Thursday, September 20, 2012

Life, Equimarginality, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Equimarginality....wait, equi-who? Equimargina-what? It's a big word, but it's one many environmental economists use explicitly a lot and a concept others also use frequently, if not stating it as such. And it sets the stage for the politics of ecosystem service markets.

It's kind of the holy grail or lynchpin of environmental economics really. If "command and control" policies - that is, mandating that each firm, or each sector even, use the "best available pollution abatement technology"  - fail, it's because, the story goes, these policies don't acknowledge the fact that each factory or wastewater treatment plant or housing developer has unique cost schedules for dealing with whatever their external cost to society happens to be.  Some firms can mitigate emissions, effluents, or habitat impacts more easily than others.

Outside of a textbook, it's hard to find a good diagram of what equimarginality means. Here's my best shot:

Source: Del Rio Gonzalez, Pablo. 2008. Policy implications of potential conflicts between short-term and long-term efficiency in CO2 emissions. Ecological Economics 65(2):292-303

Instead of setting a quota on the amount of emissions, the state levies a tax on the emissions (P*), the idea being to change underlying incentives that spur a firm to generate CO2. You can see that if all firms had to produce only, say, EsubB emissions, the regulation would be far cheaper for some (Firm A) and much more costly for others (Firm C). The idea with equimarginality is that, across firms, there is some magical point where "society's" extra buck spent on abatement or conservation doesn't return more than dollar's worth of pollution reduction or habitat protection.

Where am I going with this boring econ lecture? Treating each polluting or habitat destroying firm as if it had special needs means allowing for more degradation in some spaces/environments and less in others. Equimarginality is marked by two spatial variations on a theme of measurement:
1. In theory, the efficient amount a polluter should abate will depend on where it pollutes. If your car is pumping out SO2 in the middle of the Mojave Desert, I mean, what effect is that having on society, really? (beyond acid rain...) Since the health effects of vehicular SO2 are quite localized, the answer is probably very little, so why should the driver have to pay as much in fees as someone driving the same car in downtown LA. Well, it's extremely hard to know how much each vehicle is driven where...And it's even tougher to pinpoint how much that 1999 Saturn XL CA license plate #304 ACL's exhaust contributes to the weathering of Lexington, Kentucky's grand limestone edifices.
2. By the same coin, where polluters do mitigate will be where it is least costly to do so. All things being equal, if I'm given the flexibility as a wind energy company putting up turbines in the mountain West to abate my turbines' impacts on sage grouse habitat, I'm going to do so where it's easiest to. That's probably where land is most expensive anyway and where the wind isn't as good. That may or may not have anything to do with the quality of sage grouse habitat there.

These variations on how to measure and mitigate externalities ultimately add up to a bigger question about "where to put things." My point here is two-fold: there's more to be said for conservation than efficiency; spatial efficiency depends on the resource and who you talk to. There's no one optimal answer. Whether spatial efficiency for an economist means the same thing as spatial efficiency for a conservationist is questionable. The clearest example of where the two most likely do not line up is hotspots - river reaches, for instance, where a disproportionate number of factories dump nutrients and buy offset credits upstream from farmers because the marginal cost for reducing N or P inputs into rivers is much lower for Farmer John than a modern wastewater treatment facility. Apparently, CO2 quickly circulates globally and so hotspots may be less of a concern (but see this research suggesting CO2 exacerbates local air quality conditions). Still, think about discussions in global carbon markets: where are the cheapest places to offset emissions? which countries get to pollute more, which should reduce emissions? These are some of the most animating politics of carbon markets and are girded by the

I find that equimarginality plays out in an interesting way in habitat and species banking, because where firms can destroy or compensate for habitat is perhaps more (ecologically) important than with carbon or water, and so has important political implications for landscape conservation. When it comes to carbon, what you hear is a carbon sequestering forest there is as good as one over here. But with habitat, the wetland here may serve an especially valuable role for species migrations in the landscape, a role that can't necessarily be replaced over there. For conservationists, there's a value in particular ecosystems in particular places. Again, the question is whose values win the day, or in what combination? To what extent can and will state agencies step in and say to developers, "look we don't want you mucking up habitat here. And if you are going to make an offset to an impact, how about not necessarily where it's cheapest for you, how about over here where we think it's going to have the most effect?"

My goal here has been to show how on its own terms the logic of equimarginality is: 1) in principle, spatial; 2) how this pursuit of spatiality, at a minimum complicates environmental economics, but really, I think, makes the whole notion of equimarginality more or less useless, except as the object of ecosystem service politics.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Communicating ecosystem services

I'm out here in Portland, Ore. and I had the chance a couple of weeks ago now to sit in on several sessions of the Ecosystem Services Partnership conference. ESP is an international academic and practitioner conference, hosted for the first time in the US this year.

One of the best parts of the conference was a "Global Policy Forum" dedicated to drafting response to a recommendation by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology for a national ecosystem services trends assessment and for federal agencies to value their impacts on ecosystem services. The energetic discussion revolved around four questions the conveners had set up for us:

1. do we need a common set of terms on ecosystem services?
2. what are the key ecological questions that need answering? - the science question
3. how do we value ecosystem services? when is monetization appropriate? - the market question
4. how do we make effective change on ecosystem services? - the policy question

What folks ended up spinning their wheels over throughout the conversation was: yes, of course we need a common set of questions, terms, and answers so that we can compare Jackson County larks to Jackson County larks, and to show decision-makers that a lark is worth as much as, say, 10 acres of productive cropland. That way, policy people can make the right decisions.

