There are many ways in which society benefits directly from the free goods and services provided by the functioning of natural ecosystems. The term ‘ecosystem services’ was created to describe these benefits, which are vital to human life and the economy. By one analysis, ecosystem services are worth US$33 trillion per year.
There are a number of different types of ecosystem services:
- Provisioning services – ecosystems provide food, water, fibre, genetic resources (such as wild relatives of important domestic species), and natural compounds that can give rise to new medicines.
- Regulating services – ecosystems regulate climatic conditions, pollination, water quality and flows (for example, the control of flooding regimes by wetlands and riparian vegetation), air quality and erosion.
- Cultural services – ecosystems support social and cultural benefits such as ecotourism, recreation, and heritage, spiritual and aesthetic values.
- Supporting services – ecosystems perform functions such as photosynthesis and soil formation, which support the plants, animals and landscapes that provide provisioning, regulating and cultural services.
Ecosystem services within the GER corridor
The ecosystems of the Great Eastern Ranges (GER) corridor provide multiple services, such as vital carbon storage, the provision and regulation of fresh water and cultural benefits.
Natural forests, like those comprising a significant proportion of the GER corridor, have a major role to play in the carbon cycle, and thus in the regulation of global climate. The soil and living biological matter within the world’s natural forests store approximately three times as much carbon as is currently in the atmosphere. In fact, halving global deforestation rates by 2030 would save US$3.7 trillion worth of greenhouse gas emissions.
The term ‘green carbon’ is therefore sometimes used to describe the carbon that is captured through photosynthesis and stored within these natural forested areas. Natural, protected forests store carbon more effectively than plantations and exploited forests, because natural ecosystems have a greater diversity of species, a broader gene pool and healthier ecosystem functions, which makes them more resilient to disturbance and more able to adapt to the effects of climate change and other pressures. They are thus likely to remain healthy and able to store carbon for much longer than disturbed forests and plantations.
The most reliable rainfall in eastern Australia falls on the mountains and high country of the Great Eastern Ranges, and is captured by the headwaters of many important rivers. Native ecosystems within the GER corridor regulate these water flows and improve water quality across the landscape. Coastal towns within the corridor, including the major population centres of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, depend on this reliable, high quality water to support human health and their economies. Water from the ranges is also important for agricultural lands to the west, and feeds into marine waters, including the Great Barrier Reef, to the east.
Many of the iconic landscapes in the GER are protected in national parks, and some are within World Heritage areas. As well as being managed to protect their conservation values, these areas provide the public with access to cultural services, including opportunities for low-impact recreation, ecotourism, connection to ‘sense of place’, and culturally significant or iconic species.
Protecting ecosystem services
The Great Eastern Ranges Initiative (GER) aims to maintain, enhance and restore ecosystem functions across the landscape, by improving and protecting connectivity within the GER corridor. Using approaches such as revegetation, protection of existing connections, and improved management of the broader landscape, GER is building a healthier, more resilient landscape and supporting the natural processes that provide ecosystem services.
Protecting ecosystem services has many direct benefits. For example, farmers can support ecosystem services by retaining, managing and replanting areas of native vegetation on their properties. This in turn brings a range of benefits, including providing shade and shelter for livestock, creating natural windbreaks that increase crop and pasture productivity, regulating water flows and water quality, preventing dryland salinity and soil erosion, aiding pollination and providing natural pest control by allowing native birds and mammals to remain on the property.