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.

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