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The Economic Downturn. Is Environmental Resource Conservation Still Possible? Supporting conservation by developing resource value relationships.

The recent world wide economic crisis has drastically refocused our priorities. Many of us have seen our retirement portfolios dwindle and real estate values plummet, while federal, state and local governments are scrambling for funding as budgets disappear. Even obtaining financing for all but the essentials has become more difficult. Advisors caution U.S. President-elect Barack Obama that reversing the economic crisis should be the top priority, perhaps leaving environmental issues to languish until better economic times.

A natural response to the recent drop in real estate market value might be to reduce or withdraw funding and financial support for environmental planning and management. While current real estate market prices for land take into account prospective buyer's willingness and ability to purchase, they reflect only a portion of the value associated with the resource attributes of the land. In addition to traditional natural resources such as minerals, timber products, and forage we now acknowledge embedded values associated with ecosystem sustainability and function.

Though most of us have little control over the social and economic factors that drive the flow of financial support into conservation projects we can have an understanding of the connection between environmental system components in order to streamline and target conservation activities to get the best return on our efforts to protect our inherent landscape values.

The intrinsic value of a site is a complex association of resource values that support both productivity and sustainability throughout the ecological system. Resource values are essential system components that determine the vitality and productivity of all other components of the system. The soil properties of texture, chemistry, composition and condition comprise a resource value that supports the growth of plants, provides habitat for animals and transports and stockpiles nutrients and toxic substances. The quality of air is another resource value that provides nutrients for plants and animals or imparts toxic substances which can harm life. Ground water and surface water chemistry and flow characteristics are resource values which transport nutrients and toxic substances impacting both terrestrial and aquatic animal and plant life. A site's, slope and surface topography characteristics influence water, soil, nutrient and toxic substance transport and also provide landscape features promoting plant and animal habitat. Climate provides temperature, wind and precipitation events to nourish plants, erode soil, and transport nutrients and pesticides. Plants and animal populations including weeds, pests, prey and predators, even beneficial insects and pollinators are resource values that provide a range of diversity and dynamic equilibrium for the proper function of the ecosystem and the health and productivity of individual species.

Finding relationships and supportive associations within an ecosystem increases the asset value of individual environmental components. Employing interrelationships in environmental remediation and resource management can greatly reduce costs for remediation and resource production.

Consider, for example, the value of soil to support microbial populations to provide nutrients for an agricultural crop: Evaluating nutrient and biotic levels in the soil helps a producer target the timing of fertilizer application to maximize the crop uptake and support microbial nutrient fixing activity minimizing fertilizer input.

Likewise, adopting an integrated approach can improve the outcome and reduce costs for a reclamation project: Intense rodent damage can potentially devastate reforestation plantings and some protection is required. Understanding wildlife habitat and dynamics, another environmental value, a planner evaluates the site's existing and potential predator to prey relationships and provides perches for raptors, promoting predation and reducing the need for extensive physical barriers or trapping.

Maintaining the inherent value of natural resources is dependent on knowing what values we have, how resources are interrelated and how they are influenced by our activities. It is essential, therefore, to inventory, evaluate and develop best management practices for the management of a range of resource values including air and water quality, soil health and fertility as well as plant and animal diversity and balance. Additionally, having knowledge of the environmental components, attributes and interrelationships for our unique landscapes, and recognizing which resources are key contributors to an aggregate system trend helps us reduce costs by improving the efficiency of environmental planning. Understanding that environmental qualities have a reciprocal or complementary relationship on the land helps us concentrate our management efforts towards arresting degradation or effecting improvement on environmental components that may be the limiting factors in our ecosystem health.

Along with social and economic factors, the function of each environmental constituent (or resource value) in relationship to the system determines the long term investment value of the land as well as the ultimate profitability of a resource based enterprise. Recently we've learned that knowledge of our assets, review and balance is imperative for retirement and financial portfolios. A site inventory, monitoring and evaluation is just as necessary for natural resource values. Though funding may be more difficult to find in the current economic climate, active consideration is essential to maintain the inherent value of our land as an entire range of integrated ecosystem attributes. Understanding and investing in the vitality of these ecosystem functions preserves the value of our land, strengthens the positive qualities in human societies of stewardship and nurturing, and provides a legacy of sustainability for future generations.

Wendi Lutz. Three Ravens Ranch.