Thursday, November 15, 2012

Publication Alert

Fresh off the presses from Progress in Human Geography, a paper I wrote with Jessica Dempsey of the University of Victoria entitled Ecosystem Services: Tensions, Impurities, and Points of Engagement within Neoliberalism.

The nutshell is that ecosystem services, both as economic theory and as policy, has plenty of very interesting internal fault lines and inconsistencies that make it a flexible and adaptive concept whose destination is unknown.  It hardly resembles the cartoon, straightjacketed by market logic, that is often straw-manned by both critics and advocates of market-based policy.

Ok, it's not 50 Shades of Grey, but we do what we can.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Wetlands Carbon: A new methodology

Heads up: American Carbon Registry came out in October with a methodology for defining carbon credits in wetland restoration sites along the Gulf coast.  As they note, deductions for methane will be important and perhaps significant -- it will be very interesting to see how many credits this methodology defines, and whether the market believes in it.

Edit: And a new one here for coastal wetland restoration under the Voluntary Carbon Standard.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Can we get a U MAD BRO?

My friend Becca Madsen at Madsen Environmental has done great work in advancing the merger of the rather nerdy if not actually straightlaced world of ecosystem services policy with the meme-driven communicative style of the modern internet.

I am of course in favor of this (as should be clear from my earlier posts), because something, ANYthing, is good if it helps us break through the wall that separates normal, everyday speech from policy talk.  And if it's not said with kittens or bad grammar -- does it really count as speech anymore?
Kids these days.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Ten Habits of Highly Effective Federal CWA Regulators

I recently had an experience that reminded me of what a distinct and awesome group of people environmental regulators are, and how hard their job is in coordinating between science, stakeholders and blackletter law.  They do have their share of quirks, which I came to admire (and adopt) over my time at EPA.  I scrawled this list some time ago -- it doesn't really refer to any particular people, but some of you may see yourselves reflected... I certainly do.

10. All flora and fauna present at an impact or compensation site are "critters".

9. No matter how much the Corps/EPA/NMFS/USDA/FWS pisses you off, when push comes to shove they are "our sister agency".

8. Every Corps district staffer has the innate right to complain about how long it took to train in the last District Commander.

7. Every EPA regional staffer has the innate right to complain about the lawyers and politicos up at Headquarters.

6. HQ staff get tiny little crushes on field staff who write extremely well-researched comment letters.

5. Corps and EPA would feel secretly neglected if USDA and FHWA stopped trying to tell them how to administer the permit program.

4. Sure, they'd LOVE to handle that HQ data-call/process-mapping initiative/state assumption proposal.  Not.

3. What we say: "Your agency needs better monitoring and reporting protocols on your conservation grant projects."
What we mean: "I'm just jealous at the size of your grants budget."  

2. Everyone has a story about the time they did wetland delineations [in 2 feet of snow/in the century's worst drought/while being attacked by a doberman] and what they have found in wetlands [a '57 Plymouth/4,000 golf balls/Jimmy Hoffa].

1. A Corps PM, an EPA staff scientist, and an NRCS project officer walk into a bar, and the bartender pours each of them a shot of 30 year-old scotch.  The Corps PM says "that looks isolated and non-jurisdictional", and drains it.  The NRCS staffer says "this was converted from grain prior to December 23, 1985", and drains it.  The EPA staffer
         a) says "We need additional monitoring data -- pour me three more."
         b) says "I have to assess the physical, chemical and biotic integrity of this resource," and -- takes it back to the lab for analysis.
         c) slaps a (c) veto on the bottle and makes off with it.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Home News: On Wisconsin!

I've had a wonderful time as a faculty member at the University of Kentucky, and it is truly a stellar Department of Geography, with colleagues that can't be beat.  But it's time to for me to return to my Midwestern roots -- I've accepted an Assistant Professor position at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and we will be relocating in December.

First, let me pause to remember a giant of physical geography and a father of fluvial geomorphology -- Wisconsin professor Jim Knox passed on October 6th, just after retiring last spring.  A dedicated scholar, a winner of almost every major award in our discipline, and one of the truly great mentorly characters ever to wander Science Hall and the hills of southwestern Wisconsin.  It was once said to me that he spent his life trying to understand the river that flowed through his boyhood backyard -- that seems like the best way to spend one's life as a scholar.

Second, let me in the spirit of promoting my new department, boast about the UW-Madison Geography student who (along with two others) won the 2012 NACIS Student Dynamic Map Competition for creating an interactive map -- The Wetlands Gem Viewer -- "developed in partnership with the Wisconsin Wetlands Association with the goal of providing an online and engaging spatial catalog of information about critical wetlands areas in the Milwaukee metropolitan area."

Video tutorial and live demo of the award-winning interactive map.  Keep an eye on those Cheeseheads -- they'll map the wetlands from right under your feet.  

Edit: See the memoriam page here, and note the clickable donation to the James Knox Geography Community Building Fund.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Jared Diamond and Ecosystem Services

Consider this a one-entry liveblog of the EcoSummit Conference in Columbus, Ohio.  It’s an Elsevier joint that brings together an international community of scholars and researchers on ecosystem service policy development and assessment. I just heard Jared Diamond’s plenary address. 

So right up front I should say that Diamond is a complicated figure for geographers like me.  Guns, Germs and Steel was widely criticized in my discipline, which is also Diamond’s adopted discipline.  It was seen as an intolerable throwback to the bad old days of environmental determinism, in which geographers tended to say that climate and resources determined the fate of civilizations in every detail.  In the case of Ellen Semple and Ellsworth Huntington in the 1920s, they would say that desert climates led inexorably to autocratic politics.   In Diamond’s case, he claims the size, resource base and isolation of a island (for example) determined whether or not the society would suffer ecological collapse, either under its own weight or because of their inability to resist invaders and their weapons.   There continue to be excellent reasons to guard against pointing to nature to explain what are in fact social phenomena, from race to intelligence to gender to  “overpopulation”.  Eternal vigilance, however, does not need a hair trigger.

Diamond’s argument was not (and is not) atypical of the way that ecologists treat complicated social phenomena: black-box them and look for external drivers of change.   In this, the only unique sin he committed was to write a Pulitzer Prize winning book of extraordinary exposure.  Fifteen years later, it’s fair to say that geographers probably overreacted to the implicit determinism in Diamond’s work – it was simply a high-profile version of what one finds every day in environmental writing.  That doesn’t make it less wrong as social science, just less remarkable.  And does anyone doubt that Diamond has his facts right? 

Moreover, I’m not convinced that his critics had it right.  Talking about the strong influence of physical environments is different than determinism, and claiming that Diamond is "an environmental determinist" is about as useful as calling someone a Nazi or a fascist.  It's a weak and overplayed argument, and leaves him the option (which he took in his next book, Collapse) of saying that these societies chose their fate – that human rationality was at the heart of the problem, rather than being irrelevant.