The odd part is that we had to answer the "how do we communicate ecosystem services?" question in the first place. The question seems to me, at one level, to be an oxymoron. I'd always thought the whole point of the ecosystem services concept was that it made nature "visible" to decision-makers by characterizing not nature qua nature but as something that did stuff for society. Obviously, it's not as easy as that. There are still lots of choices to be made about what should be "legible", choices that matter: At what end of the spectrum you might have an ecologist say (as one did at the forum) well we need multiple, fuzzy terms because boxing things into $ or even Discounted Service Acre Years just doesn't tell me much about the condition of the lark. On the other extreme, all that a lawmaker (or one practitioner at the forum) might feel they need to see is the $ of a lark.

Which is exactly why we can't just talk our way to better ecologies. Lamenting "if only we had the right terms" assumes endangered birds or streams have terms best suited to them as birds or streams and ignores the specific politics of setting the terms in each case. For starters, you need translators who can talk lark science, policy, and economics. Those people are not always easy to find. Second, as with speaking a foreign language, there's always something about the lark or whatever that gets lost in translation.

The key question is: can we be ok with 5, 10, or 20 different ways of measuring Jackson county lark habitat? There are good reasons why there should and shouln't be one
lark metric: USFWS might like to be able to compare specific habitats across the species's range so it can square impacts with restoration in a species mitigation scheme. But that's perhaps a different purpose than even NRCS wanting to have a way to gage which restoration projects are priorities to fund. The problem then is that you can't necessarily go back and equate the results of the two metrics.

Here's the true point, which is not that politics pollutes all science and so we might as well give up on "correctly" assessing ecosystem services. It's simply that there's something to be said for a diversity of metrics that stand on their own terms for their own purposes. And there are surely cases where the science, market, and policy can come together and say, hey, that'll work for all of us (a process the Willamette Partnership has facilitated in Oregon). The point is that figuring it out takes translators and a willingness to accept that you'll probably lose something in translation.


Note: How to communicate ecosystem services across science and policy is perhaps just a subset of the question: how to message the term "ecosystem services" or whether to use a different phrasing all together. The Nature Conservancy recently comissioned an intriguing report on that question. Their consultants found that ecosystem services doesn't really resonate at all with the voting public, but nature's benefits or value do.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Who didn't start the fire? Some difficulties in (sage grouse) conservation

Apologies for another title with an 80s musical reference. 2012 has been one of the hottest and driest on record and that has meant "wild" fires. While national attention was drawn to Colorado's blazes, I've been more drawn to reports on Oregon's largest wildfire in 150 years. This Oregonian article in particular does a great job of spelling out the politics of the fire. Was it the ranchers, the BLM, or the weather that started it? I'm not sure, but I think the consequences of the fire are intriguing.

That's because the fire has put the sage grouse at risk by burning a large chunk of prime habitat - and that matters because the sage grouse is a keystone species for emerging forms of conservation. The sage grouse is a big and beautiful bird that lives in the western United States and depends on sagebrush for habitat. The decline of the grouse, it seems, has a lot to do with habitat fragmentation cause by new energy development in the West: wind turbines, transmission lines, oil drilling, and mines. The bird does neat things like group mating calls. The grouse and its ways have been at the center of scientific-legal scandal. In 2004 the Bush administration decided it didn't need any protection, but a more recent court ruling, in 2010, noted that the decision-making proccess in that case was faulty. FWS has replied that listing the species is still "warranted" but also thinks that there are bigger fish to fry, er save, at least until 2015 when it will reconsider listing.

So the sage grouse is instead now implicated in an assortment of "new" conservation efforts that aim to pre-empt regulatory burdens in the first place. In part, these efforts stem from the fact that the bird is still a candidate species and not actually listed. In 2010, the same year Interior/FWS called for protecting, but not listing, the bird, NRCS jumped in and created the Sage Grouse Initiative, seeking to do "wildlife conservation through sustainable agriculture." SGI's voluntary approach - via conservation easements and Conservation Innovation Grants - is key. According to SGI itself, it represents an "excellent example of how NRCS is orchestrating a paradigm shift in recovery for at-risk species. Instead of regulatory burdens, the Initiative takes a voluntary approach that benefits agriculture and sage grouse – along with a suite of other wildlife species too, from pronghorn to mule deer." SGI works with ranchers to help them do things like: change grazing patterns, move fences, and remove invasives (junipers) that benefit sage grouse habitat. The hope is that the bird ultimately won't have to be listed and that rancher income can be buffered at the same time.

I'll argue that the other reason why the grouse is a model for new conservation is because of the scale of its habitat and the species's extensive range. The Willamette Partnership has thought long and hard about scaling-up habitat conservation. Along these lines, it's developed a metric for sage grouse/sagebrush, with the idea, I think, that it could be portable to any context where one might want to save sage grouse habitat. It would be much harder for a more localized endangered species like the red-bearded Jackson County lark (fictional bird) or even the fairy shrimp (real!) to get this kind of energy behind it.

