Thursday, July 17, 2014

What's so natural about natural capital?

A recent study - "Changes in the global value of ecosystem services" - has found that the value of the world's ecosystem services - the benefits nature provides to society, like the ability of wetlands to stem flooding - is somewhere in the neighborhood of $145 trillion. That is, without a doubt, a lot of money. It's in fact much more than the global economy as currently accounted for produces. In statistics like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) we count everything from the value of goods like cars to services like haircuts, and while we generally count the goods that nature provides, like timber and food, we've so far consigned the counting of nature's services to academic papers.

An important chunk of the $145 trillion is the $12-47 billion Louisiana wetlands generate in lessening the impact of storm surges, providing habitat for commercial fish species, and sequestering carbon dioxide. Worldwide, wetlands - and in particular, coastal marshes - are the single most monetarily valuable ecosystem. However, in Louisiana, they are being lost at a rapid rate because of oil and natural gas development, sea level rise, and levees along the Mississippi River that prevent sediment from settling out in floodplain marshes and building new land. In Gaining Ground, a study outlining the value of Louisiana's wetlands (featuring Bob Costanza, lead author of the "Changes" paper) researchers found that restoration of wetlands in the Mississippi River Delta could increase this ecosystem's asset value to $62 billion. The report's authors write:
"natural systems tend to appreciate in value rather than depreciate and fall apart as built capital does....natural capital is self-maintaining and lasts for a long time; it is fundamentally different from built capital, which deprecates quickly and requires capital and maintenance costs."
Similarly, as a write-up on the "Changes" paper put it - in pivoting from a point about the cost of flood protection levees raised by the Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Katrina - "And while it’s expensive to maintain man-made defenses, wetlands rebuild themselves."

What we get from both viewpoints is the sense that nature, as natural capital, does all this unpaid work for us. A wetland is like a factory worker: it gets up in the morning to go to work soaking up carbon dioxide, coming home at night to rest and reproduce itself for another day. Even better, it's a worker that only gets better with age. Natural capital, it seems, is any good businessman's holy grail: it's an investment that is self-valorizing.

But, really? Despite protest from area fishermen, any major restoration of the Mississippi River Delta wetlands is likely to feature diversions of sediment from the river through engineered breaches in levees, projects that are expected to cost up to several hundred million dollars each. The 2012 Master Plan, a document written by Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority to organize the state of coastal science and direct funds towards specific restoration sites, acknowledges that any large-scale restoration of the region's wetlands won't work without using the river. Sediment diversions are intended to harness the power of the river to do work building wetlands, but harnessing is a far cry from self-maintenance. Restored wetlands simply won't exist without the upkeep and ongoing operation of diversion megaprojects - built capital to be sure. It's equally naive to assume that wetlands will maintain themselves without legal efforts to prevent further degradation. Such efforts would be directed at stemming climate change and minimizing if not eliminating the ongoing impact of the oil and gas industry from spills and subsidence.

So is natural capital long-lasting, as the Gaining Ground authors suggest? With the right amount and kind of sediment input, wetlands do build themselves over time in relation to the sea level. Louisiana's Master Plan predicts diversion projects could provide decades of land-building. Even more forward-looking, scientists have determined that there is enough sand in the Mississippi River basin to build wetlands for at least 600 years. On the other hand, other projects are not so resilient. Some parishes in Louisiana are creating new marshes by dredging and piping up material from the bottom of the Gulf. But given current forecasts for irreversible sea level rise, these wetlands are expected to last only 20 years, perhaps functioning fully for only 5 years. Everyone knows it, but the short-term payoff from these massive engineering projects appears worth it.

In short, natural capital is not so separate from other other kinds of capital, like built capital. As the authors of Gaining Ground acknowledge, the restoration projects proposed in the Master Plan do not amount to "a cut-the-river-loose scenario." What they do amount to is a set of hybrid infrastructures that blur the lines between what we typically think of as natural and social. And even when the Mississippi does get cut loose, or rather, cuts itself loose, it may work against capital. A couple of years ago, a crevasse opened up in a levee south of New Orleans, delivering freshwater and sediment to flow into nearby marsh ecosystems. It is the Mississippi's first distributary to form in several decades. This is about as close to "natural" capital as one gets: the river is autonomously rebuilding coastal wetlands (though to deem it natural, you'd have to overlook the fact that it's breaching at the spot of an old spillway). But in the process, the crevasse has flooded several roads the oil/gas industry needs to access wells. The industry would rather have the breach fixed, while environmentalists say this is the very kind of thing the Master Plan calls for, except that it didn't cost a dime to happen. As the director of CPRA reflected, “If we can benefit the coast for ‘free,’ we would like to do that." That is the holy grail after all: a self-valorizing investment, or what Karl Marx called "free gifts of nature to capital." But... “The challenge is making sure that we are making decisions with our eyes open." That means making sure natural capital works for the oil/gas industry. The question that has to be asked here is not how much natural capital is the so-called Mardi Gras Pass creating, but under what conditions do ecosystems become capital? What is the line between an ecosystem service and disservice and who decides?

"Capital is a process not a thing," geographer David Harvey notes in his recent review of Thomas Piketty's miraculous hit of a book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. (To see how far the natural capital concept now reaches, just look at one of the last chapters of the book, where Piketty adopts the term. He essentially rehashes the Stern Review point that money invested now to fight climate change will pay off in the long run.) For Harvey, Piketty's asset-based conceptualization of capital - as inert and static pieces of stuff (cars) or discrete services (haircuts) plucked out of the world and made valuable - is inadequate. Capital is always in motion - it has to be, since for Harvey (and Marx) it is "a process of circulation in which money is used to make more money." Nothing can be capital unless it is being used productively.

