A theory of value sits at the core of every school of economic thought and directs the allocation of resources to competing uses. Ecological resources complicate the modem neoclassical approach to determining value due to their complex nature, considerable non-market values and the difficulty in assigning property rights. Application of the market model through economic valuation only provides analytical solutions based on virtual markets, and neither the demand nor supply-side techniques of valuation can adequately consider the complex set of biophysical and ecological relations that lead to the provision of ecosystem goods and services. This paper sets out a conceptual framework for a complex systems approach to the value of ecological resources. This approach is based on there being both an intrinsic quality of ecological resources and a subjective evaluation by the consumer. Both elements are necessary for economic value. This conceptual framework points the way towards a theory of value that incorporates both elements, so has implications for principles by which ecological resources can be allocated. (c) 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.