Uncertainty in ecosystem services valuation and implications for assessing land use tradeoffs: An agricultural case study in the Minnesota River Basin

Kris A. Johnson, Stephen Polasky, Erik Nelson, Derric Pennington

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

83 Scopus citations


Ecosystem services analysis can help recognize the full costs and benefits of land management decisions. Quantification and valuation of services can enhance policies and regulations and, if linked with payments or incentives, properly reward private decisions that yield public benefits. However, the field of ecosystem services research is relatively new and quantification and valuation remains highly uncertain. While there is significant uncertainty about the biophysical production of ecosystem services, there is additional uncertainty about the value of services. This paper explores how uncertainty associated with valuation of ecosystem services in agriculture affects the ranking of land use alternatives in terms of social net benefits. We compare the values of four land use scenarios in the Minnesota River Basin, USA, by combining a range of value estimates for these services with varying estimates for returns from agricultural production. Although variations in ecosystem service values are significant, fluctuations in agricultural returns more significantly determine how scenarios rank with regard to delivery of total value. This analysis suggests that addressing uncertainty in ecosystem service valuation is critical to accurately assessing tradeoffs in land use.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)71-79
Number of pages9
JournalEcological Economics
StatePublished - Jul 2012

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors thank Driss Ennannay and Stacie Wolny of the Natural Capital Project for assistance with the InVEST Water Purification model. We thank Greg Spoden at the Minnesota State Climatology Office at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for providing reference ET data. We thank Peter Reich, Laura Schmitt Olabisi and Nick Jordan for providing valuable feedback on an earlier version of this manuscript. Support for this research was provided to K. Johnson by an Archibald Bush Foundation Leadership Fellowship .

Copyright 2012 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Agricultural systems
  • Ecosystem services
  • Scenarios
  • Uncertainty
  • Valuation

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