Here's what I'm bringing the bird back to: I wonder what the fire can tell us about "new" conservation. For right now, I'll answer with a question: how do conservationists, agencies, ranchers, etc. account for the dynamics of ecosystems within a regulatory, or better yet, a "pre" regulatory ESA? The question certainly goes beyond assessing future climate change, though the uneven effects of climate change, like drought and fire, are undoubtedly a huge source of project risk. I think there are two specific, but interrelated kinds of questions to be asking here: how do you effectively make sage grouse habitat into a credit or unit of sale/funding and what are the rules governing the life of this mitigation credit or best management practice or whatever. I'll start with the latter question. If a rancher signs up to protect the sage grouse, but then a fire comes along and destroys the protected habitat, what do you do as a regulator? What's the rule? Hold the rancher responsible? And what if the rancher had already sold credits to a developer making an impact elsewhere? Is the developer responsible (they would be in TMDL mitigation, but not 404)? In the end, part of the answer is: well whose fault was it anyway? But as the Long Draw fire shows, that's not an easy question to answer.

There's more than a question of liability here too. How do you create a non-linear or a non-equilibrium currency, one that accredits changes in ecosystem states over time? Or do you? As a regulator you probably want verifiable results of sage grouse protection, preferably with a 5-10 year timespan because you are operating within a legal climate that calls for the bird's protection. So you might prefer a set of performance standards that asks for no fire on the conservation site. That sort of conservation might not look like the kind The Society for Sage (fictional) might ask for. That group might say, well fire is a regular component of the sage ecosystem. A rancher might then reply, how can I be certain that fire is going to give me all the sagebrush I need to sell credits?

That's a completely fictional conversation, but a Willamette Partnership report on biodiversity markets raises several of the questions I've asked here. What's clear is that there's going to have to be some sort of balance between what works for sage grouse/sagebrush and what works for regulators and what works for conservationists and what works for ranchers and the politics of that tradeoff will be interesting to watch as climate change burns on all around us.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Lucky lizards: the Texas Conservation Plan

In a previous post, I talked about how landmanagers and developers can now trade USFWS-certified credits representing the conservation of threatened, but not yet ESA-listed, species habitat. I gave a fictional example of a southern Oregon farmer, John Johnson, getting credit for planting habitat for the red-bearded Jackson County song lark. I pointed to a recent FWS rule allowing for these sorts of schemes, but beyond the tale of Farmer John and some related Clean Water Act-focused pre-compliance mitigation projects, I was in short supply of real world examples.

Then I heard about Texas's Dune Sagebrush Lizard (DSL). I'm trying to sift through a recent report from Ecosystem Marketplace on efforts to protect the DSL before the FWS lists it. About a year ago, the Texas Legislature authorized the Comptroller of Public Accounts to establish and oversee pre-compliance species habitat conservation programs, better known as Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs). What the heck is a Comptroller of Public Accounts, you ask? The Comptroller's mission is to "Keep Texas First" by watching and responding to federal regulations that harm Texas businesses. Indeed, the stated goal of the legislation, Senate Bill 1, was to balance conservation with Texas's economic needs, and in the case of the DSL, that means the Texas Oil and Gas Association and ranchers. The TCP's steering committee is more or less stacked with those who have interests in either developing oil and gas wells or raising livestock in the DSL's native habitat.

On behalf of the group, Comptroller Susan Combs wrote in during the public comment period on the TCP. She wrote that listing the DSL - with little science available to justify such a move - would come at the expense of Texas's biggest oil producing region: "I am emphatically against the FWS listing the DSL as an endangered species as there is not yet enough scientific data to support such a determination. We do not yet have baseline population data for the species." Either way, Texas was ready for the feds, and that was the impetus for the TCP: "However, it was absolutely critical that our state be prepared for a possible listing decision for the DSL." Coombs ends by suggesting that the TCP could be a model nationally for FWS.

Ultimately, because of the TCP, FWS decided not to list the DSL as endangered. FWS decided against listing after finding something like 88% of the DSL's habitat, including the energy-rich Permian basin in Texas, would be under some form of protection. Here's how the TCP works: landowners can choose to enroll, confidentially, in the TCP by deciding what practices they would like to do, including managing grazing or removing invasive brush. Indeed, "most of the conservation practices called for in the TCP are already common agricultural practice." Landowners can also drop out at anytime. However, the plan does require oil and gas developers to mitigate for DSL impacts.

This is where the credits come in. Oil and gas companies can contract with landowners to enhance DSL habitat or they can even contribute to species tracking efforts. I'm not sure who goes about making sure that the energy firms' impacts square with what benefits the ranchers bring - measurement and enforcement certainly weren't prominent features in anything I read from the Comptroller. They are in the Plan itself, however, as the Ecosystem Marketplace article's author, Jemma Denny, notes. She draws out some of the big difficulties with the TCP. No one really knows much about what the lizard needs, which gives the TCP steering committee leeway in being loose about what it requires itself to do. First, unlike other species banking schemes, long-term conservation easements aren't required. Second, there really aren't any specific "Conservation Measures" that link up impacts with benefits to ensure no net loss mitigation. No one knows how many lizards can be saved by removing invasive brush or restoring habitat at old drilling pads. Ultimately, the TCP, especially the trading mitigation credits part, is really a shot in the dark.