And this is, to me, far more troubling.  Diamond’s invocation of individual responsibility is  precisely equivalent to “responsibilization” in modern social policy.  Poor?  Your choice.  Unemployed?  Your fault.   Successful?  You built that.  The disbelief in any collective social forces such as “class” or “the economy” or “society” is pervasive, and in describing (in his subtitle, in fact) “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”, Diamond adds his voice to those who treat societies as if they are a rational actor and points the finger at them for their own fall.  It shares all the faults of the “rational actor” model of human agency so common in economics: it assumes perfect knowledge, it assumes utility-maximization, and it has no place for the exogenous collective social forces -- colonialism, capitalism, socialism, whatever -- that so obviously exist in the world.  To me, this is a far worse and more insidious maneuver than trying to resurrect environmental determinism, which I don’t think Diamond was trying to do in any event.

So, to his talk.  In discussing Easter Islanders and the collapse of the island’s ecosystems, Diamond went out of his way to say that “people are all the same” and that we all essentially want the same things out of life.  We behave identically toward resources whether we are Easter Islanders or Chinese or Spanish – we use them for food, shelter, worship and recreation.  “The islanders needed to chop down trees for the same reasons that everyone chops down trees. … Easter Islanders were normal people who had the misfortune to be living on the least ecologically-productive of all Pacific Islands”.

[Diamond stresses this to arm himself against the racism of much environmental determinism. In fact, in the context of its time, environmental determinism was a sort of bulwark against the prevailing genetic racism of the time – determinists said that climate, not genetics, determined one’s intelligence and civilization, so that an African raised in London’s climate could be seen to achieve “European” cultural levels.]

I never cease to be amazed at the capacity for affluent westerners to think that all people basically think and act like them.  Yes, that was a cheap shot, and I include myself in that criticism, but in saying “we’re all the same”, Diamond is saying that, at base, we’re all essentially economic actors who are motivated by the same material concerns.  This is the familiar figure of both economics and ecological anthropology – Milton Friedman and Roy Rappaport alike.  And it bears no resemblance to any real people in the world. 

And Diamond knows it – his next example after Easter Island was that some Vikings colonized Iceland and made good choices that led to sustainability, and other Vikings colonized Greenland and made bad choices that led to famine.  And more importantly, the entire premise of the Ecosystem Services approach is that people can be convinced to act on their relation to the natural world in a different way.  If there are dumb Vikings and smart Vikings – if social collectives can achieve material needs in variable ways – then the Ecosystem Services approach has hope and our relationship to resources is fundamentally social.  If everyone is essentially acting on their material needs, with the only difference being the physical setting, then no amount of ingenuity can help us, and the difference between a dumb Viking and a smart Viking is climate or biogeography.

In short, if collective efforts to change the social context for resource use are irrelevant, what the hell are we all doing in Columbus?  If they are relevant, then Diamond and everyone else needs to have a long hard think before they use the words "resource base" ever again.

Diamond typically has it both ways in his writing and speaking.  But he’s very far from being alone on this, so I see no real point in singling him out for ritual flogging.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Messaging Ecosystem Services

A report just out from Resource Media on public communications strategies and "messaging" for ecosystem service policies leans heavily on the fascinating 2010 national opinion survey on "ecosystem services". They're straight up among the most interesting things I've read all year.  Anyone with any stake in ecosystem services should read them.

Because they're kind of, well, damning.

The punchlines are as follows: people HATE the terms "ecosystem services" and "natural capital"; the very concept that nature "serves" us is unappealing; abstract cases for markets are off-putting, and; while Americans across the political spectrum are deeply and strongly committed to valuing nature, dollars are the least preferred way of doing so. 

And the money stat is this:  out of 16 terms used to describe the benefits of nature, "ecosystem services" ranked 13th, and "natural capital" ranked 15th.


Ok, "hate" is too strong a word, but you get the feeling that the pollsters found themselves asking the equivalent of "How do you feel about ice cream?  kittens?  the laughter of children?"  In describing their findings they kept using phrases like "across the board," "overwhelmingly," and  "strong intuitive belief".  Yes, in bold.  There was nothing subtle or equivocal about what they found: these terms that are now so widespread as to have become a master concept in economics and conservation are deeply unpopular with actual people.  Folks, we are in a bubble.

Is this really surprising?  Objectively, if you want to build a broad-based and popular policy movement involving communicating complexity to the lay public, the language of financial capital is probably not your go-to leitmotif.  That would be true even if we weren't amid a devastating national economic crisis widely known to be caused by the financialization of objects whose very existence is unclear and nonintuitive.

And it's not the case that people outside the bubble are simply waiting to be educated about "nature's value" (the term they ranked #1).  Both documents argue that attempting to educate people about the usefulness of the economic frame is badly misguided and likely to be resisted.  Rather, people are already deeply committed to valuing nature without necessarily pricing it, and simply want to know how pricing might work in actual situations that they care about.

Now, to a certain flavor of environmental economist, this is a nonsensical statement.  Value is unobservable; price is, by axiom, the best proxy of value, and is best found in a clearing market.  To talk about valuing benefits but resist pricing them is to resist the entire raison d'etre of environmental economics (but not ecological economics, necessarily): the internalizing of unpriced externalities.  It is, at least, an error to be corrected.  This flavor of economist commands so much academic and policy bandwidth that both proponents and opponents forget what a bizarre and somewhat pointy-headed view this is to most people. But much to their credit, both sets of authors go out of their way to shut down the instinct in readers which might say "Well, people just need to be better-educated on the issue!"

And as you dig into them, the hits keep coming:
  • Resource Media just brings the HURT:
    "The language surrounding ecosystem services is a jargon-rich, dense amalgam of scientific, financial, regulatory and conservation parlance. Those working to advance ecosystem services projects struggle to articulate what they're trying to do, and why their approach is more effective and efficient."
    Boy howdy and amen.  I used to have a professor who pronounced the word jargon as "JAR-GON" -- as if it were some villain from Superman's home planet.  And that's how I prefer to think of it -- something to be banished to the Phantom Zone along with General Zod.
  • As both reports say: "Few voters spend time visiting ecosystems," and "Very few Americans think of themselves as living in an ecosystem".  We live in and visit cities, forests, beaches, mountains.  The word "ecosystems" itself is alienating, as is "services". They essentially accuse ES advocates of spending enormous effort to change people's frame of reference to their world, when in fact we can accomplish the same goal using other frames ("public health", "nature's benefits").  Yowch.
  • There is no holier chapter in the good book of ES than the story of New York City's watershed management strategy.  It is a cherished story: city conserves watershed land to secure clean water rather than spending a zillion dollars on traditional water plant.  Triple bottom line, check check check.  But this story goes over with non-New-Yorkers like a lead balloon -- it was "one of the less persuasive messages tested".  And that sound you hear is hearts breaking at EcosystemMarketplace.  The lesson?  Local, local, local.  ES may aspire to be a global managerial master concept, but inspirational stories of far-off lands don't feed the bulldog.
  • And in line with this, shocking evidence of America's descent into abject socialism: a conservation action's benefits to the community and nearby residents were ranked twice as important as the specific value of an action to a landowner.  People conceive of ecosystem services as inherently socialized.
Resource Media pushes a notion that seems right to me: there is not a strong constituency out there at the moment that is inherently suspicious of green infrastructure or ecosystem service policies -- but that may change, and so the time to develop an effective communication strategy is now.  In that sense I'm reminded of environmentalism circa 1970, or wetland policy circa 1988: it was possible for Nixon and his potential Democratic rivals (McGovern, Muskie, Nelson, etc.) to all jockey for the environmentalist vote and support environmentalism because nobody told them that it was a "Democratic" position.  Because it wasn't yet.  Likewise, George HW Bush could push for "no net loss" in 1988 because the partisan calculus of wetland advocacy hadn't really been settled in the way it clearly was by 1994.  Ditto cap-and-trade.  The point is that, well, history keeps moving, and the case for ecosystem services won't always be the custody of the kind of green capitalist, global policymaker, and academic TED-watching elites who tend to drive it today -- at some point it may become a political football, and we should make hay before that day arrives.

