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