Thursday, March 28, 2013

Restoring climatized ecosystem services for the market: Part 1

In the foothills of the Cascades in western Oregon, a landowner contracts with a local firm that will restore a stream that runs through her property. Among other things, they'll plant trees to shade the stream during those cloudless Oregon summer days and the restoration company will throw some logs in there to create habitat for salmon and other creatures. The trees might take 20 years to grow to the point where they're really shading the stream, but the logs will work more quickly. The landowner restores the stream with the help of payments from a local water utility that is under state and federal pressure to mitigate for the impact its effluent has on stream temperature, and consequently the salmon that like the water cool.

Salmon are a big deal in Oregon
All the while, snowmelt from the Cascades is becoming more erratic and there's less of it, both of which spell trouble for the salmon. Because the snow has melted earlier in spring, the fall low stream flows are inching their way closer to the high temperatures of summer. The trees might cool things down a bit, but they won't be very tall for several more years. The trees may also soak up carbon dioxide and mitigate climate change in the first place, but what are 600 stems going to do for this particular watershed? These ecosystem services are what I call climatized. In short, this one attempt - on the part of a landowner and regulators - to deal with a local water temperature issue is confounded by the regionalized effects of climate change at the same time that the effort has the possibility to be part of a global solution.

How states and land managers can enhance ecosystem service provision under changing climates is a pressing issue, but it's clearly one complicated by the temporal and spatial nature of the problem. In a three part series, I want to problematize how we conceptualize climate "adaptation". In this post I discuss how regulators at local, state, and federal agencies - often the front line of climate response - might be both constrained and enabled to act on the temporal dynamism of changing climates. In the post to follow, I again ask about regulators, but ask who's responsible for, capable of, and willing to respond, focusing on the spatial nature of climate change - the differences between climate change as something globally produced and solvable, but with especially regionalized and localized effects. Finally, I look at the vulnerability of people to the effects of climate change - think increased flooding - and how ecosystem services alone - think restoration of wetlands or sand dunes - may or may not mitigate vulnerabilities.

There is certainly a literature on climate change, ecosystem services, restoration. I want to pull out three key points: 1) we really don't know how successful restoration is at developing ecosystem function; 2) changing climates will intensify ecosystem processes and make them more variable, dynamic; 3) climate change is global, but its effects are variegated - some places will fare better than others.

The question is how regulators like those in the scenario can deal with this. For starters, stream services - be it water temperature regulation, surface water storage, or sediment transport - are going to change over time as increased rainfall intensity and shifts in snowmelt timings and quantity reshape streams. In markets or payment schemes for stream restoration - where a landowner like the one we opened with gets paid by a local water utility - what happens when the service the landowner was supposed to provide no longer exists or does not function in the same way anymore because drought and higher temperatures killed off her trees? Can regulators practice adaptive management - going back and revisiting restoration projects and ask land managers to adapt them to the climate du jour? Or can regulators ask for "future-proof" designs that are meant to be resilient over time?

Newly planted trees at a stream restoration project that provides temperature offsets.
My answer is one of those typical social sciences cop-outs: it depends. Yes and no. In the yes camp: 1) in PES schemes or markets regulators get a chance to "condition" so that land managers only get to sell restoration credits if certain "performance standards" are met. Regulators may be able to make some of these standards about site performance in the face of regional climate effects. Moreover, regulators, especially after the 2008 federal rule on stream/wetland mitigation markets, can ask land managers to put aside money for a long-term endowment that will ensure the site will continue to function over time; 2) In these markets, regulators also craft the ecological assessments by which restoration sites are evaluated. They may be able to write these assessments in such a way to "future-proof" restoration, by encouraging restorationists to design streams that are adaptable to changing climates. The authors of a draft stream assessment in Oregon, for instance, want to assess ecological functions as a way of gaging how over time, a site will perform. This is an improvement on how most assessments currently operate, but it raises the question of how to "future-proof" restoration to "unknown unknowns" of climate change. In other words, functions-based assessment provides a good deal of insurance for the future, but it does not necessarily give regulators the authority, 15 years later, to go back and ask land managers to plant more trees, put in more logs, or do something completely different. Most of the times, they're off the hook after 5-10 years.

In the no camp, I only want to point out that any sort of planning for future ecological conditions always presents a challenge because it leaves agencies open to litigation from those who will say, "you can't ask us to do that." In much the same way that agencies are more or less limited in what offsite factors - think upstream sedimentation - they can ask restorationists to account for, they will be constrained in asking land managers to think about the future. These markets are mitigation markets, where restorationists are supposed to provide "ecological uplift" in a similar kind and degree of impact elsewhere, like when a landowner plants riparian trees to cool streams that have been warmed by effluent from a municipal wastewater plant. And so as long as the landowner can cool the same amount of kcals/day of water that the plant is adding to the system, they are ok. Whether they also provide salmon habitat, refugia for climate affected species, etc., is another question. Subsidy payment schemes may have different, potentially more encompassing, criteria. Moreover, as practitioners know, incorporating "ecosystem services" into official regulatory practice is not an easy project. It's not a straightforward term, and it's not in any statute, and it can become another thing restorationists would point to and say, "what is that and why do we have to do it?"