Resource Media is also trying to tell ES advocates something important: Stop trying to roll up three very separate kinds of projects into one term.  "Ecosystem services" is found in three distinct contexts:
  • "Making the case": abstract pitches about the need to attach dollar-values to specific services, and the efficiency of markets in achieving conservation goals
  • "Incentivizing good land management": specific proposals for markets or PES directed at land-managers.
  • "Conservation alternatives": avoiding a techno-fix by using natural design or environmental restoration.
They find that 90% of what's out there in writing is Making the Case, which is a huge problem, because 90% of what actual people care about are "incentives" and "alternatives".   Take a look at the opening lines of EPA's just-released four-pager on ES and watershed protection:
"Healthy, intact watersheds provide many ecosystem services that are necessary for our social and economic well-being.  These services include water filtration and storage, air filtration, carbon storage, nutrient cycling, soil formation, recreation, food and timber.  Many of these services have not been monetized and therefore the economic contributions of healthy intact ecosystems are difficult to replace and most often very difficult to engineer."
In one inch of copy, they require the reader to a) commit to monetary valuation of b) "ecosystem services" (only defined later), which are c) elided with the outcome of "healthy intact ecosystems".  Classic "making the case" talk.  Abstract as hell.  Calling for a paradigm shift before the reader has even sat down is a Bad Rhetorical Strategy.

The take-home message can be summarized thusly:

We usually start with the commandment: Thou Shalt Recognize Ecosystem Services.  Which is essentially saying "once you all start seeing nature as I see it, we can get somewhere."*  Not useful.  Why not start by figuring out what outcomes you all want, and maybe leaving the epistemological battles for later?  Part of the answer, of course, is that for a small minority the point is precisely  to promote "market thinking" rather than to achieve specific conservation outcomes.

These two reports are good medicine against that minority, and the vox pop nature of their testimony makes it all the stronger -- and more devastating to those deeply committed to metaphors  like "natural capital".  The authors are interested in how to move people and how to move projects, not in making cases in an echo chamber, which -- they both find gentle ways of saying -- is something academics and economists are very good at.  While I'm no stranger to making abstract cases in an echo chamber, I'm also a big fan of the notion that the uses of the ecosystem services concept are many, unforeseen, and not to be dictated.

The 2010 poll, btw, was commissioned by The Nature Conservancy and done by a group (FM3) which appears to do all kinds of polling; for this poll they phoned 802 registered voters and conducted focus groups involving people from across the political spectrum.

*a more precisely insulting version of this statement is "once you start consciously seeing nature as I know you already unconsciously do -- we can get somewhere". 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Wetland Carbon Watch

Two reports brought to me courtesy of the Society for Ecological Restoration's RESTORE newsletter:
  • The re-wetting of peat bogs in Ireland that had been used for the industrial production of peat fuel is being examined for its carbon sequestration value.  Up to 30,000 acres could be re-wetted over the next 20 years, but the characterization of carbon fluxes has yet to be done.
  • Ohio State's Bill Mitch is reporting that wetland swales in Ohio sequester carbon at a mass of 140g per square meter.  
    “I can’t prove that with the 140 grams of carbon per year that my wetlands area sucking up the average temperature in the world is therefore going to be .001 degrees Celsius colder,” Mitsch told Ohio Sea Grant Communications. “But for the wetlands of the world, we have some calculations that suggest that carbon sequestration in wetlands on a global scale could be on the order of more than 10 percent of the carbon coming out of the smokestacks. 
    This news is, as always, double-edged: wetlands are a potential source of carbon when drained, as well as being a potential sink when restored.  As stable long-term sinks they leave something to be desired.  And do wetlands become sinks in the spring and sources when they dry out in the fall?  Annual fluxes are regionally-specific, poorly characterized, and almost certainly lack stationarity.  

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Functions, Services and Values

I found myself asking a familiar question in an interview the other day: "How would you describe the differences between ecosystem functions, services, and values?"  I find this to be kind of a Rorschach Test in some cases, but more frequently the answers tell me only that there's a lot of confusion out there about how these terms differ.  These words sit in regulation and guidance appearing to be terms of art, but in practice they are applied liberally and fairly indiscriminately to situations in which there is something about the environment that we want to conserve.

I use the three together because they appear in a cluster so often, huddling together as if to generate strength in numbers.  I mean, let's be serious: while there may be instances where they are formally defined (the Proposed Compensation Rule in 2006 defined all three), in common parlance you'd be hard-pressed to find a loosier or goosier set of terms.  They gesture toward something we want to conserve, and help us to avoid the hard question of exactly what the substance of nature is that we desire to act upon.  Look at any piece of environmental reg or legislation in the past 40 years, and you'll find that it's lousy with these terms: in the 1980 404(b)(1) guidelines "Functions" appears 83 times, "Services" appears 11 times (always paired with "functions and"), and "Values" appears 29 times (very often paired with "characteristics and").

My interviewer turned the question back on me, and I did the best I could.  Here's my version.

VALUE:  Although this is one of the least clear and most hotly debated terms in all of western philosophy going back 2500 years, I actually find this to be technically the easiest of the three.  Value is simply that quality of an object that permits measurability and therefore comparability.  We've been confused mainly because you can measure things (and therefore value things) in thousands of ways... we see the thousand ways but not the single character they all share: measurability.  Price is a value, weight is a value, dissolved oxygen concentration is a value.  Valuation is the use of a common measure to bring things into a frame of comparability.  It is the genius of modern resource economics to have convinced everyone that price is a more fundamental value than others, and in the current social context there is some truth to the argument, but in truth there is no absolute measure of value.  There is only the truth that two things may be compared, relative to each other or to a standard -- perhaps not objectively or numerically, but show me an object for which this is not true and I will show you something without value.

We sometimes experience a poignant dissonance when we attempt to compare things that have not been expressed in the same measure.  It is often said that the value of a mountain or stream cannot be expressed in dollars -- that it is invaluable in some sense. This is certainly false -- what we have is a social disagreement on the measure of value to be used.  When we say something is invaluable, what we really mean is that we disagree with the frame of measurement that is being imposed on an object.  I would object to measuring my relationship to a friend in dollars, but I could agree to measure it in hours spent talking or in pickup basketball games played or in the qualitative strength of emotional connection.  All measures are imperfect, but that shouldn't distract us from the commonality of the maneuver of measurement.

Debates among Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Samuel Bailey in the early 1800s more or less laid the foundation for this understanding of the term, aided by commentary on these debates by Karl Marx about 40 years later.