Nature, then, simply is not "natural capital". In an early and influential paper on the value of ecosystem services, Gretchen Daily, alongside Nobel Prize-winning economists Kenneth Arrow among others, declared, "the world's ecosystems are capital assets. If properly managed, they yield a flow of vital services..." Similar sentiments are to be found throughout the green accounting realm. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), an EU-funded program promoting ecosystem services amongst decision-makers, wrote in their initial report on the first page in big bold lettering: "Maintaining stocks of natural capital allow the sustained provision of future flows of ecosystem services." But both Daily and TEEB get the formula backwards. Ecosystems are not capital with maintenance costs, much less self-maintaining capital, as the Gaining Ground report suggests. It is only after ecosystems are "properly managed" that they become something resembling capital, and then only if they work for capital. Marx already had hinted at this: "Natural elements entering as agents into production, and which cost nothing, no matter what role they play in production, do not enter as components of capital." It is only when they are labored upon that " a new additional element enters into capital." Realizing the potential $62 billion in asset value from Louisiana's wetlands does not mean harnessing some pre-existing, natural capital, but investing in infrastructure to produce nature as capital. It requires assemblages of what we usually consider separate social, or human, (engineered diversions, legal mandates) and natural (sediments, Spartina grasses) things to work. Our long-held distinctions between what counts as "natural" and what counts as "social" simply aren't helpful to understand the important work of ecosystems.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Finding common ground in the Anthropocene

You won't get very far in the world of conservation today without hearing about how we're now in the Anthropocene: the epoch recognizing humanity as a geologic force with its fingerprint everywhere. For some, like The Nature Conservancy's Peter Kareiva, this represents a chance to rethink how to do conservation, focusing less on preserving an impossible wilderness apart from society and instead focusing on the valuation of ecosystem services. Others, like conservation biologist Michael Soulé, worry that we are forgetting to value nature for its own sake. There's been a rather unproductive back and forth focused on exactly this point since at least after Costanza et al. 1997, when Toman wrote that Costanza et al.'s calculation of the world's ecosystem services at about $33 trillion was "a serious underestimate of infinity." "And it goes on and on..." is how Paul Voosen reflected on yet another partisan weighing in. There seem to be few moderates, but I think both sides have something wrong and right.

Below is an essay on the debate I originally wrote for Bill Cronon's American Environmental History seminar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall of 2013 [contact me for the full version with citations]. In many ways, today's debate reflects those between conservationists and preservationists in the US over the course of the 20th century. A version of the paper was also recently presented at the Center for Culture, History, and Environment graduate student symposium. Any thoughts are greatly appreciated!


There’s a growing struggle within the ranks of conservationists, one that will have profound implications for how we deal with some of today’s most pressing environmental issues. At the heart of the matter is a choice about what constitutes conservation’s guiding question: is it about the role humans play in nature, or is it what role nature plays for humans? I’ve found myself stuck in the middle of the ensuing debate, wondering what to make of it and how to move it forward. 

I first found myself in this conversation a couple of hot and sticky Junes ago at a conference called Ecosystem Services Markets: Making them Work. Ecosystem Services is a bit of jargon no one likes but everyone has gotten the hang of for naming what nature does for society: mitigate floods, provide clean water, and so on. The conference brought together nonprofit conservationists, federal agency staff, and VPs from corporations like Pepsi, Disney and Dow to figure out how to re-purpose corporate accounting ledgers to get conservation more money for saving mangroves and restoring prairies. I took in everything I could - I more or less transcribed every session I went to - all the while meditating on the irony of a group of nature-lovers sitting in air-conditioned luxury all day. Rest assured, there was a field trip, though you might call it a pilgrimage really. It was out to the chicken-coop-turned-weekend-get-a-way where Aldo Leopold sojourned every weekend from Madison to restore of bit of prairie habitat on a degraded piece of farm ground. It was here that Leopold first tested the principles of restoration ecology as an art and science, and it’s become a sort of sacred ground for conservationists.

Just up the road from the shack, we had stopped to observe a “constructed wetland” that a local conservation group had recently paid to put in. Their goal was to generate credits that would allow them to sell the ecological benefits of the wetland to interested buyers, in an ecosystem service market. The wetland was designed to take in excess runoff from a stream and filter out nutrients and chemicals before they made it too far down the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Glad to finally be outside, I was disappointed by it. It hadn’t filled up yet because of the unusually dry summer and so no wetland plants had yet colonize it. We stared at caked earth while we learned about the project. What made the disappointment sting was that this wetland was supposed to illustrate the benefits of everything we had been talking about all week: the ability of market incentives to generate investment in improving habitats.

Aldo Leopold at his shack north of Madison. Source: 

As a huge poster in the conference hotel lobby proudly proclaimed, the goal had been to “price the priceless.” Yet, in what was one of the two core tenets of his land ethic, Leopold himself had remarked, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” For conference-goers, treating land as a commodity had become, in fact, the very means of treating it with love and respect. The conservationists gathered in Madison held two ideas together at once: at Leopold’s shack, we celebrated his respect for the power of nature as something to which we belong, yet still apart from us. At the wetland just up the road, nature mattered only to the extent that it became a priced service. How do we understand these two, seemingly bipolar perspectives, and what do we do with them? Leopold’s call for us to belong to land as part of a community is appealing, while I remain uncertain about the prospect of commodifying nature. Environmental history is useful here, as it tells us how different perspectives on the ambit of conservation have evolved over time, and by paying close attention to untold and other sides of stories to see how conflicted conservation has been at times. People often see conservationists in stark terms, as “tree huggers” unwilling to cede ground to humans on any account. An environmental history approach can show conservationists have always been more complicated than that, and suggest a way out of the dilemma. In part that’s because environmental historians have also been active and influential participants in the conservation conversation.

The traditional reading of environmental politics in the US, as told by historians like Roderick Nash and Samuel Hays, starts at the battle of Hetch Hetchy. In the early 20th century, a national conflagration erupted over whether San Francisco should dam the valley in Yosemite National Park in order to provide the city with a long-term drinking water supply. Lines in the sand were drawn. On one side stood those who saw themselves as balancing the protection and enjoyment of nature with unavoidable future growth. Among such “conservationists” were Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot. On the other side stood preservationists like John Muir, who declared in no simple terms that the place was sacred – a temple - since it was free of the artifacts of civilization. The preservationists lost the day, but their organizing efforts established an important base for later campaigns.

