’.  It is therefore important to be able to estimate the economic value of ecosystem services. Increasingly valuation is recognized as another useful tool in environmental decision making to weigh tradeoffs between conservation and land development.


There is considerable global interest in applying ecosystem services concepts, both as a rationale for conservation and as a method to support the design of effective resource management policies. Currently, there is a lack of a comprehensive and defensible information base to understand ecosystem services in southern Ontario. To address this gap in our information, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) commissioned this report to attempt to estimate the ecosystem service values for southern Ontario.  The study is intended to: 

  • Enhance our understanding of southern Ontario’s natural heritage by adding a socio-economic value to MNR’s existing natural heritage information
  • Investigate how ecosystem services information might support policy and planning decision making (i.e. allow for a fuller cost accounting).
  • Help identify gaps in key areas of the literature (e.g., carbon sequestration)
  • Develop a defensible economic rationale for the conservation of southern Ontario’s natural heritage.



Sylvan Glen Conservation Area
Sylvan Glen Conservation Area: Photo - CM Lemieux.
It was not feasible or practical in this research study to estimate the value of all of southern Ontario’s natural heritage through direct valuation studies because of the significant cost and time required to do so.  An alternative approach was used whereby valuation information generated from related research for sites which are similar in context to the policy site was applied. This approach of using information from another study site is known as “value transfer” or “benefits transfer”.  In this study, Spatial Informatics Group (SIG) rigourously applied the value transfer approach to determine the most appropriate valuation information for southern Ontario’s ecosystem services.


As a first step, SIG worked with MNR to determine the boundaries of the study area where value transfer would be applied. Based on the existing literature, SIG developed preliminary classifications for land cover and ecosystem services to serve as the value transfer link. This classification was based on MNR’s Southern Ontario Land and Resource Information System (SOLRIS), with minor alterations made to better fit the classes as described in the literature.


SIG used its database to search for valuation studies for land cover types that were comparable to those of the study area. SIG determined that studies from temperate areas of North America, Europe, and New Zealand were roughly comparable in environmental and socio-economic contexts and could be included, in part to fill identified gaps. Land cover types, for which no transferable valuation studies exist, were removed and reassigned a “no known value”. New categories or subdivisions of existing categories were added where the literature search indicated that such a category could be economically valued.

Southern Ontario Woodlot
Southern Ontario Woodlot: Photo - E Boysen.
This project used one approach for estimating the ecosystem benefits derived from natural landscapes. The project generated estimates of the yearly value of ecosystem services for southern Ontario, as well as the geographic variation in the values. The key findings of the study are:


  • This report presents a conservative estimate of the value of the ecosystems services in southern Ontario. The study was constrained by the limited values available in the literature. A large number of gaps exist in the classification of value by land cover and ecosystem service types (Table 2). In cases where no valuation estimate exists, the land cover and ecosystem service were given a value of zero, greatly under-estimating the value of the natural systems.


  • Ecosystem services valuation is still a young science. It has not yet progressed to the point of matching changes in landscape configuration and ecosystem processes to levels of the provision and the values of the corresponding services. These processes affect ecological indicators like net primary productivity, biodiversity, soil quality, runoff, sedimentation rates, nutrient cycling, and natural disturbance processes, which in turn underlie the provision of most ecosystem services.


  • There is considerable variability in the value estimates for particular services and land cover types, with differences sometimes encompassing multiple orders of magnitude. In most cases these differences reflect high and low ranges of human use of a resource. For example, greenspace in urban and suburban areas is more highly valued than in rural areas due to the scarcity this land cover type and the larger number of people that benefit from it.  There was an attempt to account for these differences by separating urban and rural land use types, however large value ranges may persist.


  • The valuation literature continues to be skewed toward wetlands, open water and forests, while grassland and savanna ecosystems are less studied from an economic valuation perspective. This bias is notable given the rarity and biological importance of grasslands in Southern Ontario.


  • Growth in the primary literature has enabled more precisely defined land cover typologies than were available several years ago. These classifications more accurately reflect the socio-economic importance of ecosystem services, in particular the very high values of ecosystem services in urban and suburban settings due to scarcity and high density populations.  These very high values demonstrate the importance of protecting greenspace in cities and in the rapidly developing suburban fringe where natural heritage features are a key component to preserve a high quality of life.


  • Primary valuation research should always be the preferred strategy for gathering information about the value of ecosystem goods and services. However it is almost never feasible to conduct a full valuation of all services and ecosystems using original research, given the amount of time and money required to conduct these studies. In this context, the value transfer method represents a meaningful “second-best” strategy and a starting point for the evaluation of environmental management and policy alternatives


Next Steps:

Floodplain Forest, Peterborough County
Floodplain Forest, Peterborough County: Photo - W.D. Bakowsky.
A critical question that this research raises is, “How should ecosystem service valuation be used in decision making?” Although a number of jurisdictions, both locally and internationally, have piloted ecosystem service values projects, the broader ecosystem services framework has played only a limited role in the public decision-making arena. There are many ways that this type of spatially explicit valuation can be useful to decision makers.  For example, it could enhance the cost-benefit analysis for large scale projects that impact large areas of land.  It could also serve as a tool to compare outcomes of various scenarios of different policy criteria.
By commissioning this research and presenting it to the public, the Ministry of Natural Resources hopes to enter into a dialogue about how the Province can best consider ecosystem service valuation in provincial and local policy and decision-making. A holistic approach to ecosystem services valuation could yield much more efficient policies than an approach that focuses on only one objective.
Note*   The potential uses outlined in the discussion section of this report are not formally endorsed by the Ministry of Natural Resources rather they are included here as considerations for public policy and to prompt a dialogue with stakeholders. The valuation estimates presented in the Appendices of this report are not the final word on the subject, and these sections suggest areas for further research to improve the coverage and reliability of the valuations.