Ecosystem accounts define explicit and spatial trade-offs for managing natural resources

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Decisions about natural resource management are frequently complex and vexed, often leading to public policy compromises. Discord between environmental and economic metrics creates problems in assessing trade-offs between different current or potential resource uses. Ecosystem accounts, which quantify ecosystems and their benefits for human well-being consistent with national economic accounts, provide exciting opportunities to contribute significantly to the policy process. We advanced the application of ecosystem accounts in a regional case study by explicitly and spatially linking impacts of human and natural activities on ecosystem assets and services to their associated industries. This demonstrated contributions of ecosystems beyond the traditional national accounts. Our results revealed that native forests would provide greater benefits from their ecosystem services of carbon sequestration, water yield, habitat provisioning and recreational amenity if harvesting for timber production ceased, thus allowing forests to continue growing to older ages.

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Fig. 1: The environmental–economic system showing the stocks and flows of natural resources.
Fig. 2: Landscape context of ecosystem assets and services.
Fig. 3: Value of ecosystem services and IVA generated in the Central Highlands.
Fig. 4: Value of ecosystem services and IVA (2013–2014) and the potential changes if native forest harvesting ceased.
Fig. 5: Spatial distribution of the interaction index of ecosystem service values.


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Support for this project was provided by research funding from Fujitsu Laboratories, Japan, and the National Environmental Science Programme of the Australian Department of the Environment and Energy and is gratefully acknowledged. We thank staff at the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and VicForests for assistance with access to data and its interpretation. This research was undertaken with the assistance of resources from the Australian Government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy through its Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network programme and the National Computational Infrastructure programme. We thank participants who attended a workshop in Melbourne in August 2016 for constructive feedback on the study, C. Hilliker for expert assistance with graphics and P. Burnett for helpful comments on a draft of the manuscript.

Author information

H.K., M.V. and D.L. designed the study. H.K. and M.V. performed the calculations. J.A.S. performed the spatial analysis. J.L.S. performed the hydrological modelling. The manuscript was written by H.K. with contributions from M.V. and D.L.

Correspondence to Heather Keith.

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Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures 1–4, Supplementary Tables 1–3, Supplementary Glossary, Supplementary References

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Keith, H., Vardon, M., Stein, J.A. et al. Ecosystem accounts define explicit and spatial trade-offs for managing natural resources. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 1683–1692 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0309-1

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