Have you ever walked into a dense forest with trees looming ahead reaching toward the sky. At first, you think the forest is quiet. You explore deeper as your feet trod across the ground full of decaying leaves and lush moss. That’s when you start to hear the explosion of sounds. Birds engaging in private conversations alerting their friends you’ve arrived. A pristine stream rushes by full of salmon surfacing to snack on tasty insects. You take a deep breath and your lungs fill with some of the most refreshing air you’ve ever tasted. Suddenly a wave of happiness washes over you as you admire the beauty of nature. You bend down to take a sip of cool water before grabbing a handful of wild raspberries and continuing on along the trail.

The forest ecosystem is one of the most valuable on the planet providing us with clear air, clean water, food, shelter, nutrient cycling, storm protection, and mental and physical health benefits. Ecosystems around the world ensure that we have access to life-sustaining resources and benefits. In return, we must sustainably manage global ecosystems, so they continue to provide for us for years to come. Humans are part of the ecosystem too and their social and economic well-being cannot be excluded from the equation. The path to a healthy planet and a healthy population requires balance and input from diverse local voices, environmental experts, and governing bodies. In doing so, we can have resources for generations to come.

Snowy Forest Ecosystem Alaska


There are four primary ecosystem services:

  • Provisioning services provide us with basic needs such as food, water, fuel, and textiles. IE: Wild salmon
  • Regulating services regulate natural processes such as water and air filtration, decomposition, and pollination. IE Bees that pollinate.   
  • Cultural services are tied to our cultural identity, mental and physical health as humans. IE Polar bear for Inuit culture. Parks for recreation.
  • Supporting services support natural functions to ensure we receive the benefits above, such as photosynthesis and soil formation. IE Burrowing animals that stimulate organic weathering to create soil.

We must treat entire ecosystems as one functioning system. We can not simply focus on salmon conservation without considering the trees that keep water temperature regulated, the plants that prevent erosion into the stream, and the insects the salmon eat.

Humans are part of ecosystems, and our health and well-being are critical to ecosystem management. We can not exclude people from accessing life-sustaining resources in the ecosystem; nor can we allow humans to exploit resources. We should strive for a balanced approach considering the social and economic well-being of local residents, Indigenous Peoples, humanity as a whole with what is best for the natural environment recommended by scientists. In doing so we can have healthy ecosystems and a healthy population for years to come.

dingle peninsula coastal ecosystem

What Are Ecosystems?

What is an Ecosystem?

  • An ecosystem is a collection of living (biotic) organisms, such as plants and animals, and nonliving (abiotic) factors, such as weather and landscapes, that exist and interact within a defined region. 
  • Biotic and abiotic factors work together to stimulate nutrient cycles, such as fungi decomposing fallen leaves, and energy cycles, such as plants photosynthesizing sunlight. 
  • Ecosystems can be as small as a tide pool or as large as the Amazon rainforest. The borders are flexible, and scientists studying a region, conservation management groups, or the people who rely on the ecosystem may have different definitions.  
  • Ecosystems can be aquatic (freshwater systems), marine (saltwater systems), or terrestrial (land systems). 
  • Healthy ecosystems provide us with services such as food, water, carbon capturing, soil creation, and other things important to human health.

Ecosystems with similar characteristics nearby that rely on each other are Ecoregions. For example, the Alaska-Canada Pacific Coastal Ecoregion is a large grouping of coniferous forests and freshwater rivers in Canada and Alaska. 

Biomes are similar ecosystems found around the world but might not be connected. For example, Boreal forest biomes are in Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia.

What are Ecosystem Services?

Provisioning Services
  • Benefits from an ecosystem providing us our most basic needs.
  • Examples:
    • Plants for medicinal development
    • Groundwater for drinking
    • Fish, berries, and vegetables for eating
    • Hemp for textiles
    • Renewable biomass fuels – like wood
  • “Salmon in the Tongass National Forest provide me with food.” If we destroy the salmon streams, then humans that rely on salmon for food or income will suffer.”
Regulating Services
  • Benefits we receive from the regulation of natural processes in ecosystems.
  • Examples:
    • Plants that store carbon in the ground
    • Marshes that filter water
    • Bats that pollinate
    • Mushrooms that decompose leaves
    • Root systems that prevent erosion
    • Mangroves that provide flood protection
    • Trees that break winds
    • Birds that eat mosquitos that carry disease
  • “Mangroves provide me with flood control during storm surges by absorbing excess water.” If we destroy mangroves, coastal areas are more likely to flood.
Cultural Services
  • Benefits that provide humans with culture, religion, ideas, recreation, and physical and mental health.
  • Examples:
    • Polar bears are important to Inuit cultures
    • Urban parks for recreation and mental health
    • Art inspired by the Grand Canyon
    • Hiking trails for physical health
    • Sustainable ecotourism
    • Species important to religion and spirituality
    • Koalas are part of Australian cultural identity
  • “Polar bears and their habitat should be conserved because they are part of Inuit cultural identity.”
Supporting Services
  • Benefits we receive from natural processes that support all ecosystem functions.
  • Examples:
    • Plants photosynthesizing
    • The water cycle
    • Nutrient cycling to create soil for farming
    • Healthy ecosystems that provide space for wildlife
  • “Ensuring the combined health of the animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria in a forest ensure there are plenty of nutrients in the soil to maintain life at all levels in the forest.”