FUNCTIONS and SERVICES:  I tend to accept the argument that functions are physical processes, while services are the economic entities that are the outcomes of functions.  Here we have a kind of territorial division between ecology and economics, with ecologists generally given deference on specifying functions, while services (being an economic term after all) are the realm of economists.  But the policy realm of ecosystem services has thrown this all into a jumble.  You find people talking about ecological functions AS services (e.g. pollination or carbon sequestration), with the result that the formerly-ecological territory is annexed to economics.  This is the heart of the conceptual muddle.  The more strictly-minded resource economists out there (Jim Boyd of RFF, for example) insist that a service can only be a final product -- pollination may be a function, but mature fruits are the service.  This kind of distinction has a clear logical appeal, and is backed by a solid tradition in economics, but you don't see it respected in a lot of the ES world.

It's not only that economics crosses the epistemic boundary by characterizing functions as commodities.  Ecologists also forget that a "service" is an inherently economic concept, and that if we're using the term service we have to live with the value regime of economics.  That means that although biodiversity may have manifold ecological and biophysical measures, as service biodiversity is measured (valued) in price.

So in principle I don't think these are hard terms.  But muddle arises in three ways:
1) Value is confused with acts of measurement: measurability is not measure, and just because something is measurable does not tell us what measure to use;
2) Functions are represented as commodities: this is equivalent to selling the actions involved transmission assembly instead of a car; and,
3) Services are represented as biophysical objects instead of commodities:  just as Thoreau once said that "art is all of a boat but the wood", the service is only one measure of an object, and a fairly abstract one at that.

But as usual there's a lot of hay to be made by maintaining ambiguity about these terms -- that at least will not go away, no matter how many declarations are made about their final and true meaning.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The First Wetland Bank

History lesson!  Settle back, kids.

Wetland banking did not, contrary to some current narratives, emerge out of the ferment of enthusiasm for markets in the 1980s, as some kind of think-tank product pushed by headquarters ideologues.  It had a very practical beginning, and cleaning my office yesterday I came across one of the founding documents of the field, so I thought I'd post it up here.  The instrument for the very first wetland bank to bear the name.  It's a great read, representing some outstanding work by the pioneers of the field -- and this copy (which was being discarded while I was at EPA) appears to have belonged to David Soileau himself, the FWS field biologist who was the primary author.  And ya gotta like the old skule pen sketch on the cover, right?  It has the aesthetic of a very earnest high school newspaper cartoon.

Following the 1979 oil shock there was a surge of interest from Texas oil firms in reopening the Louisiana oilfields.  They plowed into the bayou, buying up old operations and digging new channels for laying pipelines.  But they came up against something that no powerful resource industry had yet encountered: the permitting requirements of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, established in 1972 and newly clarified in the 1977 amendments.

The New Orleans Corps District wasn't about to start denying permits to oil companies, and was inclined to call project-by-project compensation "impracticable" in a landscape composed almost entirely of wetlands.  So the Lafayette Office of the Fish and Wildlife Service got creative and from 1981-83 worked with one of the oil companies (Tenneco) to create a large amount of advanced compensation in anticipation of their impacts.  This made compensation "practicable" in the eyes of the Corps, and it was called a wetland bank -- the term had been used over the past decade (the earliest reference I can find is in a conference paper by LaRoe in 1974, in which he's essentially spitballing the idea), but they didn't really exist in the form we know them today.

The report is a really interesting read for those of us who've followed the industry.  First of all, even though the credits at the LaTerre bank were intended for Tenneco's own use, the instrument explicitly contemplates entrepreneurial banking, and in fact envisions an entire future sector:
The interagency group concluded that the selling or trading of credits by a mitigation banker would be a reasonable extension of the mitigation banking concept. ... Major land holding companies having mitigation credits in one region or State could trade with other companies having credits in other regions or States to facilitate permit issuance for activities of a company within an area where that company may not have an available supply of its 'own' credits. (p.16-17)
The authors took a cue on this from a federal/state conference on wetland policy in Baton Rouge in June of 1983, but this was the first instance of using the idea in practice.  The first credit sale to an outside party didn't occur until 1986, and we'd have to wait until 1994 to see the first sale of a credit at a wetland bank established entirely as an entrepreneurial venture.

Secondly, their crediting methodology is insanely complicated by today's standards.  It attempts to account for so many issues of ecological and geomorphic complexity that trying to use it truly makes your head spin. (See my thoughts on this trend here).  For example, since the entire wetland landscape of southern Louisiana was subsiding, the instrument defines the credits the Tenneco LaTerre bank in terms of the years of deferred subsidence.   FWS assumed, using a coastal marsh loss rate of 6.6%/year, that the LaTerre site would be open water in 77 years, and that the that the physical modifications made in constructing the bank (largely a matter of erecting berms and controlling water flow) would delay subsidence -- and thus preserve wetland habitat.
...a net annualized increase of 3,306 acres of fresh and intermediate marsh, aquatic bed, and scrub/shrub is expected over the 77-year project life under the [Future-With-Management] condition; this net increase represents a reduction in the average annual decline of fresh and intermediate marsh acreage, compared to the [Future-Without-Management] condition. (p.11)
That is, in delaying subsidence by controlling wave action, in 2059 there will be 3,306 more acres of wetland than there would have been without the bank.  It's a kind of an astounding accounting for geomorphic instability, and it's the kind of temporal nuance that rarely if ever enters into crediting these days.  One consequence of this is that the bank can only be used to compensate for sites that would naturally be open water by 2059, meaning that the bank becomes naturally obsolete as time goes on.

What's more, there are no Acres or Ecosystem Services at Tenneco LaTerre... their credits were sold in Average Annualized Habitat Units (AAHUs) using the good ol' Habitat Evaluation Protocols (HEPs).  The HEPs were used to establish baseline habitat condition for Year 1, and the assumption was that by Year 77, the site would have degraded back to that condition after the lift provided by the management actions.  For each project year (1 through 77), Habitat Value (measured with HEP) is multiplied by Habitat Area (acres).  The average of all 77 values is the AAHU, and to make matters more complicated, Tenneco had AAHUs in three different habitat types (wildlife, freshwater fishery and estuarine fishery).  So, if you like, the first wetland bank sold stacked credits.

Debiting at an impact site was rather charmingly assumed to work the same way: wetland loss rates through subsidence would be applied to both the direct and indirect (!!) impacts of the activity and the acreage of open water produced by 2059.  These would also be translated into AAHUs by HEP analysis, and debited from the LaTerre bank.  This kind of apples-for-apples talk -- the need to conduct assessment of impact sites that is as rigorous as that at the bank site -- has been around since the beginning... only back in 1983, the difficulty of doing so (and doing so in a temporal dimension!) was simply seen to be the cost of doing business.

The entire document is responding to FWS 1981 Mitigation Regulations, which is where the mitigation sequence really comes from (ok, it comes from the 1978 CEQ regs for NEPA, but FWS was the first to make it clear that the steps in mitigation are sequential).  FWS had written these to govern its commenting role over Section 404 permits and other regulated impacts. Notice who's not at the table?  Their name begins with "Environmental" and ends with "Agency."  EPA is nowhere to be found in this whole document -- not even in the signature block!  (Neither is the Corps, shockingly, although they did allow LaTerre bank credits to serve as compensation -- of the feds, only FWS and NMFS signed).  Until the late 1980s, its safe to say that FWS was the driving force in mitigation banking, a fact largely forgotten now.  EPA was busy self-destructing at the time: they had only just written environmental criteria for 404 permits (in 1980) and then turned around and attempted to nullify them (in 1983) just as their Administrator was found in contempt of Congess.  They were in no position to worry about wetland compensation.