But here's what I'm bringing it back to: In my previous post on pre-compliance banking I got a little philosophical - I pondered what CCAAs mean for environmental governance. One of the things I noted in particular was that pre-compliance banking didn't really mean regulatory relief for agencies - they'd likely still have to be drawn into verifying some measure of habitat. And those making habitat impacts would still be under some sort of pressure from the feds. To be overly vulgar about it, in pre-compliance banking FWS is still holding a gun to impacters' heads: you've got to comply, ESA listing or no, or take your chances.

After reading up on the DSL, I think my rough conclusions need nuancing. What the TCP shows us about pre-regulatory banking is, in general, that context is important. It matters that the DSL lives in a state where rich energy companies hold a lot of sway and where the state government is distrustful of federal regulation. More specifically, TCP shows us that regulatory relief is always a matter of relief for whom? For the oil and gas companies, for sure, if they can get away with what looks to be a framework for spotty conservation. It's relief even for the FWS, if they don't have to go through the hassle of a listing, and don't care about upholding rigorous conservation measures. Instead, I wonder what developers' and agencies' relief dumps off on to in the end? Whether the lizards can get relief from fracking is the real question.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Her name is Rio and she accounts for natural capital

So apparently a bunch of world leaders got together a couple weeks ago to figure out how to save the world from complete ecological and social collapse. The Rio+20 United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development in Brzail brought together conservationists, select heads of state (notably, not US President Obama), and protesters to negotiate how to fund and govern development, particularly with respect to the environmental aspects of development. Environmentalists hyped the summit as THE opportunity for governments to come to some some sort of binding agreement chock full of actions that would build upon Rio 1992's controversial, but visionary Agenda 21.

And of course that didn't happen. Recent conferences of the save-the-world type (e.g. Copenhagen, Durban, Cancun with maybe the exception of REDD+) have been disappointments to a lot of folks - they just haven't gotten anything done (and even when they do, like with REDD+, it's not often with much consensus from important communities).At the same time, there's probably a good set of people who probably didn't expect much anyway, especially since, as the conference date approached, it was clear to many the draft text was going to be weak.
I don't see much value in repeating lamentations of Rio, so I'll try to dig into the significance of the conference, good or bad. From what I can tell, those who followed Rio closely, or had to see it succeed anyway like the UN, did not see it as a total failure. (Though Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was on the defensive when, summarizing the conference, he had to say: "“Let me be clear. Rio+20 was a success” There were a host of agreements ("silver linings" of Rio's failure), for example, on oceans, renewable energy funding for developing countries, and mass transit. But the UN's own wrap-up on the conference is pretty telling. The agreements on oceans, energy, and transit aren't on there. Gender equity makes it way into a short paragraph after the major highlights. The highlights, instead, form a suite of agreements on "how the green economy can be used as a tool to achieve sustainable development;vpromoting corporate sustainability reporting measures; taking steps to go beyond gross domestic product to assess the well-being of a country; developing a strategy for sustainable development financing" In other words, agreements on "natural capital accounting" (which I'll abbreviate to NCA).

What is natural capital accounting? The idea is to include the benefits that ecosystems provide to humans into all the standard national (e.g. GDP) and corporate accounting systems, so as to encourage the investment in and management of typical of other kinds of "capital", like factories. Oh, you mean make markets in nature? Nay, responds Rachel Kyte from the World Bank,"we are not talking about "pricing" nature but "valuing" it. By valuing it, you are enabling better economic decisions." For Pavan Sukhdev, star of TEEB, it's similarly: "You cannot manage what you do not measure" These champions of the natural capital approach certainly saw Rio as a success for their agenda. Their respective initiatives, the World Bank's Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES) and Sukhdev's The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, seemed to made a splash at Rio. WAVES in particular led an effort to get the leaders of 50 nations and 50 businesses to sign on to a campaign to, well I'm not entirely sure since it's another one of those vague "agreements", but the idea is that these countries and companies will work to develop the scientific, policy and market infrastructure necessary to incorporate the "value" of nature into their accounting books. They got their 50 nations (58), but notably, they got more businesses - 86.

It's hard to argue in principal against trying to understand the condition of environments and the importance of their contribution to society. But what does it mean to value nature, that is, put a number - and in particular, a dollar sign - on nature? It certainly is not a cure-all. Notice how Sukhdev's quote above is so reminiscent of famed statistician Lord Kelvin's: "When you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind." But as geographer Ryan Galt notes in one of his articles, summoning Jacob Viner, "When you can measure it, when you can express it in numbers, your knowledge is still of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind."(Jacob Viner in Galt 2011, cited in Sayer, 1992, 175, from Berelson and Steiner, 1964). The "unsatisfaction" here could be any number of things, but for many, it's that the line between value and price is not a clear as Kyte would have us believe. As certain folks have known for a while now, money is both a measure of values, but also a means of circulation. TAt the same time money expresses the value of, say, your house, it is a means for circulating capital across the world so that when Wall Street crashes and the flow of money slows, so too does the value of your house tank. Or as UK non-profit World Development Movement wrote in response to Kyte, the value of a coral reef gets wrapped up in investors' need to circulate money to where it is most profitable, which may not be the reef, and with negative implications for the poor. It's worth quoting at length from their response to Kyte's post:

And as for the idea that reducing conservation decisions to a financial cost-benefit analysis will lead to better government decision-making, it is wholly possible that the opposite may occur. For example, we already know that coral reefs can protect coastlines from storm surges – but if we express this in a dollar figure, the implication is that it is acceptable to trash it if the profit opportunities are sufficiently high. And this kind of simplistic utilitarianism ignores the fact that, to further develop your example of the coral reef, the benefits of destroying the reef are likely to accrue to investors rather than the poor, who are often the most dependent on free natural resources. So a government or private company may decide to let the reef die because the overall monetary return of preserving it is less, ignoring the fact that the people impacted by the decision will be the poorest.

Does the back and forth between the pro-valuers and the opposition the WDM represents even matter? Is NCA even a thing or just the brightest star to come out of a lackluster conference? And what does it signify for global environmental governance? What does it mean for someone like the fictional landowner I keep referring to on this blog, working in southern Oregon to protect the fictional red-bearded Jackson County lark?

I'm not entirely sure yet, but here's a first whack at it: there's probably a bit of hype to NCA. After all, natural capital was "the new political imperative" already way back when at the Conference of the Parties (COP) 10 in Nagoya (Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity - COBD - signed at Rio+0, that is...) That's where TEEB made its debut in a big way. But for NCA endeavors to make it onto center stage at THE event for sustainable development for the foreseeable future is no doubt something serious for global, high-level biodiversity conservation.

At the same time, the 50/50 campaign is no Protocol (Kyoto or Nagoya) nor even an Agreement (Cancun) or Accord (Copenhagen). It's just that, a Campaign. And Rio's blockbuster was none of these fancy titles either, just "The Future We Want". Some might say that Rio's lack of anything in any way binding or even visionary spells the not-so-terrible end of government's role in saving the world. Maybe so. What it does show is a new era in which governments and businesses together write the visions, goals, and rules that manage environments around the world. Ultimately, what this means is that Farmer Jane protecting endangered lark habitat in Oregon is likely to come more and more into contact with the corporate world's tools for and agents of biodiversity protection (and vice versa), perhaps just as Farmer Jane once upon a time came more and more linked to agro-businesses for farm inputs. It'll be interesting to follow those encounters.

Coming up:
The changing geography of coal in the US: mining, export, and restoration in the West
A follow-up on habitat conservation banking: the Texas Conservation Plan

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Chicago River restoration, Chicago River gentrification?

Let's continue with our focus on species. The past couple of weeks I've talked about various mechanisms for conserving endangered species habitat - mitigation banking and The Conservation Registry. But habitat restoration work is often just as much about dealing with invasive species as it is with fostering natives. So what about the invasives?

The Chicago River certainly presents an interesting case of invasive species politics - it's the last "line in the sand - wait, water - the US government has set for the threatening, but by no means threatened, Asian carp. But what's fascinating about the case is that invasives like the carp play only one part in a whole drama over the river's restoration. A recent discussion on Windy City station WBEZ lays out the million $ question - will people ever swim and fish in the Chicago? The program's definitely worth a listen (thanks to Jessa Loomis for passing along the link!)

The most striking feature about the Chicago, I learned from listening, is that it now flows in the opposite direction of its pre-settlement course. That is, now it flows from Lake Michigan to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (CSSC), into the Des Plaines, and eventually the Mississippi. That's how the carp got into the system and how they are now threatening the Lake's fishery. Then there's the question of how much of a river the river really ought to be. Huh? My understanding is that the whole Chicago area used to be one big wetland that the river just kind of mozied its way through in the best (wettest) of years. (I think it's Bill Cronon's Nature's Metropolis that has a bit of interesting background on this aspect of Chicago's environmental history).

Participants on the WBEZ program did not, of course, suggest turning Chicago back into a wetland, and instead focused on a number of things wrong with and promising for the river. To start, the "Sanitary" in CSSC is one fat euphemism for the city's use of the river to send all of its crap downstream instead of into the lake. The biggest problem here is with the city's combined sewer system. You can think of a combined sewer system as, like the internet, a series of tubes and these tubes take in both all the sewage and surface runoff. When it rains enough, Chi-town can't sanitize all the inflow and some is dumped straight into the river. In Chicago - it being a decent-sized urban area with your standard set of impervious surfaces - you get a lot more runoff from heavy rains than you would from, say, a prairie (thinking here, too, about climate change exacerbating extreme weather events...) Apparently water quality standards are now in place for the river, by which I think the WBEZ program host means to say that under section 303 of the Clean Water Act, (IL?) EPA has finally gotten around to designating the river as potentially swimmable and fishable and will require polluters like the City of Chicago to help make it that way. Still, as anyone familiar with the enforcement of any environment regulation might be able to guess, whether - and how - these standards can be acted upon successfully is another matter. Even the show's title sounds skeptical - will people ever actually recreate on the river (even with these new standards)?