Though the typical reading draws a straight line from Hetch Hetchy to the landmark Wilderness Act of 1964, others have rightfully complicated that story. The anti-dam base did grow into a concerted movement for wilderness protection, one led by the Wilderness Society that organized over decades to establish set asides for nature. But this was not, in fact, a repeat of Hetch Hetchy. As historian Paul Sutter has pointed out, the concern of the Wilderness Society was directed at increased tourism and recreation in new nature reserves rather than attempts to use such places for production. Nor was their view of wilderness founded in a sense that in these places one could find the sublime.   

John Muir in the Sierras in 1902. Source: 

The Wilderness Society played a pivotal role in the passing of the Wilderness Act, which established legislative procedure for reserving permanently areas “untrammeled by man”. It’s worth taking a second to pause and consider the definition of that word, because it’s regularly used by critics of wilderness who see its advocates blindly chasing an illusory pristine nature removed from the human footprint. Indeed, it sounds an awful lot like “walked upon.” The Oxford dictionary, on the other hand, defines it as: “not deprived of freedom of action or expression; not restricted or hampered.” For advocates, wilderness represented nature able to grow to its own ends, rather than spaces where nature was not tread upon by mankind. The distinction is subtle but important, and we only have to look at the case of ecological restoration to see why. 

Leopold was a founding member of the Wilderness Society, and indeed, for him, wilderness was in large part a framework for learning from nature. On the prairie at his  shack and at the University of Wisconsin’s arboretum, he was also one of the first to champion the cause of restoring ecosystems. Seeding the prairie and aiding it in its growth and functioning was undoubtedly an intervention in nature, yet it was one meant to give the big bluestem, compass plant, and associated fauna a freedom of expression. Restoration ecology, as a coherent unit of academic study and as a field of practice did not coalesce until the 1980s - well after Leopold’s time - and is still only gaining traction. Now and then, restorationists have split between a desire to get back to nature as it looked before settlement and restoration as means for “inventing” novel landscapes.

While Wisconsin’s William Jordan was busy assembling restoration ecology as we know it today, UC-Santa Cruz’s Michael Soulé set out to establish a related field, conservation biology. Blending scientific rigor and eco-advocacy, a coalition of academic researchers like Soulé and activists like EarthFirst!’s Dave Foreman lobbied for large wilderness areas to be established not as a way to preserve a sacred sublime, but to preserve biodiversity. Eschewing EarthFirst!’s strategy of highly visible political action, Foreman joined with Soulé to start the Wildlands Project, which they saw as a group that would more aggressively and directly campaign at a variety of levels of government for more and larger wilderness designations than the Wilderness Society.

The resurgence of preservationism came to a head in 1995. That year, the US Supreme Court ruled that the under the Endangered Species Act, to “harm” the habitat of threatened species like the northern spotted owl was to illegally “take” it. In a way, the ruling justified the Wildlands Project’s scientific and political argument that large spaces free of economically productive activity, like forestry, were necessary to protect biodiversity. But it also goaded foresters and others adopting the banner of “Wise Use” to claim that preservation was blind to or willfully ignorant of rural people’s concerns about jobs and economic growth. The ruling was a flashpoint for tensions between preservation and conservation. 

The same year an interdisciplinary group of scholars, including environmental historians, stepped into the fray with their edited volume Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. Meant to reach a wide audience, the volume provocatively directed its line of attack at wilderness proponents. Bill Cronon, for instance, wrote that “wilderness is no more ‘natural’ than nature is - it’s a reflection of our own longings, a profoundly human creation.” The argument drove at the heart of how advocates saw the wilderness concept as legitimate, while retaining a sense that humans have a responsibility to nature, one in the form of our own making. Richard White tackled the economic growth question head on by reflecting on the Wise Use bumper sticker slogna, “Are you an environmentalist or do you work for a living?” He showed how labor was just as much a relationship to the natural world as recreation, but his point was not to cede ground to Wise Use activists who claimed that their work gave them a privileged relation to nature. Instead, he noted that they had confused their “labor” with property rights - a specifically capitalist relation to nature. White made the case for a more inclusive conservation, without turning it over to the markets.

Uncommon Ground stirred a raft of critiques and counter-criticisms, but it wasn’t the only major intervention into such territory at the time. In 1997, several ecologists and economists launched another front against the kind of preservation advocated by the Wildlands Project. While the authors of Uncommon Ground deployed persuasive social theory as their tactic and many of them, like White, countered calls to see capitalism as a viable social relation to nature, monetary valuation was this group's policy Trojan Horse. The reframing of conservation’s object of concern to ecosystem services  shared several arguments with Uncommon Ground: wilderness overlooks the nature that is close to home; it ignores the importance of achieving economic growth. Gretchen Daily, like Soulé a student of famous biologist Paul Ehrlich, edited 1997’s Nature’s Services. The effort was a first cut attempt to conceive of nature as composed of quantifiable and monetizable services that provide direct benefits to society, rather than existing for it’s own sake. The same year, Bob Costanza famously declared the dollar value of all of the world’s ecosystem services (ES) to be more or less $33 trillion.

The team of economists and ecologists who published Costanza et al. 1997, valuing the world's ecosystem services at roughly $33 trillion. Source: 

These admittedly rough estimates were meant to appeal to CEOs and Senators alike, and as they got better, they did. Resistance to the project has grown as well. The use of an ES framework to prove to policy-makers the value of conservation has set up a debate rather reminiscent of Hetch Hetchy. It’s Soulé who plays the part of Muir; the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, Peter Kareiva, plays Pinchot. This time around, the struggle is not focused on one site or one project (though there are plenty of small skirmishes), but addresses head on the larger question of whether conservation and capitalism are joined at the hips, just good friends, or perhaps anathema to each other. For Kareiva, conservation set asides simply haven’t lived up to their promise, they harm the global poor, and, adopting Cronon’s critique, wilderness lacks a solid conceptual grounding. Instead, he proclaims the Anthropocene - the recognition of humans as a geologic force in nature with its fingerprint everywhere - as conservation’s gospel. Alongside this, he offers the solution of harnessing the same capital that has historically degraded environments in order to direct investment to protecting and enhancing environments: “Instead of scolding capitalism,” he and his co-authors write, “conservationists should partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature's benefits into their operations and cultures.” The ES framework has become what Kareiva calls the “new conservation,” and even “conservation science” as means to legitimize itself explicitly in contrast to conservation biology.