So yeah.  Wetland banking didn't pop out of the forehead of a market-happy Zeus -- third-party sales were "a reasonable extension of the concept", but not at its core.  It was the solution to a very conventional command-and-control problem of getting big, wealthy, powerful permittees to comply with the CWA, in a situation where the agency tasked with providing an accepted and reliable answer to the question of "what should wetland mitigation look like?" was unable to do so.   So FWS had to invent an answer that worked in that place and time.  Some amazingly creative work by the FWS, and some credit probably goes to Michael Zagata as well, the negotiator for Tenneco Oil.  Zagata popped up later in the 1990s in New York as Gov. George Pataki's Secretary for Natural Resources, where he proposed privatizing the state parks and was promptly shown the door.  Gotta be a story there, but that's for another time.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Obamacare and the Commerce Clause

Well, I was sort of right.  Who knew that Roberts would find his inner Kennedy and be the one to use the nexus taxing authority to fill a hole left by the Incredible Shrinking Commerce Clause?  And who knew that Kennedy would pull a Full Scalia?

Clear win for Obama aside, what's clear is that the Commerce Clause as a foundation for federal regulation is weaker today than it was yesterday.  And that matters for environmental law.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"Let's go read the Clean Air Act together, shall we?"

(Shorter DC Circuit on upholding EPA's carbon rules.)

It's always nice to see a undiluted decision upholding the procedural strengths of these wonders of environmental law -- built long ago by a now-lost people, we cannot even imagine how such things might be constructed now.

There is a line of heritage in these laws that forbids judicial balancing, saying that no human or social consideration can overcome the primacy of the environment, and the importance of preventing environmental damage.  That line is dying out -- it was written out of the Endangered Species Act, for example.  But it's nice to see it bolstered here: "Oh, you mean someone might go out of business because EPA is regulating carbon?  It might cause some complicated and expensive social adjustments?  Tough.  Danger means danger, no matter how inconvenient or expensive it is to recognize."
That EPA adjusted the statutory thresholds to accommodate regulation of greenhouse gases emitted by stationary sources may indicate that the CAA is a regulatory scheme less-than-perfectly tailored to dealing with greenhouse gases. But the Supreme Court has already held that EPA indeed wields the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the CAA. See Massachusetts v. EPA. The plain language of § 202(a)(1) of that Act does not leave room for EPA to consider as part of the endangerment inquiry the stationary-source regulation triggered by an endangerment finding, even if the degree of regulation triggered might at a later stage be characterized as “absurd.”
Note also that the court accepts the EPA's standard of "very likely" that GHGs are responsible for the deleterious effects of global warming.  They do not require "certainty":
But the existence of some uncertainty does not, without more, warrant invalidation of an endangerment finding. If a statute is “precautionary in nature” and “designed to protect the public health,” and the relevant evidence is “difficult to come by, uncertain, or conflicting because it is on the frontiers of scientific knowledge,” EPA need not provide “rigorous step-by-step proof of cause and effect” to support an endangerment finding. Ethyl Corp. v. EPA, 541 F.2d 1, 28 (D.C. Cir. 1976). As we have stated before, “Awaiting certainty will often allow for only reactive, not preventive, regulation.” Id. at 25. ... Requiring that EPA find “certain” endangerment of public health or welfare before regulating greenhouse gases would effectively prevent EPA from doing the job Congress gave it in § 202(a)—utilizing emission standards to prevent reasonably anticipated endangerment from maturing into concrete harm.
Reaffirming the precautionary principle in environmental regulation is a BFD.

It's also kind of fun to see the court engage in a point-by-point explanation of why the Climategate emails are completely irrelevant to the EPA's rulemaking:
Only two of the errors they point out seem to be errors at all, and EPA relied on neither in making the Endangerment Finding. First, as State Petitioners assert, the IPCC misstated the percentage of the Netherlands that is below sea level, a statistic that was used for background information. However, the IPCC corrected the error, and EPA concluded that the error was “minor and had no impact,” and the Endangerment Finding did not refer to the statistic in any way. Second, the IPCC acknowledged misstating the rate at which Himalayan glaciers are receding. EPA also did not rely on that projection in the Endangerment Finding.
On the other hand, I can understand why the anti-carbon folks were upset.  It's almost as if someone had passed legislation preventing us from having accurate information on sea-level changes!  Oh, wait.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Where's that Jursdictional Guidance?

The NY Times actually noticed that it's taking rather a long time. This one is probably hung up in Corps/EPA disagreements about the practicability of various potential measures for determining jurisdiction.

EPA, being the stewards of the definition of "Waters of the United States," has an enormous stake here -- and since the definition of WOTUS applies across the entire range of EPA water programs, not just the Section 404 program, EPA's sense of ownership is broader and deeper than the Corps', and changes in jurisdiction are more consequential for the agency's overall reach.  Corps Regulatory, by comparison, is one small office within an organization that is still miniscule -- both in personnel and in budget -- relative to the Department of Defense in which it sits.

On the other hand, on a practical day-to-day basis it is the Corps who goes out into the field every day and makes the 404 permit program work.  By the numbers they have probably 10 times the field staff committed to running 404 that EPA does, in 38 Districts (as opposed to EPA's 10 regional offices).  The daily grind of issuing permits and interfacing with the regulated community falls almost entirely on the Corps' shoulders.  Although EPA has the ability to comment on whether the Corps has correctly applied the environmental criteria for permit issuance at 40 CFR 230.10(a-d), they do not have staff time available to comment on all permits.  And at any rate the majority of permits are Nationwides, which other agencies do not comment on (except when the suite of NWP categories are approved every five years).

Last June's draft Jurisdictional Guidance gets high marks from me for trying hard to make the Kennedy concurrence make sense in the real world, but it does so by approaching the concept of "nexus" with a good deal of nuance and ecological sophistication.  This could all translate into a lot of hard work -- very hard work -- on the part of the people who delineate wetlands and review the delineation reports for the purposes of establishing jurisdiction.  My guess is that doing a full "Kennedy Waters" analysis for each delineation would require far, far more staff time than the Corps has.  It could result in less overall protection as staff time gets concentrated on a few projects at the expense of others that get less scrutiny than they deserve.

So, ever thus: the Corps is always trying to give its field staff space to do their jobs well without being overwhelmed by impracticable directives from on high, while EPA is always trying to keep the integrity of WOTUS from being further eroded.  Both worthy goals.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

How credit stacking REALLY works

These can't be considered LOL404s, strictly speaking, although the second might be a LOL402. Thanks for these, uh, submissions.  No corner of the world is immune from mockery by the unbeatable combination of cats and Arial Black.

[images by Eric Nost and Patrick Bigger]

Blue Carbon Standards: Carbon from Wetlands

Got an opinion on how to construct a crediting standard for carbon in wetlands?  Sure ya do.

"Blue carbon" is shorthand for carbon sequestered in water bodies (including wetlands: coastal marshes, hardwood swamps, mangrove forests, kettleholes, you name it) -- wetland restoration can therefore create carbon credits if a standard is agreed upon.  Verified Carbon Standard's draft protocol is open for comments until June 23, so get on over there and tell them what a blue carbon commodity should look like.  Jokes about "Blue Harvest" will probably be ignored.