Then there's the issue of reversing the flow - err..."re-reversing" the flow. I'm not sure about the ecology of flow reversal. Reversal would stop shipping Chicago's shit down to the Gulf of Mexico, and potentially cut off the carp, but it might not serve the lake well. At any rate, there's probably some huge political barriers to flow reversal. The WBEZ radio host played a clip of  IL Senator Dick Durbin naming the political problem as the Army Corps of Engineers - it would take them too long and too much money to permit flow reversal and to actually get around to doing it.

Less ambitious restoration efforts are focusing on river recreation and neighborhood development along the river. One of the radio guests was a professor who taught a design class at Harvard where students came up with various plans for the river. On the river system side, students found that there's potential to re-meander the river a bit and add in some wetlands as part of new parklands. Maybe, eventually, people could even fish away the Asian carp from some of these parks. Then there's a whole bunch of abandoned warehouses and factories along the river that might make for new housing that could be tied into riverwalks and bike paths and the like.

But here's what I'm bringing it all back to: All of the physical design stuff sounds good - disinfecting discharge, re-reversing flow, and freeing up the river channel - but who does the "social restoration" of the river - the parks, the bike paths, and the boat houses - really benefit? The answer to this kind of big question is always case or place specific, as geographers know. It's too soon to tell for Chicago. One of the program participants named developments on the river - like the kinda new, recently expanded Ping Tom Park - as a sort of "river gentrification". That's an interesting notion - the idea that, as with neighborhood gentrification, new development might come at the expense of established residents and uses and primarily to the benefit of new ones. But it's not something the program guests dug into all. It's these kind of "fuzzy" questions that are worth asking right now.


Next week: I'll probably try to figure out what the recent international Rio+20 conference on sustainable development will mean for ecosystem service politics in the US. Epic fail? Big win for green accounting? Stay tuned...

Monday, June 18, 2012

User-generated natures? The Conservation Registry

Let's continue with the story of the rare red-bearded Jackson County song lark (an endangered bird I made up; see the last post.). As a landowner, USFWS has let you bank mitigation credits for having restored some of the bird's habitat. At first, you're of course happy with your work - you've helped save the endangered species! After a few months, though, you get to thinking, does it really matter? Isn't my farm and this habitat I've created just in a tumultuous sea of non-habitat for the bird? You slip into a deep depression...

Here comes the Conservation Registry to the rescue! On the Conservation Registry website, landowners, project managers, and agency staff can post and view details on all sorts of restoration projects. The idea is to help those concerned with the success of restoration work to understand the context of their work - does your song lark project link up with others in the landscape? Is it in a priority area?

As the website explains it, the Registry was started in 2008 and originally focused on the Pacific Northwest - Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. It seems that much of the early work and core partnerships grew out of Oregon specifically, i.e. Defenders of Wildlife, Institute for Natural Resources, TNC Oregon, and The Other Firm. Since 2008 the Registry has expanded nationwide and indeed, it now seems to be hosting a ton of projects. Open up the map and you'll see a huge orange blob spreading across the US (notably absent, though, in the SW). Zoom in and of course you see the orange blob disintegrate into individual markers and sometimes polygons. A very preliminary examination tells me that a lot of these are national crop conservation programs  - like the Wetland Reserve Program - that were probably plugged in from some big NRCS database. The WRP is important to have on there, but certainly it does not account for all the restoration work going on. The Registry has a lot of potential, but how to continue to get projects on the site is a big question.

Here's what I'm bringing it back to: what sort of nature are we making out there when we do restoration and conservation? I'd argue nature isn't just that new sine-wave stream, riparian planting, or protected prairie, but the portrayal of those projects online and in code. I don't want to be abstract about this; I think the digitality of restoration really really matters. The digital life of a given project allows it to be seen - by other landowners, by agencies, by potential credit purchasers - and seen in particular ways for various ends. A project's representation online - especially its geocoding onto a Google Map layer - allows it to be put in a landscape context for all these folks to see and ultimately to act upon - be it by, for example, choosing to add - or not - another riparian planting to the watershed or changing funding priorities.

The Conservation Registry targets not just big NRCS data but individual land managers, so the "we" in the question: what nature are we making? is important. What are the similarities and differences between your average joe tweeting about or in, say, Lexington, KY and an individual landowner uploading a Cane Run creek restoration report onto the Registry? A growing set of geographers, best represented by, might have some answers: they're taking long-standing concerns about cultural landscapes and thinking about the representation of place on and the spatiality of Twitter, Google Maps, Flickr, etc. (aside: perhaps something like the wild Bluegrass floating sheep would have made for a more interesting ESA example above...) Personally, I'm wondering not just about these user-generated spaces/places but user-generated natures. As Monica Stephens from Floating Sheep asks: what happens when men contribute disproportionately to Open Street Map? (hint: the picture of the world you get includes more stripclubs than daycare centers), we might ask: who is contributing to the Conservation Registry? NRCS staff with their WRP data? Local watershed councils? What kind of restoration is visible?