Soulé has responded directly to Kareiva and his colleagues. He notes that conservationists (reserving that moniker for himself and his allies) do understand that nature is everywhere, and have since Rachel Carson warned of the bodily dangers posed by DDT. Dubbing Kareiva et al. as “environmentalists,” he puts them in the camp of selling out (literally):

Most human beings and many environmentalists never doubt that biological diversity and every every thing every where is meant for human consumption, exploitation or recreation. Theirs is a world of resources and hoped for wealth. It is Old Testament view. In stark contrast, the goal of conservationism is other-centric. It stresses the intrinsic (for itself) value of non-human biological beings and aims to protect earth’s five million or so kinds of surviving creatures for their own sake.
Which bring us back to 2011 and the ecosystem services markets conference in Madison, where “pricing the priceless” was about determining the value of non-human biological beings for our own sake. In spite of Soulé’s impassioned argument, it’s clear that Kareiva currently has the edge, as The Nature Conservancy and other leading international conservation non profits work the world over with companies like Dow to value ecosystems and the services they provide. 

I am not, however, telling the story of the final triumph of the Anthropocene after its flag-bearers have vanquished the forces of preservation. We have to see history as the art of people muddling through, and to document it, making things seem as messy as they truly are and as they truly were, rather than retreating to the conceit that the story has one final outcome, writing off the contradictions. As we’ve seen here, conservation is complicated; so too are conservationists. Today, even Kareiva’s project and the ecosystem services framework are not one in the same: he and his colleagues, for instance, critique the main international ES project to date, the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment. The ecologists working in ES still cherish many of the landscape ecology principles conservation biologists promoted. Historically, there’s been important rifts in the conservation community when it comes to knowing what nature is and what’s important about it: between wilderness as the sublime and nature as a source of use values to be conserved for future generations; wilderness as a temple, wilderness as enjoyment, and wilderness as a lab; between restoration and preservation; species biodiversity and recreation; human and eco-centric impulses. These valences have split not only figureheads like Pinchot and Muir, Kareiva and Soulé, but are often simultaneously embodied in a single person, perhaps an average conference attendee rather than a prominent advocate. Conservationists today muddle through conflicting mandates and mixed messages. It’s no surprise we see them at once praising Leopold for how he wanted to create a new, non-commodified relation with nature on its own terms, while at the same time seeking to “price the priceless” and make ecosystem services markets work. 

We should embrace these contradictions rather than walk away from them. The general thrust of the Anthropocene project is noble: to take responsibility for natures we as a society have made. Its proponents rightfully build off of critiques of wilderness as exclusionary and illusory. But as a way of guiding our actions today, the Anthropocene is not without its own flaws. When plugged into arguments for capitalizing ecosystem services, it raises a number of red-flags, also about exclusion and who stands to benefit.

What’s needed is a  common ground: a perspective that envisions nature as “untrammeled,” but everywhere rather than reserved far away, and not subject to the whims of market forces to secure its value. The standoff between conservation biology and conservation science doesn’t have to be just a repeat of conservation vs. preservation, of nature for human values vs. nature for nature’s sake. I have a hunch of where to find such space. It would be a way of talking about and doing conservation that holds in tension the project of recognizing the world is more-than-us with the realization that today’s human interventions in nature are unparalleled to anything in history. What’s needed is a posthuman Anthropocene.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Much ado about the causes of wetland loss in Louisiana

You might remember that last summer, the levee board responsible for protecting much of metro New Orleans filed a landmark lawsuit against some 90 oil and gas companies. The Southeast Louisiana Flood Production Authority - East (SLFPAE), formed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, claimed that the canals these companies carved across coastal wetlands to set up drilling operations were significant drivers of wetland loss in the area historically, losses which could have mitigated storm surges. Pointing to industry, government, and academic reports alike they claim that the companies have not fulfilled their responsibility to fill in the canals and restore exploration and drilling sites. 

Wednesday, in a must-view PowerPoint presentation to the state's Coastal Planning and Restoration Authority (CPRA), SLFPAE made a pretty compelling defense of their case. What they did was zoom in on one particular case - the Delacroix area in St. Bernard parish - where canals have led to saltwater intrusion, erosion, and ultimately the conversion of marsh and swamp land into open water. I've gathered the slide by slide time series they presented into a handy GIF to illustrate their argument:
Wetland loss between 1956 and 2008 in the Delacroix, LA area. Canals that were dredged in order to move oil equipment are drawn in red arrows. Source: SLFPAE presentation.

You can see the same result when we focus in on just the past fifteen years With Google Earth imagery, I created another GIF that spans every other year or so from 1998 to the present.

Wetland loss between 1998 and the present in Delacroix. Source: Google Earth.

CPRA's chairman, Garrett Graves, however, is not so convinced by SLFPAE's argument. He thinks that going after the hydrocarbon industry is misguided. Instead, CPRA intends to sue the Army Corps of Engineers to get that agency to own up to the role that the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) shipping channel played in altering hydrological regimes in the wetland complex east of New Orleans and in shuttling Katrina's storm surge straight into the city. The meeting yesterday was just the most recent and most visible skirmish in a war of words between CPRA and SLFPAE over whether the SLFPAE lawsuit is legitimate and whether CPRA's approach would be more effective.

At first glance, it seems like SLFPAE and CPRA's disagreement is mainly over what they see as the causes of wetland loss in the area. SLFPAE points at oil/gas companies and their extensive network of canals; CPRA the corps and MRGO. But this is not just a debate about who's to blame. As SLFPAE's lawyers pointed out in their presentation, Graves himself has repeatedly acknowledged the part played by the hydrocarbon industry's canals. Everyone agrees, to a significant extent, that the problem has multiple drivers, whether they're as prominent as MRGO or as ubiquitous as oil/gas canals. The two institutions primarily disagree about what's the most politically and economically beneficial line of attack to solve the problem. SLFPAE says getting oil money can more than pay the bills on the state's ambitious $50 billion dollar master plan for coastal restoration; Graves seems to think that would result in less money going to communities for restoration. Obviously, the choice of who to blame has meaningful consequences for what gets fixed, but it'd be a mistake to think that one side doesn't get the ecological reasoning of the other.

