The US prepares its first National Nature Assessment to understand and place tangible value on ecosystem health.
It’s human nature only to appreciate things when they’re gone. We value bees more when crops are in danger of not pollinating. We miss wetlands when storms flood communities. We appreciate forests more when rains cause landslides after an area is logged. Nature’s gifts have always been there and seem free, so we take them for granted.
Historic economic measurement tools, like GDP, only value nature as exploitable resources. Key benefits like clean water, climate regulation, and recreation are overlooked. But the truth is that we cannot drink, eat, or breathe profit. All the money in the world cannot stop nature from destroying our cities and infrastructure.
Intact ecosystems provide economic value not captured in a metric like GDP, but their protection may not directly increase GDP as it is currently measured. Recognizing nature and ecosystem economic contributions involves supplementing GDP with more holistic social and environmental progress metrics.
Starting this year, government scientists are collecting and analyzing data on the health of forests, grasslands, wetlands, coasts, and other environments. Experts involved expect the assessment to spur greater ecosystem protection and monitoring.
The full report, an unprecedented assessment of the condition of ecosystems across the United States, will be released in 2026.
Mandated by 2018 legislation, the US National Nature Assessment is an interagency effort led by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Scientists began compiling data in 2019 on species populations, habitat loss, water quality, and other indicators. The goal is to establish an ecological baseline for future comparison.
Nearly two dozen data sets and existing monitoring studies are being analyzed in the National Nature Assessment. Advanced computer models will integrate the information into national, regional, and state biodiversity and ecosystem health reports.
According to researchers, the National Nature Assessment is the biggest ever and brings together data from many sources into a single landmark evaluation. This cooperative data assessment at different scales will remove agency silos and be invaluable for guiding conservation efforts.
While still undergoing expert review before its slated end-of-year release, those involved have offered insights about expected findings. The National Nature Assessment will likely highlight substantial threats to America’s ecosystems that undermine natural services, wildlife populations, and ecological resilience.
Preliminary data compilations confirm continued widespread declines in habitat, water quality, and native species diversity – symptoms of environments under extreme pressure. Researchers state major reforms are urgently needed to restore nature’s health in light of the findings.
The National Nature Assessment will likely underscore how development, climate change impacts, and agricultural runoff have severely degraded wetlands across much of the country. Scientists expect it to show declining population trends for key animal groups, including grassland birds, butterflies, amphibians, and others.
Experts anticipate the report will highlight large-scale ecological transitions underway. Examples are the northward creep of invasive species as climate changes, and shifting forest distributions as tree species migrate to remain within viable temperature ranges.
Those involved caution the National Nature Assessment will not sugarcoat the scale of disruptions to nature currently unfolding. They believe it should spur stronger protections and conservation efforts based on its findings. Researchers say the assessment can provide a roadmap for where to target interventions most urgently.
Some experts hope the report will fuel greater investment in continuous ecosystem monitoring, which remains uneven. More consistent tracking over time is needed for assessments to have power according to scientists.
While the review process continues, researchers are confident the unprecedented assessment will yield unique insights into status and trends across ecosystems nationwide. They believe it can elevate threats like habitat fragmentation on policy agendas when published. In their view, this report marks an important wake-up call on how ecosystems are faring that can guide conservation priorities in the years ahead.