And while you're at it, check out this video by Stanford's David Moreno Mateos on whether wetlands can be restored to sequester carbon.  He's asking for your help!

IBPES is now a thing

I've missed a few things during the past few months, so there is a light rain of newsy posts such as this: the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was established on April 21 by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).  It is equivalent to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and can be found here.

Expect this to be a major global coordinating forum for biodiversity banking, REDD, PES, and all kinds of other ecosystem service development and conservation policy initiatives, churning out assessments and protocols and reports.

Monday, June 4, 2012

ES blogosphere update

If you're interested in environmental markets, you should probably be reading Robert Stavins' blog.  (h/t Patrick Bigger). But then also go read Fabien Quetier's blog on ecosystem services.

If it's Florida and it's wetlands, there will be drama.

Nation's best wetlands journalist (Craig Pittman), still on the beat in Florida.  The state wetlands regulatory lead is suspended for failing to issue a permit for a wetland bank. This is a real shame -- Connie Bersok is a great wetlands advocate.  But after 150 years of Florida making money off of selling wet land that was promised to be dry, isn't it rich to see someone trying to make money off of selling dry land that is promised to be wet?

Check out Craig's excellent book on Florida wetland history and policy here.

UPDATE:  A Florida reader sent in the following links to news articles on the bank, and notes that Connie Bersok has been reinstated.  
 Public documents related to the Highlands Ranch bank draft proposal can be accessed here.

As someone who's been a mitigation regulator, I have to say that almost without exception, wetland bankers want strong and competent regulators at the helm, regulators who can police the industry and crack down on bad actors (while being held to rigorous action timelines themselves).  Without that, faith in their product deteriorates, and their production process becomes unpredictable -- both fatal to any going concern.  Bankers are much more aware of this than most private industries.  Donnybrooks like this help no one but bad-faith permittees.

Also, as long as we're in Florida, I might as well flog Michael Grunwald's book for understanding the deep background.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Limiting Principles, Health Care, Wetlands and the search for a Nexus.

Listening to the analysis of the ACA -- okay, "Obamacare" -- verbal arguments yesterday, I began to get very strong feelings of deja vu.  In this case, it appears that Justice Kennedy is pressing General Verrilli, searching for a "limiting principle" that would allow the government its traditional latitude concerning commerce regulation while preventing a situation in which the government can simply transform any issue into one of commerce by requiring that it be solved through a commercial transaction.  Where is that bright line?

Anyone else thinking of the most traumatic elements of both SWANCC and Rapanos?

The SWANCC connection is obvious.  For those who don't follow wetlands law, SWANCC v. US Army Corps of Engineers (531 US 159) was the 2001 case in which the Supremes struck down the Corps' 1985  "migratory bird rule" which declared that since migratory birds are elements of interstate commerce (people spend millions of dollars to cross state lines and birdwatch), any wetland visited by a migratory bird is subject to federal regulation under the dormant commerce clause.  First, let's revisit Article I, section 8 of the Constitution:
[The Congress shall have Power] To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes;
This was the only way that the Corps could require permits for impacts to waters that were fully isolated from navigable streams.  Most glaciated landscapes are full of such wet depressional areas, and they constitute the most valuable duck-breeding areas in the US.  But the rationale was always a stretch because it completely ignored navigability, which is near the foundation of the CWA's concept of "waters of the US".  It was a landmark case, and served as warning (mostly unheeded, to listen to General Verrilli yesterday) that there are limits to the dormant commerce clause: though it may be very sleepy, it must not be out cold.  The NPR commentary yesterday made it sound like limits to the commerce clause have been unheralded since the 1930s, but in fact judicial skepticism on this front was foreshadowed in the same Chicagoland glacial landscape that 8 years later produced SWANCC.  In his 1993 concurrence in Hoffman Homes, Inc. v. EPA (263 F.2d 999), Judge Manion wrote:
The commerce power as construed by the courts is indeed expansive, but not so expansive as to authorize regulation of puddles merely because a bird traveling interstate might decide to stop for a drink.
Rehnquist's opinion in SWANCC produced some really fun language and the opinion is worth reading in its entirety.  The later Rehnquist court was already notoriously intolerant of expansive readings of Commerce Clause authority, and he took this opportunity to spank the Feds, hard:
… there is nothing approaching a clear statement from Congress that it intended [Clean Water Act] §404(a) to reach an abandoned sand and gravel pit such as the one at issue. Permitting respondents to claim federal jurisdiction over ponds and mudflats falling within the Migratory Bird Rule would also result in a significant impingement of the States’ traditional and primary power over land and water use.
…neither this, nor anything else in the legislative history to which respondents point, signifies that Congress intended to exert anything more than its commerce power over navigation.
So it should be no surprise that the Court should be contemplating limits on Commerce Clause power.  But the real similarity between yesterday's argument and wetlands jurisprudence lies in Kennedy's search for a "limiting principle."   Or, "nexus", as we in the wetlands world know it.  Where is the bright line that separates areas relevant to navigability from those that are not?  Those that are, said Kennedy, have a nexus to navigability.  In 2006 Kennedy's concurring opinion in the Rapanos v. US (547 US 715) turned the world of wetlands jurisdiction upside-down by affirming, in his frustrating manner of intellectual purism, that regulators must articulate a definable "nexus" between a navigable water and the site of a proposed project for a permit to be required.  In so many ways, the Obamacare case looks like it's coming down as another Rapanos decision -- with the conservatives writing a conservative opinion, the liberals writing a liberal one, and Kennedy finding a way of drawing a bright line which ends up being the controlling opinion among a 4-1-4 mess of pluralities.  Rapanos produced no fewer than FIVE separate opinions, and Kennedy's ended up being the one that split the baby in just the right way.  Kennedy's solo concurrence ended up gathering more support than the plurality Scalia opinion because Stevens, in dissent, said some nice things about Kennedy's rationale.  Basically Kennedy and the conservatives formed a majority to overturn, but Kennedy and the liberals formed a majority finding that the nexus with navigability should be very broadly interpreted  So it was a big mess.  I was driving around suburban Boston the day it was released, frantically calling EPA HQ trying to figure out if we'd won or lost -- a week later, we still weren't sure.

The recent release of draft jurisdictional guidance by the EPA and Corps instructs field staff as to how to find the "nexus" between navigability and a site in question: it can be through a hydrologic connection, or it could be through a LACK of hydrologic connection if that barrier is what renders the wetland of service to navigability.  This kind of abstract thinking is the mark of Kennedy, and although it must infuriate both liberals and conservatives on the court, it certainly put the scientists to work in defining all the ways that ecological and hydrological features of wetlands could influence (create a "nexus" with) downstream navigability.  In many ways, Kennedy forced a question that everyone had been happy ignoring: what is the science of the natural phenomenon that create navigability?  Base your jurisdictional decision on that science, and all will be well.

But that's hard!  Yup.  Corps staff, once the new guidance is in place, will be forced to work much harder and document more fully the status of the proposed impact site.  Before 2001, all you had to do was look for a bird.  Such is life in the Kennedy Court.  His bright lines are sometimes ordained without regard to the kind of knowledge required to draw them in a practical sense.