Speaking of who to blame, take another look at the second GIF. If you didn't already notice it, much of the conversion of the Delacroix wetlands into open water happens between 2004 and 2005 (the pic that year was taken in October). Of course, as the first GIF demonstarted, wetlands loss had been occurring there for decades by then. But Katrina appears to have been the coup de grace. Research has shown how hurricanes and other weather events lead to wetland loss: the wetlands in Louisiana east of the Mississippi River lost up to 25% of their land area after Katrina. The presence of canals undoubtedly exacerbated Katrina's effect here, but the storm itself nevertheless has had a singular and lasting effect on the landscape. 

The easy thing to do is wonder whether all the money the state plans to spend to rebuild barrier islands and wetlands will just be washed away by the very storms they are meant to mitigate. The tougher and more important question to ask is whether decision-makers and conservationists realize this and are prepared to engage in a continual investment to redesign a landscape shaped by climate change.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ecosystem services: some important stories from 2013

I've assembled a non-exhaustive, non-representative sample of stories in the ecosystem services world (broadly defined) from this year that promise to be important in 2014. Here they are - what are yours?

2013 was a year chock full of hotspots of ecosystem services projects and controversy - like the debates in the UK over the country's new habitat mitigation market - but among them, Louisiana stands out. Dubbed "the Himalayas of ecosystem services," there's been more than enough to report on there. There's the very beginnings of RESTORE Act implementation, for starters. The Act will take all the cash BP gets fined in its civil trial and put it towards comprehensive wetland restoration and sediment diversion projects across the Gulf. It's a windfall for the region, and state agencies and conservationists there want to spend the money wisely, knowing what they get for their investment. They've written a raft of plans on how to proceed, and ES feature prominently as the objects of concern and the measures ($ and otherwise) of success. We'll see more projects coming online in 2014 and begin to see their effectiveness.

Speaking of BP's ongoing civil trial, there've been lawsuits left and right in Louisiana this year that revolve around what's the best way to do coastal restoration and who's to blame for the mess of wetland loss. As arguments came to their final stage in BP's ongoing civil trial, the southeastern Louisiana levee board that was created after Katrina to deal with systemic wetland loss in the area drew on some arcane French-era law on levees to launch a multi-billion dollar lawsuit against oil/gas companies for the part their canals have played in destroying wetlands. That drew the outrage of the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, who says, no, the Army Corps of Engineers and their levees on the Mississippi are to blame. Gov. Jindal had John Barry - the levee board member who advocated for the lawsuit - sacked while CPRA went ahead with its own lawsuit against the corps. The different lawsuits are not just indicative of differing opinions of who's to blame - the corps or the resource extraction industry - but of what's the best way to do restoration: fill in old oil/gas canals, or breach levees to divert sediment to form new land?

If billion dollar plans and lawsuits weren't enough, New Orleans was named one of the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 resilient cities. NOLA will get a "Chief Resilience Officer" funded by Rockefeller and the city will also be the test site for some new software made by the same company that makes data mining tools for the CIA that will help the new CRO figure out what investments in resilience will be most likely to payoff.

In fact, this year we learned that about half of all federal spending that could be defined as related to ES is on tools for mapping, monitoring, and modelling ES. In the Gulf (and for several other places around the world), The Nature Conservancy and partners have put together a slick interactive tool that lets users visualize different investment options for restoration. ES monitoring is moving to automation at the same time that folks are figuring out how to build new maps and models. The Forest Service runs several experimental "smart forests" that collect lots of data on many different environmental indicators, and they (and many other resource agencies) are also (infamously) exploring the use of drone technology to manage forest fires. There's a growing number of tools for measuring and managing ES, and these tools have become fundamental to the ES paradigm (see a great special issue on them in the new journal Ecosystem Services here). Watch for new efforts at big data analysis and ES in the coming year.

2013 saw yet more institutions organizing business and government around seeing environmental degradation as a matter of nature's benefits not having an economic value. That's not to say these new fora and panels actually did anything about the very issues on which they pontificated. I'm thinking here about November's first World Forum on Natural Capital, which was essentially more a feel-good pep talk for corporate leaders and less a hashing out of actionable tasks. It didn't go uncontested and in 2014 we should expect to see the same sort of opposition that we've see for carbon as business leaders aim to price any and all other ES. In December, the new Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services convened in Turkey to finalize their first work plan. It's been years in the making and we'll see in 2014 how it starts to get implemented.

The story that most fell under the radar this year was the White House's executive order on climate change adaptation and resilience. This year, about 30 federal agencies developed their first-ever set of plans for how they intend to respond to climate change in their operations and outreach. The EO goes a step further and calls on all agencies to revamp their programs to make it easier to fund projects that are meant to support resilience, for agencies like Interior to manage their lands for resilience, for agencies to develop data and tools for recognizing resilience, and for agencies to plan for climate change risk. All these have the potential to be driving significant work in the coming year and beyond.

The story that wasn't was the US Supreme Court's ruling that appears to constrain regulators' flexibility in determining appropriate compensation for wetland and stream impacts under the Clean Water Act. It's not yet clear whether it'll actually turn out to be problematic. Meanwhile, EPA and ACOE are finally getting around to clarifying what wetlands and streams are within their ambit, a move that environmentalists have long fought for in the legislative sphere. As the draft guidance currently stands, it could bring in millions of dollars more in compensation work yearly because it expands what counts as a water of the US.

The single best piece out there this year on ES was Paul Voosen's history of ES as told through Gretchen Daily, Peter Kareiva, and Michael Soule. He does a brillant job showing how even if it looks like it from 30,000 feet not every conservationist is on board with the project of valuing nature, and he ties this in with an on the ground look at ES "modelling sausage." If you haven't read it yet, go do it now. The runner-up is SciAm's recent piece characterizing the paradigms and debates in wetland restoration today, with a major focus on differing opinions on how to do work in the Gulf.

