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?

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