Courses Will Use Morven Farm to Explore Hard-to-Value Environmental and Cultural Benefits of Rural Land

November 23, 2009

November 23, 2009 — Rural or unmanaged lands provide a bounty of environmental and ecosystem benefits, such as wetlands filtering groundwater pollutants, carbon sequestration in uncultivated soil and forest, and as habitat that supports myriad flora and fauna.

But all those benefits – plus recreational, cultural and aesthetic benefits – are hard to value in dollars and cents, so they often get short shrift in landowners' calculations about how best to utilize their lands, explained Jon Cannon, director of the University of Virginia School of Law's Environmental and Land Use Program, during a Nov. 17 presentation at U.Va.'s Morven Farm.

Figuring out how to better measure, value, preserve and protect those benefits to human well-being will be the subject of four new U.Va. courses to be offered this spring. The classes – in environmental sciences, architecture, history and landscape architecture – were announced at the Morven event.

Jeffrey Plank, associate vice president for research and graduate studies, announced the courses after a presentation by five faculty members, three of whom will be teaching them. All five discussed "The Real Value of the Rural Landscape: Ecosystem Services and Their Potential Markets," the second event in Morven's 2009 Seminar Series.

In addition to their normal class sessions, Plank explained, the four courses will meet jointly once a week for team-taught programs and guest lectures by faculty from across Grounds, including Cannon and Leon Szeptycki from the School of Law, Mark White and George Overstreet from the McIntire School of Commerce, and Jeffrey Hantman from the anthropology department of the College of Arts & Sciences.

The joint class sessions will sometimes meet at Morven, and all the classes will have access to Morven as needed for on-the-ground research of rural landscape issues, said Stewart Gamage, director of U.Va.'s Morven Project.

The courses will collect preliminary data and refine hypotheses for a multi-year research project that – for the first time, Plank noted – will provide land-use planners and landowners with tools for enumerating and measuring the ecosystems services provided by local rural lands.

"Through these spring courses and subsequent research and allied courses, we think Morven can become a new model for a 'research park' at U.Va.," Plank said.

Better valuing these ecosystems services will require a paradigm shift in how people think about and value land, said Thomas C. Skalak, vice president for research. The new interdisciplinary courses can play a role in catalyzing that "paradigm jump," he said.

This new research is the type of "multi-disciplinary problem solving work that universities like the University of Virginia are uniquely equipped to do," Plank said. That's especially true at U.Va., thanks to its low barriers to cross-discipline collaboration and thinking, Skalak noted.

Like the U.Va. Bay Game, an online, multiplayer simulation of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, this rural landscape project will open new directions for private- and public-sector solutions, he added.

The evening's speakers each presented glimpses of how such solutions might play out.

Jon Cannon: A Role For Rural Landowners

Rural landowners themselves could take a leading role in valuing, monetizing and thus preserving ecosystem services, Cannon said. However, they must be persuaded to think about how their land can earn multiple revenue streams for multiple ecosystem services (i.e. carbon sequestering, conserving soil, water filtration), rather than the current status quo of a single-income stream from commodities, a revenue source that's been generally weak and declining for decades.

That could cause a paradigm shift from the bottom up, as well as from the top down, Cannon said – one that would better protect and preserve both ecosystem services and aesthetic, recreational and cultural resources by redirecting growth in smarter ways.

Albemarle County has already taken a small step in that direction, he noted, by setting aside designated growth areas to better protect the other 95 percent of county lands.

Kristina Hill: The Evolving Beauty of Rural Lands

America's increasingly urbanized population may be ripe to evolve away from the view of rural land held by recent generations, a view tied up with a number of social and cultural attitudes, such as valuing the hard work of cultivating the land, said Kristina Hill, a professor and director of U.Va.'s landscape architecture program.

As people spend more of their time in cities, they may adopt a new outlook on rural land that sees beauty in knowing that the land is providing valuable ecosystem services, like cleaning the air.

There is also growing scientific evidence of tangible health benefits from being in the presence of rural landscape, Hill said. Studies, such as comparing the recovery rates of hospital patients with a rural view versus those with an urban view, have found that the immune system's recovery from stress (i.e. illness) is enhanced when a patient is in a rural landscape. Results found so far include faster wound healing and quicker recovery from cancer.

It would be a "game-changer" if ordinary people can see beauty in rural land's provision of ecosystem and health benefits just as they have long recognized the land's beauty in and of itself, such as beautiful gardens or the light of the sunset over rural hillsides, she said.

Mark White: Market Is Key for Ecosystem Services

When it comes to better valuing the rural landscape, the key will be creating the conditions needed for a functioning market for ecosystem services, commerce professor Mark White said.

That will involve a number of challenges, such as properly measuring and pricing the various services.

As an example of the challenges, White cited two contrasting studies of the value of a bird. A classic 1983 study measured the market value of the raw materials (primarily carbon) that make up a bird, and found that the bird was worth two cents. (By the same measures, a human was worth $1.12.)

White did his own study of the value of a bird by itemizing the various services it provides, including tree seed planting, insect eradication and scenic beauty. Using that method, the bird was worth $180.

When asked about the cost of doing nothing or not acting fast enough to better value ecosystems services, White cited the "classic case" of a report on climate change from the exchequer of the United Kingdom. The report estimated that future global warming would cause harms equivalent to 5 percent of the U.K.'s gross domestic product. Spending 1 percent of GDP now could prevent these future expenses, but the investments had to be made very soon to avert those future expenses.

Hank Shugart: Morven Forest Research With Worldwide Applications

Morven land includes more than 1,100 acres of forests, noted Hank Shugart, a professor of environmental sciences and expert on forest succession who will be teaching (in collaboration with professor Manual Lerdau) a class on "Accelerating Landscape Succession in Virginian Piedmont Forests."

His class will research what management would be needed to return some of Morven's forest (generally a mix of early and late succession trees) to its condition before the arrival of European settlers, Shugart said. Doing so would rebuild soil fertility lost over centuries of corn and tobacco cultivation, as well as store more carbon and improve other ecosystems services like local water quality and higher biodiversity.

In Germany, mature forests are being preserved and encouraged by paying timber harvesters for the additional carbon stored if they lengthen the time of each forest growth stage before harvest, Shugart said. Research at Morven on related issues of forest succession will have immediate applications in Europe, as well as locally and nationally, Shugart noted.

— By Brevy Cannon