So you heard it here first.  Everyone's expecting a simple Yes or No after yesterday's arguments.  But I expect Kennedy to author an opinion which agrees with the conservatives that the ACA overextends its reach, but then agrees with liberals in defining a nexus/limit that makes the command of health care markets allowable while disallowing other uses of federal commerce power.  All signs point to this being another situation in which Kennedy's search for underlying principles will hold the balance of power again.

And as a special and irresistable callback treat, here's the "nexus" between wetlands and broccoli, that vegetable much-maligned by George HW Bush in 1990, and now the hero of Scalia's arguments concerning Commerce Clause overreach: "Of Broccoli and Marshes" by Frank Graham in Audubon Magazine, July 1990.  Sorry, the images didn't photocopy well back in the day.

ps. Small ironies abound: Paul Clement, now arguing for the plaintiffs, was the Solicitor General who defended the government in Rapanos. Full disclosure: I wrote some of the science briefs that went to General Clement.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Wetland Policy Timeline

A bit of home news, along with announcing a new resource.  I've finally set up the Wetlands Policy Timeline on my academic website: this is something I've been compiling since my time at EPA, and eventually nearly all the entries will link to original documents (regulations, statutes, court opinions, etc.).  The idea is to document the development of wetland science, policy, culture, legislation, regulation, jurisprudence in American life from, essentially, the Swamp Lands Acts onwards.  It's profoundly unfinished at the moment, and only goes up through about 2001, but is particularly rich in the "golden age" of wetland policy from 1986-1991.  Keep an eye on it as links are attached over the next few months!

Ecosystem Services 1970s-style: The O.G.

Ecosystem services folks are a relentlessly forward-looking crowd -- the field typically spends very little time in navel-gazing or genealogy.  But since academics specialize in the latter activities, and somebody will eventually write the history of the approach, I wanted to remind everyone of one of the germinal papers: Walter Westman's 1977 article in Science entitled "How Much are Nature's Services Worth?"

Was this the first use of the term "services" in connection with the kinds of things we mean today when we say "ecosystem services"?  Probably not.  The term was an outgrowth of the ecological economics approach of the late 1960s, and a natural contrast with the typical resource-economics treatment of nature as a set of material "goods".  But it probably was the first programmatic research statement to make it into the highest echelons of academic publishing -- the first clarion call to sound, as it were -- using "services" in a way immediately recognizable in today's debate.

Here's what's cool about Westman's piece.  First, he immediately fingers the deepest issue underlying all attempts to define ecosystem services: the central role concepts of rationality and utility play in our politics and economics.
 "And yet, in the inexorable quest to rationalize the activities of the civilization, policy-makers in Western societies have increasingly asked the monetary value of items and qualities formerly regarded as priceless:..."
This is big-picture philosophizing of the kind that was part of the zeitgeist of the 1970s: noticing the water we're swimming in. It now sounds dated or unhip, or perhaps a bit wild-eyed, to talk about such things as "civilization" and "Western societies".  Too bad -- we're still swimming in that water.

But the payoff of such big thinking is that, second, he really does define an entire research program, asking questions which still have no answers, 35 years on:
"It is important at the outset to recognize some of the corollaries inherent in assuming the decisions that maximize benefit:cost ratios simultaneously optimize social equity and utility. (i) The human species has the exclusive right to use and manipulate nature for its own purposes. (ii) Monetary units are socially acceptable as means to equate the value of natural resources destroyed and those developed. (iii) The value of services lost during the interval before the replacement or substitution of the usurped resource has occurred is included in the cost of the damage resource. (iv) The amount of compensation in monetary units accurately reflects the full value of the loss to each loser in the transaction. (v) The value of the item to future generations has been judged and included in an accurate way in the total value. (vi) The benefits of development accrue to the same sectors of society, and in the same proportions, as the sectors on whom the costs are levied, or acceptable opposition has been transferred."
We have well and truly whistled past these questions, with the clear exceptions of (iii) and (v), which are accounting questions involving discounting and baselines. And it's not only that the rest remain to be answered, it's that even asking them is a problem.  Try this at the next ES conference: stand up after the keynote and ask "Does the human species have the exclusive right to use and manipulate nature for its own purpose?"


And perhaps that's as it should be -- hard to move forward with real policy when you insist on metaphysics.  But let's just note that most of these remain unresolved and ignored.  For the most part these are quite radical questions about distributional equity (vi), value theory (ii and iv) and the nature of moral action (i).  ES scholarship and policy has moved forward mainly by accepting the mainline economics-textbook answer to these potentially-paralyzing topics.  Value is utility proxied by money, distributional equity is assured by the two theorems of welfare economics, and morality is expressed in preference revealed by market actors.  These are all the answers that make the rest of the social sciences so exasperated with Economics, and reflect a profound uncuriosity about the nature of human thought and agency in the complicated social world of markets. 

His definition of services is aimed mainly at combating the notion of nature as a set of material goods, the vew so prevalent in most of economics at the time: "The functions of an ecosystem, on the other hand, are characterized by the ways in which the components of the system interact, they are the dynamics of ecosystems -- nature's free `services.'"

In fact, a good part of the article is taken up with this fight against the mainstream approach: inasmuch as "substitutability" (of natural resources with manufacture) was a fundamental tenet, it had to be defeated by environmental economics and ecological economics.  Part of this was defeating the "replacement cost" method of assessing the value of nature, which Westman targets at length.

But a more modern concern surfaces towards the end: stacking and bundling.  He is clear about the idea that "services" cannot easily be separated from each other, and that ignoring this integration of multiple services can lead to deceptively simple stories:
"It is well to remember that these calculations represent only partial costs of the loss of the pasture, since the plants will at the same time absorb other pollutants, bind the soil, maintain a certain radiation balance, and fulfill other functions."

"It is in part because of the interconnected nature of the complex systems of nature that valuation of individual services lost is so inevitably misleading."
Oh, and he was on top of the whole non-linearity of nature, something which still gives the best ecologists in the business headaches when economists ask them for response curves:
"Yet one is plagued here, as when assessing other isolated development projects, with the fact that there may be a nonlinear relationship between the destruction of a certain amount of habitat and the resulting perturbation of the climate."
In the end, what sets Westman above and apart is that he squarely faces the political nature of ES talk.
"Evaluating the contribution of ecosystem functioning to human welfare is a complex task. It is the task of weighing human social values and is the quintessential task of politics."
Today, it is common for markets or dollar-valuation to be invoked a way to avoid politics: if there is a difference between 1977 and 2012, it is that describing nature as a commodity or valuing it in dollars are now generally accepted (in most ES talk) as ethically, politically, morally, and technocratically neutral elements of policy.  Indeed, one finds scientists and environmentalists of many stripes invoking dollar-valuation as a way just to get everyone "on the same page".

In the end, Westman is committed to using ES as a way to combat the wrongheadedness of traditional resource economics, but exceptionally clear-eyed (or skeptical, depending on your view) on the potential of thinking of nature as services:
"Although the literature on environmental cost-benefit analysis is becoming increasingly sophisticated, in the eyes of many in our society it has not yet improved upon the poet's summation of nature's worth."
Such a civilized and almost romantic response!  And a research charge for us in ecosystem services scholarship: "Improve upon the poet."  We will fail, but at least the attempt will be worth reading.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Variations on a Theme: Valuation without Markets?

