Ecosystem Services

Rewarding Landowners for Enhancing Nature

People planting by stream

California’s natural systems have been significantly altered by human activity for more than a century. This includes building dams that drown landscapes and disrupt fish migration, pumping limited water supplies to satisfy the thirst of ever-expanding cities, and converting forests and other wildlands to farmland and urban zones.

California’s rivers and streams, which have supported some of the cleanest water and healthiest fish populations anywhere in the nation, are among the most impacted of these natural systems. Today, more than 80% of the state’s nearly 200,000 miles of monitored streams fail clean-water standards. Over 60% of all native fish are extinct, endangered or declining. Salmon, once an icon of the state’s abundant natural wealth, have nearly vanished.

While not the only factor, the clearing of trees and other vegetation along waterways to make room for crops and livestock has heightened the problem. Without these natural buffers — 90% of which have disappeared statewide over the last century — sediment and polluted runoff escape unchecked into streams that people and wildlife depend on for survival.


Mokelumne Watershed Avoided Cost Analysis: Report on value of managing forests

Sierra Nevada Conservancy Webpage+

This material is based upon work supported by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under number 69-3A75-11-194. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Vino Farms

Without vegetation to hold it back, sediment from farms and other private lands can escape into nearby waterways, harming water quality and fish habitat (top). Planting trees and other types of vegetation along rivers and streams keeps soil in place, water clean and aquatic wildlife healthy.

Cultivating Clean Water, Fish Habitat

California landowners who manage their properties responsibly provide important services — such as clean drinking and irrigation water purified by wetlands, and bountiful fish populations living in intact rivers — that benefit nature and human well-being.

Through our Ecosystem Services project, Sustainable Conservation wants to reward — in real dollars — farmers, ranchers and other landowners for restoring and sustainably managing the natural resources under their care. Incentivizing sound land stewardship increases the amount and overall impact of restoration — and at a fraction of the cost of other methods such as increased regulation and buying land outright.

Engaging these individuals is of vital importance. More than 50% of California is privately owned — and a vast majority of California’s rivers and streams flow through or along private property.

Sustainable Conservation’s project represents a new approach for improving the long-term health of California’s environment while strengthening the economic security of conservation-minded landowners and their communities.

Sustainable Conservation is developing uniform standards for measuring the environmental outcomes of restoration activities, as well as a payment mechanism to reward landowners for managing their properties in ways that benefit people and the environment. We are simultaneously engaging the beneficiaries of these quantified outcomes (such as public utilities and water users) to seek their investment in the actions of participating landowners.