Valuing Salt Marshes: What We Learned at the Salt Marsh Symposium

On January 24, 2013 the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve hosted a one-day Symposium on Valuing Salt Marshes: Carbon/Nitrogen Cycling and Ecosystem Valuation of Tidal Wetlands in the Northeast.


The Symposium, which was funded by the National Estuarine Research Reserve Science Collaborative, featured twelve talks by scientists doing related research in the Northeast focused on understanding the different values of salt marshes. These values include biochemical and geophysical values and economic values. The Symposium included presentations on Science Collaborative funded projects at the Waquoit Bay Reserve (Cape Cod, MA) and at the Wells Reserve (Wells, ME) along with presentations by scientists focused on assigning and communicating the economic value of tidal wetlands and scientists focused on understanding the biogeochemical and even microbial values of salt marshes.

What we learned was that increased collaboration between physical and social scientists working on valuing the ecosystem services of salt marshes is needed in an environment where funders want to maximize the impact of funded-research in an increasingly resource constrained environment.


Linking Social and Physical Science to Value Salt Marshes: What We Learned:

TREND: Increased Collaboration Between Social Science and Physical Science

Participants learned that there is increasing interest in integrating social science and physical science evaluations of ecosystem services coming from both the agency level (e.g. NOAA and U.S. EPA) and the local level (e.g. local communities and decision-makers). This push toward better collaboration between social and physical science is being driven by smaller budgets and the related need to demonstrate the “usefulness” of research by end users and/or the public.

Participants discussed the continued need for pure scientific research – for the sake of understanding how the world works – but acknowledged the changing funding environment. They identified that incorporating economic valuations into physical science projects can make proposals more attractive to some funders.

Key questions and next steps:

  • How are other agencies and funders addressing the trend of integrating social and physical science? Are different agencies/organizations (e.g. NOAA or National Academy of Sciences) seeing this issue differently or taking different approaches to implementing it?
  • What can researchers expect?
  • Are there commonly accepted/useful data that scientists can incorporate into their research protocols that would facilitate the integration of economics into projects?
  • Under what conditions is it useful and/or appropriate to integrated social and physical science research (e.g. are there ideal projects?)

CHALLENGE: Ecosystem Service Valuation Approaches Can Be Difficult to Understand: Experts Needed

Many participants indicated that while they had basic understanding of ecosystem service economics, most project investigators and managers shared that it would be difficult for them to incorporate economic valuation assessments into their projects – even at the proposal level- without expert assistance. Even among scientists (i.e. both social and physical), there was discussion about the value of different approaches to economic valuation methods and applications in different research scenarios.

Key questions and next steps:

  • Is there a best practice approach to ecosystem service valuation? Is there a range of acceptable and/or useful approaches?
  • What resources are available to help explain ecosystem service valuation? For the public? For technical audiences? For potential project partners?
  • Do agencies, local decision-makers, public, and researchers mean the same thing when they are discussing “economic values” of ecosystems?

CHALLENGE: Connecting the Players and the Resources

The logistics of connecting researchers with different areas of expertise (e.g. physical and social science) and the challenge of garnering funding to support integrated projects was highlighted as key challenges for moving forward. Many participants indicated that they do not have resource economists in their professional networks. Others questioned if/how different scales of economic valuation efforts could be tailored depending on the scope of physical science research.

Key questions and next steps:

  • Are there scalable options for ecosystem valuation, given different levels of project funding, timelines, and objectives?
  • Are there sources of funding for incorporating economic research into pure science proposals?
  • Are there existing networks or forum that can connect scientists working in different, but potentially complementary, fields?

QUESTION: What Role Can the NERRS Play?

The symposium raised questions about the role that the NERRS can play in connecting physical and social scientists through their ongoing research, education, and outreach.

Key questions and next steps:

  • How can the NERRS draw on their existing strengths and resources to support researchers seeking to collaborate?
  • Do the NERRS have the resources needed (e.g. networks, expertise)? What else would they need? Where would they get additional resources?
  • Do other agencies need to be involved?


Alison Leschen, Manager Waquot Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (WBNERR), opened the day and welcomed participants. She explained that the National Estuarine Research Reserve Science Collaborative (NSC) funded the Symposium with the goal to transfer knowledge gained through NSC-funded research projects to others throughout the National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) system. Ms. Leschen noted that the day’s Symposium was organized around two NSC-funded projects – the Bringing Wetlands to Market project at WBNERR and the Choices and Tradeoffs: Quantifying the Economic Value of Natural Resources and Services project at the Wells Reserve in Maine. She explained that each of these projects explores different ways to “value” salt marsh ecosystems, and speakers for the Symposium would share related research on valuing salt marsh ecosystems with an emphasis on carbon and nitrogen (C/N) cycling in salt marshes and economic valuation of ecosystem services. Ms. Leschen emphasized that increased collaboration between physical and social scientists working on valuing the ecosystem services of salt marshes is becoming more important as funders aim to increase the impact of funded-research in an increasingly resource constrained environment.

The following presentations share information about cutting edge research happening in the Northeast related to understanding the different values of salt marshes.

  1. Valuing Salt Marshes: The Importance of Linking Physical and Social Science Research
  2. Choices and Tradeoffs: Quantifying the Economic Value of Natural Resources and Services
  3. Combining Economic and Ecological Indicators to Prioritize Salt Marsh Restoration Actions
  4. Coastal Eutrophication as a Driver of Salt Marsh Loss
  5. Understanding and Measuring Accretion Processes in Tidal Salt Marshes
  6. Bringing Wetlands to Market – Nitrogen and Coastal Blue Carbon
  7. Responses of Microbial Communities to Increases in Nitrogen Loads in Salt Marshes
  8. Greenhouse Gas Fluxes in Tidally Restricted and Restored Salt Marshes
  9. Valuing New Hampshire Salt Marshes: An Approach to Measuring Ecosystem Services