Office of Research and Development Publications

A Framework to Quantify the Strength of the Ecological Links Between an Environmental Stressor and Final Ecosystem Services


Bell, M., J. Phelan, T. Blett, D. Landers, A. M. NAHLIK, G. Van Houtven, C. Davis, C. Clark, AND J. Hewitt. A Framework to Quantify the Strength of the Ecological Links Between an Environmental Stressor and Final Ecosystem Services. Ecosphere. ESA Journals, 8(5):e01806, (2017).


This manuscript introduces a novel way to apply the Final Ecosystem Goods and Services Classification System as the foundation for identifying heretofore difficult and unknown linkages between humans and components of the environment that may lead to human well-being. This approach is documented in the following 4 manuscripts which demonstrate the approach and important outcomes. This application is a means of defining a common approach to identify the potential beneficiaries and possible metrics and indicators. This manuscript contributes to SHC 2.61.


Anthropogenic stressors such as climate change, fire, and pollution are driving shifts in ecosystem function and resilience. Scientists generally rely on biological indicators of these stressors to signal that ecosystem conditions have been altered beyond an acceptable amount. However, these biological indicators are not always capable of being directly related to ecosystem services that allow scientists to communicate the importance of the change to land managers and policy makers. Therefore, we developed the STEPS (STressor – Ecological Production function – final ecosystem goods and Services) Framework to link changes in a biological indicator of a stressor to Final Ecosystem Goods and Services (FEGS). The STEPS framework produces “chains” of ecological components that connect the change in a biological indicator to the Final Ecosystem Goods and Services Classification System (FEGS-CS). The series of ecological components is an ecological production functions (EPF) which links a biological indicator of a stressor to an ecological endpoint (i.e., FEGS) that is directly used, appreciated, or valued by humans. The framework uses a qualitative score (High, Medium, Low) for the Strength of Science (SOS) for the relationship between each of the components in the EPF to identify research gaps and prioritize decision making based on what research has been completed. The ecological endpoint of the EPF is a FEGS to which discrete Beneficiaries, or direct users of FEGS, are identified to evaluate who is being impacted by the change. We tested the STEPS Framework within a workshop setting using the exceedance of critical loads of air pollution as a model stressor. We identified chains for four modes of ecological response to deposition: aquatic acidification, aquatic eutrophication, terrestrial acidification, and terrestrial eutrophication. The workshop participants identified 169 unique EPFs linking a change in a biological indicator to a FEGS. After accounting for the multiple Beneficiaries of each FEGS, we ended with a total of 1073 chains. The SOS scores were effective in identifying the chains with the highest confidence ranking as well as those where more research is needed. The STEPS framework should be able to be adapted to any system in which a stressor is modifying a biological component. The results of the analysis can be transferred to the social science community enabling them to apply valuation measures to multiple or selected chains, providing a more comprehensive analysis of the effects of anthropogenic stressors on measures of human well-being.

Record Details:

Product Published Date: 05/02/2017
Record Last Revised: 05/24/2018
OMB Category: Other
Record ID: 336270