A question of increasing poignancy to USDA (as well as other agencies, such as OMB and EPA) is 'what have we gotten for all these investments in conservation policy?'
Or, more generally, what are the values of changes in conservation policy?
To provide any kind of objective answer, more/better fundamental research that strengthens economists' ability to value ecosystem services (aka non-market benefits) is crucial.
Examples of interest in ecosystem valuation:
- The 2014 release of the Federal Resource Management and Ecosystem Services Guidebook and the related 2015 release of
Best Practices for Integrating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making
that seek to expand use of environmental benefits or, at a minimum, "benefit-relevant indicators" as a decision tool.
- The 2014 establishment of Ecosystem Services Working Group
(ESWG); by action of the
National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Sustainability (CENRS), Subcommittee on Ecological Systems (SES).
- The July 2015 C-FARE/USDA-OCE workshop,
Economic Valuation of Conservation Based Ecosystem Services"
to assess the economic implications of policies designed to integrate the values of ecosystem service related to conservation investments with administrative agency required reporting
The October 2015 issuance of OMB memorandum on
Incorporating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making stating that consideration of ecosystem services may be
accomplished ... where appropriate, monetary or nonmonetary values are available.
- In 2016 C-FARE, in collaboration with USDA Office of Chief Economist, organized three working groups with a goal of developing a framework to
value ecosystem service benefits and benefit relevant indicators.
Each focused on a particular ecological niche: water quality (page 91), pollination services (pg 121), and carbon sequestration (page 329).
- In Dec 2016, the EPA held a workshop on Benefit Transfer: Evaluating How Close is Close Enough
Each report/workshop/analysis of the above discusses limits to economists' ability to value conservation programs' effects on ecosystems services
Note that research in this area poses unique challenges including 1) an ability to link changes in land uses to changes in benefit relevant indicators, 2) measures of the public's willingness to pay for changes in benefit relevant indicators, 3) an ability to account for spatial differences in bio-physical effects and economic values, 4) etc. What's more, a single change in a program is likely to affect multiple ecosystems across the country.