So what did I miss?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Time to CHAT? Mapping "Regulatory Resistance" in the West

"Mining companies like to say, 'The gold is where the gold is, that's where we need to go,'" said Chet Van Dellen, GIS coordinator for Nevada's Department of Wildlife. "We like to say the animals are where the animals are." New high-tech maps detail wildlife habitat in West, Scott Sonner, 12/13/13
Late last week a coalition of western governors released a new tool meant to help gold miners, transportation designers, energy companies - just about anybody with a natural resource impact - to plan development projects. CHAT, the Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool, going to be one big map for the West, and although it's not entirely filled out yet, the idea is to show those gold miners, hey, here's where our important habitats are. It pays to be clear: the maps are not, as the AP's headline suggests, simply mapping wildlife habitat in greater detail. The tool's resolution is somewhat impressive - down to the square mile - but what it's really doing is visualizing the spaces where project managers can expect to run into problems getting their permits. Some habitats will not be as crucial or as much of a priority as others. The difference may be subtle, but on it turns the role mapping plays in setting the public agenda in environmental governance today.

Here's how CHAT works. Each state has gathered a bunch of data and assigned weights to different kinds of habitats, on a scale from 1-6 (most to least important). The weights are based on information like the condition of habitat as well as economic significance. Each state has its own process, and very often, it's got its very own personal CHAT tool. You should expect no less from the West, and this brand of formal coordination, was likely what got every single western state on board. What CHAT isn't is a project to get all states on board to a similar standard for evaluating habitat significance. It's just meant to project (in the mapping sense) the standards each one already has. Take a look at some of the screenshots of the map if you haven't already, because you can see differences in regulatory regimes on the map.

A CHAT map. From:

Where you'd expect some important habitats to cross-cut state boundaries, like in Yellowstone, we see that they cut off at Montana, either because the state hasn't gotten around to doing it's categorization yet or because that habitat simply isn't as important to Montana as it is to Wyoming. CHAT is meant to show all western states so that if you're a pipeliner you can see what sort of regulatory resistance you're going to run into across your entire project. Or if you're a gold miner, you can easily see whether it'll be easier to do a project in Utah or Arizona.

It may have been five years in the making, but it's roots go back way further. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to start at the Articles of Confederation to get a sense of what kind of coordination this represents: federalism. Not only does each state gets to develop and share its own particular habitat standards, the map is a way for states to show federal authorities that, hey, we've got everything under control here, much as they are doing with candidate species rulings. More concretely, though, we only have to go back to the mid 90s to understand why we have CHAT now. Federal listing of endangered species like the northern spotted owl generated what boil down to two calls, two sides of the same coin really: state-led environmental policy, and economics-sensitive environmental policy. It'd be no understatement to say that most environmental politics in the West for the past 20 years has been an outgrowth, good or bad, to the issues raised at that time. Utah's and Oregon's governors, on separate sides of the aisle, have developed a set of principles they dubbed, "Enlibra" that they've promoted in the WGA. Enlibra is a new regulatory regime whose ambit is reconciling economic growth and environmental protection, and we've gotten ecosystem services markets and community forestry alike, to name a few examples, out of it. As a prioritization tool rather than a data display tool, CHAT is straight out of the Enlibra playbook.

But here's what it all comes back to: I can't help but feeling that CHAT is like showing your opponent your hand in a game of cards. Of course, it's not like the Nevada Department of Wildlife or some other agency couldn't say, "psych!" and go back on their promise of little regulatory resistance: the map isn't immutable. That also means there's no reason they couldn't go back on their promise of heavy regulatory resistance. The map is a curious legal entity. There's no mandate for all western states to make it: it doesn't have to exist or be used. But it sort of justifies its own existence. All I mean is that by putting the map - described as a "pro-development tool" by the Nevada Department of Wildlife - out there into the world, it's going to be hard to take it back. Developers, regulators, and even the Center for Biological Diversity like it, and that gives it a ton of legitimacy that goes beyond its ambiguous legal status. 

All the cards are on the table now in the West. It's not clear yet whether that's a good thing. It'll probably make regulators' lives easier, for one. There's also certainly a power in being the one to set the terms of engagement. Either way, maps like CHAT are going to play an important role in the making of the relationship between states, nature, and capital in the near term. Just take a look at the interactive maps the Coastal Resilience Network has set up that allows users to choose how important different economic and ecological variables are to determining great places to do restoration. It's not a regulatory map (yet), but you can imagine some of the opportunities that it would afford regulators. It'd make it easier for them to say, for instance, hey, we made the map based on how users (citizens?), not us, weighted restoration priorities. It's not our fault...Stay tuned for more.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Scaling up? Difficulties in the prioritization, selection, and evaluation of restoration sites for Oregon's ecosystem services market

I gave a talk today at the World Conference on Ecological Restoration here in Madison, WI. It's a take on how restoration sites in the Oregon wetland mitigation market are planned for, chosen, and evaluated, and ends with a discussion of what the case may suggest for other markets. It's something I've addressed in other ways, to other audiences, here, here and here. Oh, and here and here, too! My argument in the talk is that efforts to concentrate on watershed needs and processes may not be so easily implemented when it comes to mitigation markets, though that's likely to differ from region to region. Below you can find the slides and text.

Scaling up? SER 2013 presentation - Eric Nost from ericnost

Thanks for coming. I’ll be sharing just a slice of some recent research which is part of a larger NSF-funded project on stream mitigation banking here in the US.
The message I hope yall can take home today is this: efforts to concentrate on watershed needs and processes in ensuring greater ecological returns from restoration may not be so easily implemented when it comes to mitigation markets. Outcomes are likely to differ from region to region, however. PES promoters regularly call for spatially-explicit approaches to restoration, but on the ground their efforts run into resistance from the entrepreneurs at the heart of these markets. Their concerns are both economic and ecological.
I’ll make the argument by taking us through how restoration sites in the Oregon market are planned for, chosen, and evaluated, ending with a discussion of what the case may suggest for other markets.

We’ll start here. Welcome to the HML restoration site in exurban PDX.

It’s one site in a regional market for aquatic ecosystem services, providing several. The wetland you see stores and delays water, for instance, mitigating flood impacts for downstream homes.

The stream, OTOH, provides habitat for salmon that migrate into the foothills of the Coast Range.