What it all comes back to is that already existing markets in ecosystem services may or may not be responsive to climate change. At this point, you might be thinking, "this sounds like a lot of 'depends'!" That's my point. The ways that regulators are going to respond to climate effects in markets for streams, wetlands, species, etc. is going to depend on: 1) what level of government they're working in. Federal authorities may have powers that local governments don't - and vice versa; 2) it'll depend on where they're working - Oregon environmental agencies have had different institutional responses to emerging issues like climate than, say, Texas. I'll take up this spatial/scalar unevenness of regulation in more detail in my next post.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


I've posted the slides from a presentation I gave at the Dimensions of Political Ecology conference here at the University of Kentucky recently. My argument is pretty straightforward: to have an ecosystem service, like wetland water storage and delay, you have to be able to show where it that service exists in the landscape and software tools like Excel, ArcGIS, and online mapping utilities are really fundamental to that calculation. It's kind of like the old thought experiment - if a tree falls in the forest and no one's around to hear it, does it make a sound? Does a wetland provide a flood mitigation service if it is in the middle of nowhere? I don't mean to get all philosophical on you, but the basic point is that ecosystem services - as valuable benefits of nature to society - might not exist as such if environmental agencies and others weren't able to map where they exist and who they benefit. So, the talk is a modest call to pay attention to regulatory, entrepreneurial, and conservationist exercises in mapping services, like InVEST from the Natural Capital Project. I've pasted the text of the talk below; each paragraph corresponds with one slide.

1. Ok, so I promise you that this picture of people idling in line to get tickets at the Portland airport is relevant to what I really want to talk to you about today: market valuation of ecosystem services. I’m going to show that airport terminals, in fact share a lot in common with the restoration sites through which Oregon conservationists and entrepreneurs value ecosystem services for market. I make two calls in my talk: 1, for ecosystem services researchers to pay attention to spatially explicit ECS valuation, and to ask for whom such valuations work. 2, to call upon political ecologists to keep paying attention to spatial visualization techniques, but to also pay attention to other technologies through which spaces – like airport terminals, and restoration sites - are made and valued.

2. Welcome to the Half Mile Lane site in exurban Portland, Oregon. It provides a number of ECS. The wetland you see stores and delays water, which mitigates flood impacts for downstream homes. The stream, which you can’t really see, provides habitat for salmon that migrate into the foothills of the Coast Range. A couple of years ago, state environmental agencies and conservationists undertook ecological restoration on the site, turning old farmland and a straightened ditch into a productive wetland and stream.

3.That these services exist as services is spatially dependent, or contextual. I’ll give you three quick quotes to show how. As you see here, the international think-tank for ecosystem services accounting, TEEB, note that you have to have a specific site to have a service. The work of the wetland at HML to store and delay water matters only because there are homes in the 100 year floodplain downstream of the site that benefit.

4. Long-time ECS researcher Gretchen Daily concurs. She calls for focusing on the right places in the landscape. HML’s position, for instance, allows it to slow down and cycle the increased runoff from logging operations.

5.Finally, lest you think this focus on landscapes is the domain solely of pundits like TEEB and Daily, consider what the Oregon DSL has to say. One phrase we often hear in the ECS world – we did in the TEEB quote - is “value of nature”. What does value mean? For DSL, it means the opportunity to provide an ecological function. Crucially, this opportunity is location-based.

6. Now, DSL oversees wetland and stream ECS markets in OR. The way these markets work is entrepreneurs restore ECS on sites like HML and sell the ecological benefit they create, as a credit commodity, to housing developers, DOTs, and others that are paving over wetlands and streams in different parts of the watershed. In fact, HML here is one such mitigation “bank” of restoration credits. There many different kinds of actors in the market. You’ve got state agencies like DSL with statutory obligations and ecological inclinations, but also NGO groups with conservation missions, and of course entrepreneurs looking to do banking for profit. This raises a key question: to what extent do market-makers account for context, or value? Or for them, is a service just a service, no matter where it’s provided? How do market actors decide where it is most ecologically valuable to do restoration?

7. What I want to show in the rest of the talk are three things:
1. Digital tools like Excel and GIS allow the OR market to account for context
2. However, these tools and the algorithms that underwrite them are not mirrors of nature. Rather, tools reflect the interests of market actors
3. In Oregon, state agencies and conservationists may have the upper hand in defining and accounting for ECS values.
I make these arguments by outlining three moments in which value is accounted for in OR’s markets. I end by putting out a couple of calls for future research.

