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.

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