nomic value on its continuation because legislators have determined that this is infinite and outweighs any possible costs. The Clean Water Act also contains provisions that explicitly set the attainment of public health-related standards outside the range of economic valuation, mandating that they be met whatever the cost.

These preceding examples illustrate situations in which U.S. society reacts to uncertainty about ecosystem services by specifying safe minimum standards (i.e., not causing conditions that would drive a species to extinction, not damaging human health) for impacts on or changes in these systems. Rather than calculate the expected costs and benefits of different levels of impacts and choosing the best, society specifies a bound on the permissible impacts. Of course, with ambiguity rather than risk, and thus no probabilities with which to work, it may be impossible to calculate expected costs and benefits so that standard cost-benefit analysis in such cases is hardly applicable.

Choosing one bound or safe minimum standard over another requires some justification and supporting analysis. One possible line of argument relates to thresholds in ecosystem behavior in response to stress (see Chapter 3). If stresses above a certain level are believed to lead to sharp deterioration in an ecosystem, this may provide a strong case for restricting impacts below this critical level. Yet even this argument relies implicitly on the idea that the costs of ecosystem stress rise sharply and are therefore likely to exceed benefits at some threshold—an argument that cannot be made plausibly without some idea of the magnitudes of the costs and benefits and of the associated margins of error. Once a safe minimum standard is chosen, however, valuation is not needed, but valuation may be needed in setting the safe minimum standard (Berrens, 1996; Berrens et al., 1998; Bishop, 1978; Ciriacy-Wantrup, 1952; Farmer and Randall, 1998; Palmini, 1999; Randall and Farmer, 1995; Ready and Bishop, 1991).


This section briefly illustrates how uncertainty could be treated in ecosystem services valuation studies, with reference to the Catskills watershed in New York (also discussed earlier in this chapter) and the Edwards Aquifer case studies provided in Chapter 5. The section begins with an introduction to evaluating and assessing uncertainty through “Monte Carlo”12 simulations and indicates


Monte Carlo methods have been practiced for centuries, but under more generic names such as “statistical sampling.” The "Monte Carlo" designation was popularized by early pioneers in the field during World War II because of the similarity of statistical simulation to games of chance and because Monte Carlo (the capital of Monaco) was a well known center for gambling and similar pursuits. For further information about the history, development, and use of Monte Carlo simulation methods, see

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