What's clear so far from the Conservation Registry is that the space of nature matters. Conservationists need to able to see watersheds and habitat corridors/fragments. Ultimately the line of inquiry suggested here is to look into the work going into coding nature/space. Red-bearded song larks and floating sheep are at stake.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Risky business: pre-compliance mitigation in habitat and water quality

Imagine you are a landowner in, say, southwestern Oregon. Turns out that on your land lives the rare red-bearded Jackson County song lark (a bird that I made up. Threatened species always have the best names, don't they? Some folk may be partial to charismatic megafauna, but I'm a fan of what I guess you could call eccentric microspecies.) The bird's not yet regulated under the US Endangered Species Act - it's just a candidate - but it might be listed soon if the WildEarth Guardians' lawsuit goes through. You're inclined to protect it anyway and guess what, USFWS is going to let you restore more of its habitat and then sell credits to developers elsewhere who are destroying its habitat.

The basic idea behind the concept of pre-compliance mitigation is to provide land managers with incentives to do conservation and to encourage developers (a name I use generically for anyone making a habitat impact) to fund that work. In a PowerPoint, Alice Appleton from the new-ish USDA Office of Environmental Markets names ESA pre-compliance trading as one of 4 or 5 conservation markets already existing in the US (others being Clean Water Act 404 wetland/stream banking, TMDL water quality trading, listed species banking, and carbon offsets). In the presentation Appleton suggests ecosystem markets like ESA banking can be useful for:
  • Compensating landowners for the ecosystem services they provide on their private lands
  • Investing private funds in natural infrastructure
  • Reducing societal costs of regulatory compliance
  • Encouraging innovation
  • Improving the effectiveness of practices 
  • …bringing real, verifiable conservation to scale
Interest in pre-compliance mitigation seems to be growing as agencies figure out ways of accounting for what they can't legally account for (e.g. non-point source water pollution or unlisted species; also voluntary carbon offsets may be a distinct case of pre-compliance mitigation, or maybe they were pre-2010 when federal cap and trade schemes were still on the table) and as they try to, as OEM notes, reduce the costs of regulation. As far as I can tell there are two different pre-compliance programs actually in the works: ESA pre-compliance, like the red-bearded Jackson County song lark scenario, and water quality. How pre-compliance mitigation looks differs between the two, but the concept of "regulatory relief" is at the heart of both.

The idea of creating or restoring habitat for endangered species, as one might do with wetlands for wetland mitigation banks, has been around for a while. However, on the ground projects seem to exist only in California, and just recently in Oregon. A lot, but certainly not all, of these seem to be for fish, especially salmon (see especially Salmon Safe and the Willamette Partnership's "tri-fecta" of incentives). Becca Madsen notes that ESA banking is likely to be a top issue for mitigators in 2012 because of Interior's agreement, in the face of lawsuits like the one mentioned above, to list over 200 species - what the New York Times calls the biggest change in ESA enforcement since the early 90s (spotted owl times). Pre-compliance could come out of that court settlement in a large way as developers realize the costs of having to deal with the new listings.

The thought of providing land managers with relief from water quality (nutrients, e.g.) regulation has been around since at least 2005-6, but for all I know, longer. Last summer USDA and EPA drafted a "certainty framework" that outlines what pre-compliance conservation might look like for water quality standards. It's not clear what the main driver would be, though one could guess it would be TMDLs. As with most water quality programs, it's up to the states to figure out specifics. and there are two state-level programs that I've heard of: Minnesota's and Michigan's. Michigan's is older, pre-dating the framework. However, the sense I get of the Michigan program is that it is less about reducing farmers' liabilities from water quality nutrient/temperature/sediment regs like a TMDL as much as it: 1) reduces liabilities from other rules on for instance pesticide handling; 2) is basically a good practices certification program like GAP. Apparently you can also buy a t-shirt with the program's logo. Minnesota's seems to be more of a relief program where farmers get "immunity" from the state's water quality standards by performing certain conservation activities. These activities are not yet set, but technical advisory committees will be forming them soon.

But here's a true point: what's ultimately fascinating about pre-compliance banking is that at the same time it represents some form of "regulatory relief" for develoers, and thus a supposed withdrawal of government from the business of mandating conservation (as it "mandated" firm-specific tech controls on water quality before allowing water quality trading), pre-compliance banking is also a re-assertion of agency involvement. Of course anyone familiar with mitigation in the US knows that it's all about agencies' regulatory drivers. Yet in this case, the regulatory driver doesn't yet exist. The temporal dimension here is key: a new kind of ecosystem governance is emerging that is done on the basis of what might happen in the future. And this uncertainty, I think, is what makes pre-compliance mitigation tricky, for three reasons. First, it involves agency staff in determining what they think would count as mitigation activity and then enforcing the verification of those activities and outcomes. Second, listing a species is a long and unsure process rife with lawsuits and lobbying. Related, and third - as some agency officials argue, the goal of pre-compliance mitigation is to allow trading in credits in habitat for potentially listed species, so that those species ultimately don't have to be listed. But as a developer, does it pay to engage in voluntarily conserving a species that might not actually be listed, especially if other firms buy credits and build up the species population? We might ask the same for farmers' efforts to reduce runoff - won't others improve water quality enough? In the end the question is: what's more risky or worth the time - lobbying to prevent a listing, letting others choose to buy credits, or buying a credit/doing mitigation yourself?

These are the sort of dilemmas that developers, land managers, and agencies will have to answer going forward.