And so on January 25, 2012, the Oregon Department of State Lands (DSL) authorized the sale of mitigation credits representing this salmon habitat to the Tualatin Hills Parks and Recreation Department (THPRD). Now, it’s absolutely worth taking just a second to make sure we’re on the same page about how mitigation markets work. In US markets for wetland and stream ecosystems, federal environmental regulatory agencies – ACOE, EPA, in conjunction with state agencies like DSL - permit developers to compensate for unavoidable resource degradation by paying entrepreneurs (or, “mitigation bankers”) who speculatively restore ecosystems. At HML, DSL is the banker, but usually it is private industry.
DSL did not sell the Half Mile Lane (HML) property itself to THPRD. Instead, it sold credits - measures of both the quality and quantity of habitat created after the agency replaced a culvert and performed other restoration there.

THPRD wanted these credits so it could tell regulators that it had adequately compensated for a trail bridge it is building that will degrade habitat elsewhere in the watershed.

The idea is to ensure some kind/degree of equivalence between resource impact and resource restored, in order to accomplish a no net loss of function and acreage. This is the art and science of assessment.

HML is operated by DSL, but it is a testing grounds for the WP, TNC and other cons developing what they see as more rigorous assessment methods and protocols for Oregon’s market and beyond. HML embodies 3 big moves in market-based environmental governance. While it’d be nice to go through all of them, given the growing number of calls for watershed approaches to how sites are chosen and evaluated - here at the conference, for instance - I want to focus on this last point. We can chat later about any of them.

Indeed, mapping and modelling landscape interactions at existing and possible restoration sites is increasingly recognized as an important component of site evaluation. The idea is that a site like HML’s ES are spatially dependent, or contextual - relative to what’s going on up and down the watershed. Think of it like this: if you restore a wetland in the middle of nowhere and no one’s around to benefit from how it retains flood waters, does it provide an ES? For many, the answer is no.
The international think-tank for ecosystem services accounting, TEEB, for instance, note that the specific provision of services depends on the site. The work of the wetland at HML to store and delay water matters because there are homes in the 100 year floodplain downstream that benefit.

Cons bio and head of NCP, Gretchen Daily concurs. She calls for focusing on the right places in the landscape that leverage high ecological returns on investments.

HML’s position, for instance, allows it to slow down and cycle the increased runoff from logging, quarrying operations.

Such calls from conservationists have in fact made it into policy. In 2008, ACOE and EPA put out a new rulemaking formalizing many aspects of the mitigation market nationally. The rule called for states and regions to implement strategic approaches to restoration siting, rather than sites being chosen opportunistically, in reference to cost or availability or interest..

And to bring it back to DSL, the value of a wetland means its opportunity to provide an ecological function/service based on where it is.

So not only is landscape ecological assessment and prioritization on the minds of conservationists and of official interest to the feds,  it’s central to DSL, and in the rules in OR. But it’s one thing to be on the books and another to be in force on the ground. The question is: how does restoration siting actually play out in OR?
There are three moments to it, but they are moments that put the interests of regs and cons against those of private entrepreneurs.  In the short-term, at least, entrepreneurs’ work is made difficult in 3 ways by regs and cons’ new metrics and approaches. In the rest of this talk I’ll walk us through these 3 moments and 3 difficulties to siting.

In the first moment, ecologically-trained consultants to bankers work in the office with several online mapping utilities to gage how ecological processes occur across the landscape and affect the site where bankers have chosen to do restoration.

Here’s one of the key mapping utilities consultants use, called Oregon Explorer. Hydric soils are the orange/yellow, but we also see the 100 year floodplain downstream of the HML. Consultants have to answer questions about landscape context by using OE to, for instance, draw a 2 mile radius circle around the site to see how many other similar habitats the site is connected to in the area, or what sources of ecological stress are nearby, like the quarry. The key point here is that the assessment of a banker’s site is relational to the site’s surroundings – but these are things which the banker has no or little control over.

Whatever their score, bankers then have to take their numbers to the agencies and staff judge the offsite stressors and risks consultants find in their assessment, approving, modifying, or denying an entrepreneur’s choice of where to do restoration.
Agencies also categorize wetlands. Some kinds of wetlands in the landscape mosaic are more market-worthy than others. For instance, DSL has written farmed floodplain wetland sites off the map in a recent rule. Based on a series of reports on long-term success and failure, DSL doesn’t think they restore a lot of the storm water retention services that the wetlands in urban areas - where the majority of impacts are  - provide. They didn’t meet watershed needs. In the rule, a farmed wetland is seen as not hydrologically degraded and so restoring it wouldn’t bring back hydrological functions. Bankers disagree on ecological grounds: these kinds of wetlands have been tilled, tiled, and plowed. They think those are precisely the sites that need to be restored in the landscape.

Now, when bankers finally do get their bank approved, they get credits to sell. What non-profit conservationists want to see happen in the market is that when a banker brings a site to the market, the amount of credits they can sell would depend in large part on the location of their project.

These are “priority areas” - habitat sites mapped by state environmental agencies, and collated by TNC.
The idea is that if they were doing restoration in a priority area bankers would get the full amount of credits they normally would and receive less if they were not in a priority area. But potentially restorable properties in priority areas are on average slightly more expensive than elsewhere, and this could cut into bankers’ profits. Perhaps more crucially, it drastically cuts into their potential range of sites to choose from, when finding a site tends to be more luck than anything anyway. And bankers also wonder how priority areas were chosen, often noting that their sites have plenty to offer as important.
The point is that this sort of watershed plan, something called for in the 2008 federal rule, makes some places obviously more valuable than others to do restoration, and that’s a big shift. It may make the market more like any other traditional market, but now working outside a priority may not earn bankers as many credits as it would have. To be clear, this isn’t yet implemented, but it’s very much on the table because of the federal rule.

