Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ecosystem services: some important stories from 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what did I miss?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

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

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

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

A CHAT map. From:

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

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

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

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