This recent post by Sally Collins on "Value Beyond Markets" at the Ecosystem Commons is concise and articulate and all that, but is also the latest version of a very long discussion.  The discussion goes like this:  "Given the limits of markets, how do we find the true value of ecosystems?"

The problem with this framing is that "value" itself is always understood to be a single, transcendental thing that market prices capture imperfectly.  This is not the case -- or if it were, we should all be Platonists.  Do we really think there's some substance out there called "value" that we perceive imperfectly?  Is it like flubber, ooblick, phlogiston or gravity? (oops, sorry there theoretical physicists!)  The time in which we posited inscrutible "essences" in order to explain things we didn't understand is for the most part over -- gravity is one of the last holdouts.  This, indeed, is the point of the Baconian tradition in science.

The second problem is that for the most part, even if there were a non-market essential value, people tend to elide immediately back into talking about dollars.  Thus we get discussions about "greening national accounts" or providing inputs into a Cost-Benefit Analysis -- neither of which necessarily involves market exchange -- as the main framework for discussing "non-market values".

Let me go waaaaay outside the box for a second and riff on a talk on an entirely unrelated topic by my friend and fellow referee Martin Foys, a medievalist at Drew University and designer of the Digital Mappaemundi environment for annotating documents (like maps) online.  He came to Kentucky last Friday and talked about how most people approach the digitization of medieval maps as a process of rectifying "inaccurate" hand-drawn maps onto an "accurate" modern graticule defined by the grid of latitude and longitude.  Sure, he says, this can be done.  But it is in a sense perverse, because it reduces the richness and complexity of the medieval map into a matter of an error term relative to a modern understanding of "location" that is assumed to be so correct that challenging it indicates some kind of mental deficiency.

Martin argued that we can still digitize the information on these maps without violating their own sense of location and perspective -- that is, without stretching and bending them to fit onto a modern grid.  The kind of "inaccuracies" present in a Ptolemaic map (to take a classical example) are themselves indicative of a different logic of locating one's self in the world, and as Martin said many of the medieval maps are basically cognitive maps.

By the same token, the question of how to value nature could be taken as one of how to rectify the awkwardly idiosyncratic and sloppy world of nature onto the coordinates of the money form.  And this assumption underlies both the discussion of how to value nature in markets AND how to value it "beyond" markets but in dollars.  What would it look like to be descriptive rather than to rectify relative to a money standard?  So yes, we could look at the "Mons Ardens" drawn on medieval maps and say "well, it's too big and not quite in the right place, and uses totally nonstandard symbology".  And then we could try to express information about it in coordinates.  What does that lose?

We can also look at a forest and say "well, there a lot of unknowns about nutrient processing and biodiversity here".  And then we could try to express information about it in dollars.  What does that lose?  What it gains is clear: calculability.

Sure, as Sally says, "the critique is easy".   But Martin's example goes beyond the critique by developing a web-based system for taking data while not imposing an inappropriate grid. What would it look like to try to use this approach to getting information about nature without forcing that information into a form that may or may not be appropriate?  This approach is less "calculable", sure, but in allowing incompatible formats to live together and inform discussion you open up a wider debate. 

I submit that the problem is not the multiplicity of Values, and the lack of any transcendental value that is not social.  The problem is that we want to calculate values and come up with a number.  But there are ways to move forward without doing so.

Monday, February 6, 2012

River Restoration Northwest

In Oregon for two weeks, learning an awful lot about how the specific regulatory and physical environment of the state and the region shape the process of trying to define credits in streams, wetlands, ecosystem services and -- well, you name it.  Temperature?  Salmonid habitat?  How many of these credits do you get for removing a dam?  More on this later, I hope, but Oregon's specific history with the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act is overlayed with the ubiquity of hydropower projects going through FERC relicensing -- this means the federal resource agencies can require them to be retrofitted with fish-passage gear, which is often less expensive than removing them entirely.  To a midwesterner, there is an absolutely shocking amount of money sloshing around the region being aimed at fish habitat improvement -- both from regulatory and granting sources.  Its true that the Clinton Administration's aggressive listing of endangered species in the region changed everything -- but it also turned on a firehose of federal and national money that has lasted and grown.

And at the River Restoration Northwest conference, at the lovely Skamania Lodge, I learned that -- as with wetlands in the 1980s, a lot of the basic science around stream restoration has yet to be sorted out.  Are standard measures of streamflow even applicable in high-gradient streams?  How can we get rivers to self-engineer by injecting 50 tons of gravel upstream and let it sort itself out?  What happens if the removal of top predators becomes a driver of river morphology because the explosion of grazing destabilizes streambanks?  (see Bob Bechta's excellent work on this).   That's right -- wolves as a driver of geomorphology.  Love it.

Friday, January 27, 2012

I can haz avoidance plz?

Ok, I've been waiting for a place to post this... and now I have a place.  Call it a LOL404.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Report on ecosystem services "stacking"

EPRI released their big report on ecosystem service stacking this week -- a long-awaited analysis of a survey for which I was involved in the initial design. 

Stacking is a topic which has largely flown under the radar -- there have been a handful of white-paper type reports, notably the one by  David Cooley and Lydia Olander at Duke's Nicholas School  last year, but absolutely nothing in the peer-reviewed literature.  But the question, to me, seems explosive in its consequences:  Can you establish more than one type of ES credit on a given piece of land? Can you, for example, sell carbon, water quality, endangered species habitat from the same site?  Currently the US regulatory answer is "no", but this is enforced by NO guidance or rule.  And with the role of REDD+ rising in the global carbon policy arena, expect to see a lot more talk about the way different ecosystem services overlay and interrelate.

Explosive, because the ability to derive many revenue streams from a single site comes into potential conflict with the ecological interrelationships between each service,  the documentation of which has vexed better minds than mine.  If you sell a carbon credit, how do you ensure that the underlying physical processes which created the carbon credit are not also intimately involved in creating other kinds of credits you might sell from the site? Could there be a more potent tension between the capitalist and ecological imperatives?  I'm going to leave it at that for the moment since I am working on a yet-to-be released paper with several co-authors on the topic.

A lot of good work here by Jessica Fox, Roy Gardner, and their crew.  Share and enjoy!

Monday, January 23, 2012


I have no time for Facebook games -- hell, I don't have time to read for fun or watch TV.  But if you do, you might enjoy this Web Thing from the University of Washington - Bothell.   It's a Farmville-type game that involves restoring wetlands... Search for "UWB Wetlands" on FB.  Grist writes it up here with more snark than I can care enough to summon.

I mean, I'm not against computer games -- I spent most of 1985 playing Wizardry and Choplifter on my Apple ][e.  But in the current era of slippage between digital and physical worlds, does this game run the risk of having players think that this actually substitutes for effective conservation measures? I think EPA/Corps better issue guidance pronto making it crystal clear that playing UW Bothell Wetlands Restoration does not qualify as compensatory mitigation for unavoidable permitted impacts to wetlands, streams or other waters of the United States under 40 CFR 230.10(a-d).  OK?

Now, what they REALLY need is a Facebook game teaching us how to apply the draft jurisdiction guidance.  But be warned, if you apply "significant nexus" to include ecological relations, Scalia will totally FB block you.

(h/t to Patrick Bigger)