So we can start wrapping up. We can pull out 3 points of difficulty in the market:
1) The priorities aren’t necessarily what bankers see as priorities, and even the idea of prioritizing is limiting, at least right now, in comparison with current practice.
2 The categorization of wetlands in the landscape isn’t how bankers would address watershed needs..
3)They’re asked to account for offsite processes they have little control over

Because of all this, bankers are hesitant about starting new projects. No private entrepreneur has done a project with the new landscape focused metrics and rules yet.
But this isn’t simply because bankers don’t get the gospel of landscape ecology. Bankers’ considerations are both economic and ecological - it’s sometimes bad for business, sometimes not what they see as the right ecological priority. So how have regs and cons been able to put forth such a strong vision of their own in the first place? Markets around the country vary and a lot of discretion about which watershed plans to choose and metrics to use is left to regional, district, or state staff. In a place like OR, with strong institutional momentum behind planning/zoning, regulators are more willing to make and point at maps and say, do resto here. With better data collection and availability, they’re also just more able to. Regs and cons’ ability to come out with a strong plan very much reflects the Oregon context..

The conclusion to takeaway is that in spite of calls from TEEB, Gretchen Daily, and others, efforts on the ground to improve the assessment and consideration of watershed/landscape needs in restoration run into resistance when implemented in restoration markets. The causes stem from both differing economic and ecological viewpoints, but this resistance will differ from place to place. What’s implied is that in some places, there may be other approaches to addressing watershed needs within a compensatory mitigation framework that are more effective than relying on private entrepreneurs, who have economic and ecological hesitations. We don’t have to look any further than HML - DSL’s own bank - for an example, and similar approaches exist nationally. But that’s going to have to be the topic of another talk.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A look at RESTORE Act implementation

What would you do if you had about a billion dollars for ecological restoration?

That's exactly what the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (or, Council) is trying to figure out. That's no easy task given that the Council is a powerhouse, high-level government entity composed of the five Gulf Coast governors and six executive branch Cabinet members (think secretaries of Agriculture, Interior, Homeland Security, Commerce, EPA administrator, etc.)The Council came into being when President Obama signed the RESTORE Act last year. That Act put 80% of the Clean Water Act fines BP and Transocean are going to pay for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill into the hands of the Council. It's the largest pot of money for restoration in the US ever.

Question is, how do you even go about spending that much money in a time when any sort of surplus in government hands seems like the work of a divine hand, and so usually gets cannibalized in the ritual sacrifices that follow? [Update: the sequester is already taking a 5% toll on RESTORE Act funds] Well, this Council has a comprehensive plan. More accurately, as of late last week the Council has put out their initial comprehensive plan that describes the principles for how it will distribute money to various Gulf Coast restoration projects and programs. I had the chance to read it; here are my initial reactions:

1. "The decisions made pursuant to the Plan will be based on the best available science, and this Plan will evolve over time to incorporate new science, information, and changing conditions. The Council will coordinate with the scientific community to improve decision-making." (5)It's a living, breathing document. It's meant to change over time, as funding levels and priorities change, but also with new science. Whether scientists can tell them what they want or need to hear, is of course another question.

2. No one actually knows how much money there is, since so much of it is tied to pending litigation. The number could go up past 10 billion when BP pays up.

3. The plan doesn't actually spell out how the Council will fund anything, nor what it would most like to fund. A funding strategy and priorities list come later.

4. "Storm risk, land loss, depletion of natural resources, compromised water quality and quantity, and sea-level rise are imperiling coastal communities’ natural defenses and ability to respond to natural and man-made disruptions." (4) It's clear that the Council sees ecosystem health as fundamental to community health, though no necessarily vice versa, and that this means a weaker ability to adapt to future climate and other disasters.

5. Scientists do seem to have gotten across the point that restoring species alone, on postage-stamp size sites is not the best approach to restoration. "The Council recognizes that upland, estuarine, and marine habitats are intrinsically connected, and will promote ecosystem-based and landscape-scale restoration without regard to geographic location within the Gulf Coast region." The planners apparently see themselves as immune to geographic bias and politics, and there's some good landscape ecology here.

6. It only comes up once, but it's unclear what the role of the private sector is here. However, much ado is made about coordinating with other efforts, in general: "The Council will encourage partnerships and welcome additional public and private financial and technical support to maximize outcomes and impacts. Such partnerships will add value through integration of public and private sector skills, knowledge, and expertise" (7) There are a growing number of voluntary restoration projects in the works, not to mention talk of linking up with California's cap and trade scheme for wetland blue carbon credits, and how to coordinate these market sector activities with a federal plan will be worth watching.

7. You don't spend a billion dollars and not have anything to show for it. "The Council recognizes the importance of measuring outcomes and impacts in order to achieve tangible results and ensure that funds are invested in a meaningful way." (7) There's an opening here for ecosystem services accounting, but we'll have to wait and see.

8. The money quote from the whole thing is the Council's definition of ecosystem restoration. That's kinda what they're about anyway:

"All activities, projects, methods, and procedures appropriate to enhance the health and resilience of the Gulf Coast ecosystem, as measured in terms of the physical, biological, or chemical properties of the ecosystem, or the services it provides, and to strengthen its ability to support the diverse economies, communities, and cultures of the region. It includes activity that initiates or accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem with respect to its health, integrity, and sustainability. It also includes protecting and conserving ecosystems so they can continue to reduce impacts from tropical storms and other disasters, support robust economies, and assist in mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change (per Executive Order 13554)."

There's a lot going on here! What is restoration? Well, it's not just bulldozers and backhoes, it's methods and procedures. In other words, it's science and technical expertise just as much as it is new wetlands. Watch for this to become controversial, with conservationists claiming that not enough money is being spent on the ground in actual projects. What's the goal? Health, resilience, and mitigation of climate impacts. It's not clear to me that there isn't potentially a huge tradeoff between the ecosystem health and ability to mitigate climate impacts, but we'll see. How do you get there? You initiate or accelerate recover, or you protect and conserve. And finally, how do you measure it all? Straight out of the CWA, it's physical, biological, or chemical properties. Or, ecosystem services.

9. The last point is, again, the Council won't be just drawing on existing marine and wetland science, and they won't just be incorporating the best available science as it hits the presses, they're producing it. The sense is that there's a lot yet to figure out yet in the planning, technical assistance, and implementation phases of restoration, and that the Council is more than ready to dish out money to "evaluation and establishment of monitoring requirements and methods to report outcomes and impacts; and measurement, evaluation, and reporting of outcomes and impacts of restoration activities." (15) The question will be, what kind of science is the Council interested in funding?