2014 Lloyd K. Garrison Lecture on Environmental Law

The 2014 Lloyd K Garrison Lecture on Environmental Law on March 26, began with a heartfelt commemoration of the lives of David Sive and Joseph Sax, two giants of environmental law, whose recent passing is being felt across the nation. Read Professor Nicholas A. Robinson’s inspiring memorial essay here…

J.B Ruhl then delivered his lecture entitled “In Defense of Ecosystem Services” to an auditorium filled with interested students, professors and staff.  Ruhl is an expert in environmental law, land use, and property law. He is presently the David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair in Law at Vanderbilt Law. Prior to joining the Vanderbilt Law faculty in 2011, he was the Matthews & Hawkins Professor of Property at the Florida State University College of Law, where he had taught since 1999. He began his academic career at the Southern Illinois University School of Law, where he earned his Ph.D in geography and taught from 1994-99. Ruhl is a nationally regarded expert in the fields of climate change, endangered species protection, ecosystem services policy, regulation of wetlands, ecosystem management, federal public lands, and related environmental and land use fields. His influential scholarly articles on these topics have appeared in California Law Review, Duke Law Review, Stanford Law Review, Vanderbilt Law Review among other journals and have been selected by peers as among the best law review articles in the field of environmental law eight times from 1989 to 2013. Before entering the academy, he was a partner with Fulbright & Jaworski in Austin, Texas, where he also taught on the adjunct faculty of the University of Texas Law School.

Ruhl’s Garrison Lecture focused on defending the “valuing” of ecosystem services – the idea that healthy ecosystems provide people with many critical goods and services and that value can be placed on these services.  Although there is newfound excitement and an explosion of interest in ecosystem services, Ruhl explains that it is really a “new/old idea.” References to the importance of natural services to human welfare can be traced as far back as Plato and more recently, the writings of George Perkins Marsh and Aldo Leopold. However, he explains that in 1997 with the publishing of ecologist Gretchen Daily’s book Nature Services followed by other influential publications on the topic, new excitement was sparked in scientists, government officials, and the public.  Questions about what services natural ecosystems provide to society and how to place a monetary value on these services, however, are not always easy to answer.

Ruhl’s lecture was informative and interesting as he described what ecosystem services are, how they are currently being played in U.S. law and policy, and what kind of pushback against the idea has arisen. Ruhl explains that the application of ecosystem services can be seen in different government actions, such as U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2008 Farm Bill, which authorized the agency to develop scientific methods of measuring and reporting ecosystem services from agriculture. He explains that there has been push back against the idea from groups both defending environmental interests and economic interests because the act of putting a dollar figure on these services is a controversial one. However, putting monetary value on these natural services makes it easier for the public to appreciate how valuable they really are. Ruhl explains that there is importance in the middle ground between conservationists and critics of market-based interventions that would provide alternatives that work better.  Ruhl was also sure to make it clear that there are issues that arise when using ecosystem services and laid out some principles for their responsible use including; making the policies complementary, focusing on the fact that money talks and ecosystem services are anthropocentric, and that there should be equitable baseline rights and distribution impacts. The lecture concluded by focusing on a case study that showed the application of ecosystem services in property law. In a N.J. case, Borough of Harvey Cedars v. Karan, 70 A.3d 524 (N.J. 2013) the Supreme Court of N.J. ultimately found inherent value in sand dunes constructed to protect beachfront property from storm surges. This is a big step for ecosystem services because it showed that although the property owners in this case lost their view of the beach, the protection that the sand dune offered was given a great deal of value. Ecosystem services are a valuable tool that has the potential to help people see value in maintaining healthy ecosystems, which will lead them to see markets and a way to make money; and when money talks, people listen.

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