8.I’ll tell you first about the assessment moment of ecosystem services valuation in Oregon’s wetland and stream markets. Entrepreneurs hire consultants to do a key part of the work of the market: assess restoration success. In assessment, consultants utilize Excel spreadsheet-based calculators of ecological process. One of these calculators is called the Oregon Rapid Wetlands Assessment Protocol, or ORWAP. There are ones for salmon habitat, water temperature, and other services, but they’re all conceptually very similar, so I’ll focus on ORWAP. Most of them were in fact written by the same person, under contract from DSL and US EPA. He’s been developing these assessments for about 30 years now, which is when he first made a split in assessing ecological process or function, and value.

9.Consultants score functions in ORWAP through a series of multiple choice questions about things like seasonal surface water extent.

10. Consultants also do work in the office, employing several online mapping tools for an assessment of value. Here’s one called Oregon Explorer. Hydric soils are the orange/yellow, but we also see the 100 year floodplain downstream of the site. OR Explorer knows, too, about rare species on the site. It’s bringing a lot of data from beyond the boundaries of the site together, and showing it to the user in one frame. The user can thus answer questions in ORWAP 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.

11. What offsite stressors, and risks consultants find in their assessment, regulators can consider in approving or denying a banker’s plan. For instance, regulators often focus on reed canary grass, an invasive species that can spread rapidly on a restoration site from without and foil the project. They question whether a site and its landscape surroundings will, in the end, prove valuable if there is too much RCG around. Theoretically environmental agencies can in this moment deny a banker’s proposal to work on a certain piece of ground that is particularly susceptible to weeds. In reality, however, they are more likely to just modify the banker’s site selection, perhaps by asking them to put more money into a long-term management.

12. Finally, there is a market moment to value’s measure. What conservationists want to see happen in the market is that when a banker brings a site to the market, to get their credits to sell, the amount they get depends in large part on the location of their project. They would get the full amount if they were in what’s called a priority area and less if they were not.

13. These areas are an aggregation of habitat sites mapped by state environmental agencies, and put together by TNC. To be clear: this isn’t how the market currently works, but regulators do use GIS to look at whether bankers are siting in priority areas, and conservationists are pushing for this trading ratio protocol to be adopted.

14. The problem is that if a banker had to do work in a priority area lest they not get as many credits as expected, that could be at least a short-term constraint to the market, especially if land prices in priority areas were higher. In general, through all these moments, how state agencies, with help from conservationists, want to assess value via site selection, will constrain entrepreneurs. At the same time, agencies and conservationists are not now fully determining site selection. Rather, the maps they make give them something to point to and say, bankers should go here rather than there. Or, in other cases, spreadsheets like ORWAP in tandem with maps let them say, look there’s a quarry upstream, don’t go there.

15. The state and conservationists will want these gestures to be assertive. What underwrites their ability to point to a map in the first place? In large part, code. I want to turn quickly to work in information technology studies as a way of understanding valuation in OR. Recently, geographers Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge wrote a book called Code/Space in which they argued that spaces are increasingly constituted by computer code. An airport terminal is only the kind of space it is if the 0s and 1s that run the check-in stations work; when they crash, the space turns from a hub of international commerce into a den of frustration. In the same way, a restoration site or classes of ecosystems cannot be priority spaces if the software that codes them that way does not work the way it is supposed to. In OR, the ability of ArcGIS to display and combine layers is crucial because layers allow for combining different ecological interests into priorities. Code underwrites how web mapping utilities aggregate different data and draw circles around it as well, allowing foroffsite visualization and valorization. And ORWAP can’t generate a value score without Excel’s ability to run calculations across so many different variables. The state/conservationists’ position is code-dependent.

16.So to wrap-up: Yes, markets in ecosystem services restoration, at least in OR, do have a spatial calculus of value, as TEBB and Gretchen Daily hope for. State agencies and conservationists work to make the calculation their own, and deploy it to their own ends. But it remains unclear how successful they can be. Their ability to write the code and utilizing the tools with which they see value in space will be crucial to their future market-making work.

17. And valuation tools will be worthwhile pay attention in other markets as well, as decision-makers continue to call for the price valuation and marketization of ECS. So ECS researchers should continue looking at the work of spatially explicit valuation, but ask, as Norgaard did, for whom does ECS governance work for? Conservationists? Regulators? Bankers? … Landowners? PEists are indeed well equipped to talk about winners and losers. But this is also a call to PEists to keep looking at code. We’ve looked at spatial visualization technologies before, but need to continue, and to look at code not just in GIS but in Excel and other programs. We can do this in partnership with scholars of the geoweb.