Healthy Ecosystems = Healthy Humans and Vice Versa

Holistic approach

These services are all interconnected and play a large role in how we manage ecosystems. Suppose we want to protect a specific type of tree that keeps carbon in the ground. In that case, you need to consider protecting the fungi to stimulate the nutrient cycle, ensure recreation doesn’t disrupt the root systems, prevent the ecosystem from fragmenting due to development, prevent unsustainable logging, and protect species that help spread the seeds. 

Alaskan forest ecosystem permafrost

Healthy Ecosystems = Healthy Humans: Why we can’t have one without the other

Humans are part of ecosystems and can not be excluded from the equation. The UN places human health as one of the highest priorities for Ecosystem management. You can’t have healthy humans without healthy ecosystems; they are intertwined.

The dangers of preservation

We must manage ecosystems while considering the socio-economic well-being of locals. If we prioritize setting aside vast areas of the wilderness without considering the subsistence and cultural needs of Indigenous Peoples and locals, we deny certain groups access to the ecosystem services they need. 

The mountain gorilla population in Rwanda is endangered. If Rwanda sets aside the gorilla ecosystem as a preserved wilderness region that no one could access local residents would lose access to provisioning resources in the region they need to survive. Locals may engage in resource exploitation including poaching to make ends meet. Sustainable ecotourism was developed in the region asking locals to engage as gorilla trekking guides. Tourists can enter the gorilla habitat with guides. Allowing people sustainable access to this ecosystem has resulted in an increase in the gorilla population, an increase in the quality of life for Rwandan villagers, and environmental education for tourists.

The Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act set aside areas of Alaska for ecological conservation including new wildlife refuges, national parks, and national preserves. However, sustainable subsistence for Native communities was included in the act. So many Alaskans rely on subsistence hunting, fishing, and foraging that if all of Alaska was locked away in wilderness areas inaccessible to humans many communities would face food shortages and loss of culture. The state of Alaska does have a history of denying our Indigenous population land rights, but slowly over time by working with Native corporations and biologists sustainable subsistence rights are being reintroduced. This method embodies the principle of sustainable conservation considering the socio-economic well-being of locals. Read this story about how Native women are revitalizing an old tradition after limited subsistence rights to certain species were no longer limited.

misty mountains in Denali National Park

The dangers of exploitation

We can not exploit one resource from an ecosystem for short-term economic gain and expect the rest of the system to remain healthy. For example, logging in the Tongass may provide provisioning benefits as economic gain, fuel, and shelter. However, unsustainable logging cripples the forest’s ability to offer other services such as water regulation, carbon sequestration, healthy salmon populations, and cultural benefits. The result is a decline in human health from rising sea levels, increasing temperatures, loss of food security, and long-term loss of ALL ecosystem services, including timber.  

Listen to this podcast about the complexity of managing the Tongass ensuring locals have access to income, and we all continue to receive the vast benefits from the old-growth forest. I love this podcast because it features the Tribal president from the village of Kake, a wildlife biologist, a local timber company, an Alaska politician, and a local resident. After listening leave a comment about something you learned.  The right path forward will take effort from Tribal members, state and federal governments, ecologists, locals, fishing companies, and small-scale timber companies working together for a sustainable future. 

Bald eagle looking into water

An Economic Shift

There is an economic divide between the global north and south and developed and developing countries, to add to the complexity of this issue. While developed countries often enjoy preservation and conservation, they often do so at the cost of resource exploitation in developing nations while claiming all the economic benefits. As seen in the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreements, the ideal solution is a cohesive effort, supporting developing countries in a path to sustainable economic prosperity. At the same time, developed nations should focus on reducing carbon output. But, even that isn’t enough. To truly achieve global sustainability of ecosystems management, we would need to restructure our economy, moving away from a carbon-based economy that relies on oil and resource exploitation. There are efforts to create a nonmarket economy for carbon sequestration rather than timber, but we still have a long way to go before it is accepted globally.

Australian bottlebrush

This is a bit uncomfortable for many to think about. But, as yourself why we should place such a high value on timber, an industry that is losing money, and contributing to climate change, and not place a value on keeping carbon in the ground. We would simply pay locals to engage in activities that foster the growth of the old-forest rather than cutting it down. Programs like this are happening around the world, one notable program is called REDD+

Discussions, Critical Thinking, Additional Learning

Homework & Enhanced Learning

Discover & Discussion

  • Find the ecoregion of where you currently live. Share in the comments what the ecoregion is and some of the characteristics.
  • Find an ecosystem near you. It could be a city park, your backyard, a national park, a beach, or a marshland. What are some of the benefits you receive from this ecosystem? Share your findings in the comments. 

Potters marsh freshwater ecosystem

Additional Resources

I mentioned carbon sequestration a few times, learn more about this process.

Read my fun infographic I made for school about Ecosystem Services in the Cook Inlet Basin Ecoregion – my home ecosystem.

If you want to dig in, read the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment by the UN, which discusses ecosystem services and why human health is a priority. 

This Ecosystem Ecology overview from Crash Course is a great video to watch to get the general outline of ecosystems, function, and basic ecology.