Note: This pre-compliance conservation is different, though related, from the similarly named conservation compliance. Conservation compliance is the requirement that farmers take certain measures to prevent soil erosion, protect habitat, save wetlands, etc. in exchange for receiving government subsidies. It's become a cornerstone of debate in this year's Farm Bill - direct subsidies to farms are likely on their way out, replaced by subsidizing crop insurance, but conservation compliance hasn't been attached to insurance subsidies yet. In both pre-compliance conservation and conservation compliance, however, the basic idea is to encourage voluntary conservation. Of course there is always some form of coercion lurking in the background (we'll regulate it soon anyway/do it or you won't get your money...)

UPDATE: Chesapeake Bay WQT

Check out this Washington Post article on the politics of trading nutrients in the Bay - environmental groups are split on whether to support it or not and funders are not so happy with those opposed: “If you challenge nutrient trading, you’re done. You won’t be funded by us anymore.”

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Chesapeake Bay WQT: a geography of rules

Becca Madsen at Madsen Environmental wrote recently about a new report on water quality trading (WQT) in the Chesapeake Bay. The RTI report finds a lot of possible efficiencies that could come from trading in the Bay and a lot of potential demand for credits. But, as Madsen writes, noticing the existence of very few trades so far, "what about actual demand?" The lack of trading so far in the Bay seems to be an interesting case where the geography of the rules of the market matters for its success.

WQT promises to lower overall nutrient levels in waters by allowing regulated point sources of pollution (think wastewater treatment facilities) to buy credits, or representations of nutrient or even temperature reductions, from other sources, point or non-point (think crop farmers), that have installed technologies or performed best management practices (BMPs) that control nutrient/temperature loadings. The idea is that trading can be a more efficient way for these sources to reduce their impact than government telling them to install costly technology. Regulation is key here in two senses: those wastewater treatment facilities might not have any reason to control their N/P emissions but for EPA mandate. Regulation is also important in the sense that the state-specific rules on who can trade what with whom, when, and how. State departments of environmental quality or environmental protection list creditable actions (BMPs), control trading between sectors of polluters and between watersheds, and create trading ratios that tell potential credit buyers how many extra credits they have to buy in order to account for the uncertainty in knowing exactly how much pollution that installed BMP reduced.

The promise of WQT has been around for a while, but figuring out the right mix of rules to make it work has been a project around just as long. In 2003 EPA formalized some rules for how WQT might be done, but left it up to individual watersheds and states to figure out specifics and implementation on their own. A report the following year (2004) shows there were a lot of trading initiatives already in the works. Some of the ones listed never really got off the ground (e.g. Lake Dillon). In the Chesapeake Bay specifically, there's been a lot of hope for nutrient trading for way longer than I've been thinking about any of this.

As a couple of the contributors to a whole special issue in JAWRA last year noted, the "reality and rhetoric" of WQT can of course be two different things. Getting the reality right (if that makes sense) depends a lot on the context - institutional histories and inclinations, geographies, and drivers - in each trading program.

Indeed, the variation in success between Bay states is telling. Some have seen a few trades, others, like Virginia, none at all. Pennsylvania is the most successful and has been trading long before the most recent phase of the TMDL went into effect (its program started in late 2006). There have been many trades, and many traders, in the state. One in particular, the Red Barn Trading Company, is perhaps the only company to have started up directly in response to the creation of the Pennsylvania market. It aggregates credits generated by moving manure out of the watershed.

Even the success of the Pennsylvania program is not without its shortcomings. As Alexandra Chiaruttini wrote in a summary of last year's WQT activity, the way that the credit sale process is organized is prohibitive. It's an auction, facilitated by Markit, and the timing of each auction and the blind bid requirement, she argues, limit small credit sellers from joining the market.

So state-level WQT program designs are idiosyncratic and tricky. Where does the variation between states in trading levels come from? A report from WRI last year highlighted significant differences in the ways Bay states define the lifespan of a credit/debit and in implementing what kind and what size of trading ratios. Not agreeing on these basics makes it harder, if not impossible, for a credit produced in, say, Pennsylvania to be certified for trade to a debtor in West Virginia. At the 2011 Ecosystem Markets meeting in Madison, a poster presenter on Bay trading noted that only Maryland and Delaware have agreed to allow credit trades cross their state borders and agency boundaries.

As Ecosystem Marketplace author Steve Zwick bluntly claimed, "such a fragmented approach simply doesn't work in a shared body of water." Some of the contributors to the JAWRA special issue focused their comments on the geography of trading - what's the scale that works for watershed restoration and conservation? (This is not just a question for nutrient markets, but ecosystem service markets in general.) That question is something the Willamette Partnership in Oregon is thinking about and working hard on as well.

Whether the patchwork of Bay trading rules matters in the long-run is of course yet to be seen. It'll be interesting to compare the Bay program with EPRI's scaled-up eight state Ohio River Basin WQT Project. As Madsen writes in her notes from the recent National Mitigation and Ecosystem Banking conference, EPRI bills its project as the "world's first consensus agreement on interstate trading". Farmers in states like my own, Kentucky, would be able to trade with power plants in, say, Pennsylvania. Hopefully the Bay (and the Ohio River Basin) can get its reality right, because as one analyst said about Bay restoration, "Markets are the framework for everything that we do in our society – so we'll do it with markets, or we won't do it at all."