Why Manage for Biodiversity?

“Protecting the process of evolution is our central interest.”1

We manage for biodiversity because it has tremendous value.  It has value to humans for economic, health and other reasons, and it has intrinsic value because it is essential to maintain life.1

Market Pressures 

British Columbia is internationally recognized for having one-quarter of the world’s temperate rain forests, some still in a pristine state.  In the early 1990s, it was reported that old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest were being deforested faster than the Amazon rainforest.  For these reasons on-going harvesting of British Columbia’s pristine forests attracts greater public scrutiny of forest planning and practice than is common elsewhere.  For example, environmental organizations such as Greenpeace have initiated boycott campaigns in North America and Europe against British Columbian wood.  In response to resulting market pressures, many forest harvesting companies in the province are becoming certified.  Some certification programs require management for biodiversity.

Economic and Health Benefits

Some argue that biodiversity should be maintained to ensure ‘healthy’ and ‘functioning’ ecosystems.  The economic value of the ‘services’ provided by healthy ecosystems has been estimated to be worth about 33 trillion US dollars per year.3  The benefits of maintaining biodiversity have been estimated to be one hundred times greater than the costs.4  For example, insects, birds and bats pollinate crops, many species control pest populations, wetlands act as giant sponges to control flooding and clean water, plants moderate climates and create habitat and provide food for species used by humans, and bacteria break down dead organic matter and generate soil.  The oxygen in the air we breathe is maintained by photosynthesizing plants.

Direct economic benefits are also derived from species such as those used for food, building materials, fuel, fibre, or as sources of genes to improve cultured crops.  Species are also sources of pharmaceutical compounds.  The pacific yew Taxus brevifolia was eliminated during forest clearcutting in the Pacific Northwest until the compound taxine extracted from its bark was found to be a powerful anti-cancer agent.  In fact, most of the prescription drugs used in North America are derived from plants, fungi and bacteria.  It has been estimated that only about 0.003% (1100 in 365 000) of the world’s known plant species have been studied for their medicinal value.5  Some argue that biodiversity should be maintained to ensure human health – loss of a single species may mean the loss of a cure for cancer or other diseases.

Spiritual, Recreational and Cultural Benefits

Some people derive joy and spiritual fulfillment simply from the knowledge that wilderness exists.  For others, spiritual and other benefits are gained by experiencing firsthand these places where biodiversity remains relatively untouched.  Species play a dominant role in the culture of some societies, particularly those of First Nations people.  For example, black bears with white fur found along the northeast coast of British Columbia are known as the ‘Spirit Bear’.  In Tsimshian legend, these bears were created as a reminder of the glaciers that once covered most of British Columbia.

Intrinsic Value

Many argue that, regardless of the benefits and values attributed to biodiversity, humans have a moral obligation to ensure that human actions do not continue to result in biodiversity loss.  Biodiversity also can be viewed as having intrinsic value because it is the source of new biodiversity.  Variability within life entities such as individuals, populations, species and ecosystems allows for adaptation to change and thus the generation of new biodiversity.  The maintenance of biodiversity sustains the adaptive capacity of life.6

1Haila, Y. P.J. Cormer, M.Hunter, M.J. Samways, C. Hambler, M.R. Speight, P. Tendricks, S. Herrero, F.S. Dobson, A.T. Smith, J. Yu. 1997. A natural “benchmark” for ecosystem function. Conservation Biology 11:300-307.
2Noss, R.F. and A.Y. Cooperrider. 1994. Saving nature’s legacy: protecting and restoring biodiversity. Island Press, Washington, D.C.
3Costanza et al. 1997. The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 297:950-953.
4Balmford et al. 2002. Economic reasons for conserving wild nature. Science 297:950-953.
5Dobson, A. 1995. Biodiversity and human health. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10:390-391.
6Bunnell, F.L. 1998. Overcoming paralysis by complexity when establishing operational goals for biodiversity. Journal of Sustainable Forestry 7:145-164.