Valuing the ecosystem services of southern Maine watersheds

Along the coast of southern Maine, the need to conserve natural buffers in order to protect rivers and wetlands has become a focal point for tensions between development and conservation interests. In this rapidly developing landscape, decision-makers often feel they must choose development over conservation or restoration to support local economies. While there is scientific evidence that underscores the value of protecting natural buffers around sensitive water bodies, local decision-makers need additional place-based, economic information about the ecosystem services that these lands provide and the range of tradeoffs that are implied in related land use decisions. A team led by the Wells reserve addressed this need by working with local, state, and federal stakeholders to better understand, measure, and communicate how southern Mainers value natural buffers and the tradeoffs they are willing to make to protect these critical resources for the future.

Project Impact

This project provided crucial information about watershed ecological conditions and ecosystem service benefits and tradeoffs related to land use decisions, as well as defensible estimates of social values associated with riparian and wetland areas in southern Maine. Local decision-makers can use this information to implement sustainable management practices for riparian and wetland areas and demonstrate different ways in which the conservation and restoration of coastal systems contribute to ecosystem services valued by the public. The project also built reserve system capacity to integrate ecological, social, and economic data to guide land use and policy by developing and sharing templates to apply ecological and economic ecosystem service valuation methods in other places.

This project demonstrated the value of and connection to state, regional, and national approaches to ecosystem service valuation and interdisciplinary research in the context of a National Estuarine Research Reserve. For example, NOAA’s Research Council Ecosystem Research Committee is using this project as an example of how coastal managers should conduct integrated social and ecological science. The project’s lead economist participated in several federal ecosystem management processes and worked to enhance visibility of this project as a case study for ecosystem research. Project team members partnered with the Mission-Aransas reserve and researchers from Texas A&M University to develop and deliver training workshops focused on stakeholder engagement best practices to transfer the findings and tools from this project to other reserves and coastal management partners. The team also worked with education coordinators from the Wells, Narragansett, and Waquoit Bay reserves to develop a Teachers on the Estuary (TOTE) workshop based on ecosystem services.

How it worked

The Wells reserve and Clark University led an interdisciplinary team of researchers and stakeholders in developing a framework to characterize and measure the impacts of riparian and wetland management decisions on the ecosystem services that buffers provide in the Wells reserve and surrounding watershed.

The team investigated the impacts of forested riparian buffers on stream ecology and integrated this information with economic data to describe and quantify the tradeoffs associated with different management decisions related to riparian buffers and wetlands. Economists, ecologists, and social scientists used these results to conduct a choice experiment, which is a method for ecosystem service valuation that provides defensible estimates of the social benefits associated with the use of natural buffers in watershed management.

To build long-term institutional and regional capacity for improved riparian management, the team engaged local, regional, and federal stakeholders. They held stakeholder focus groups to help define the links between ecological conditions, ecosystem services, and stakeholder values, and they conducted interviews to model stakeholders’ understanding of ecosystem services related to riparian and wetland systems. The team combined interview responses with ecological data and policy information to inform a stakeholder survey about ecosystem service tradeoffs associated with policy choices and land management alternatives. They evaluated their communication approach to ensure they were meeting stakeholder needs and developed high-impact, science-based communication strategies and decision support tools to promote future sustainable management of riparian and wetland areas.

NERRA Collaboration Research Guide

Determining who will be responsible for making decisions is an important and easily overlooked part of project management. Learn more about the team’s approach to clarifying  the decision-making process for team members and for stakeholders in our Collaborative Project Toolkit.

NERRA Collaboration Research Guide


This project developed a variety of tools and resources that would be useful to coastal communities interested in understanding the ecosystem service tradeoffs and benefits related to land use decisions involving ecosystem services and in comparing the economic consequences of different land use practices in coastal and riparian areas.

To learn more, visit the team’s web page or browse the resources below: