Archive | February, 2011

A wetland in South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, near Charleston, Oregon.

Can coastal wetlands adapt to climate change?

A wetland in South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, near Charleston, Oregon.

A wetland in South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, near Charleston, Oregon. Photo by Bruce Taylor.

Based on evidence of past changes , we know that coastal wetlands can be surprisingly adaptable to changes in sea level. Rising sea levels can actually cause higher rates of sediment deposition in many types of estuaries, so that the floor of the wetland increases in elevation along with the rising sea. This process helps explain the persistence of these unique and highly productive ecosystems through times of much higher and much lower sea levels than today. But despite this inherent adaptability, a number of important coastal marshes, including those in Chesapeake Bay and parts of the Mississippi River Delta, are currently experiencing submersion and erosion and are expected to be heavily impacted by future sea-level rise .

A recent article in the journal Geophysical Research Letters  looks more closely at these feedbacks and what they mean for coastal wetlands in the future. The authors found that the response of coastal marshes to sea-level rise depended both on the rate of rise and the amount of sediment found in the marsh water. Their model showed that marshes with very little suspended sediment could not keep up with even a very slow rise in sea-level, while those with more sediment could adapt to a rise of several centimeters per year. (Tidal range, the difference between high and low tide, also affected the response.) At the higher rates of sea-level rise projected by more recent studies, however, only marshes with very high sediment concentrations and very large tidal ranges could be expected to survive beyond the end of the 21st century. Others would fail to keep up and would eventually be inundated with water.

This article is an interesting example of the importance of feedbacks and ecosystem responses in modeling climate change impacts. More than that, though, it offers at least two compelling lessons for those of us interested in managing ecosystems for climate change adaptation.

First, we can see that a lot of the impacts we’ve had on natural systems over the past few centuries will greatly limit their ability to adapt to climate change. While some coastal marshes are naturally low in sediment, others have been so affected by flood control and other changes that they are submerging even under current sea levels. In some cases, we can restore some of the adaptive capacity of these systems by reversing past damage. 

But the case of the coastal marshes also highlights the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions as quickly and as dramatically as possible. Many ecosystems can adapt to climate change up to a certain point, and we may be able to give them an additional boost by improving management practices. However, for many ecological systems abrupt changes may occur once thresholds or tipping point are reached–beyond which the system can no longer absorb change and shifts to a new state.  In the case of coastal wetlands such a threshold would occur when the rate of sea level rise outpaces the ability of the system to generate new marsh.  Once these wetlands are finally submerged and converted to open water it is very unlikely that they will be able to return to their former state. Unless we greatly limit the rate and magnitude of climate change, there will be very little we can do to help ecosystems adapt to the rapid, extreme changes in climate to which we are now committing ourselves. 

Kirwan, M.L. et al. Limits on the adaptability of coastal marshes to rising sea level. Geophysical Research Letters 37, L23401 (2010).

Posted in Climate Change, Pacific Northwest0 Comments


A Tale of Two Planets: The Funding and Defunding of Climate and Conservation Programs

In the planet that is the House of Representatives, there is no climate change.  So it is understandable then that in their Continuing Resolution to fund the government, they would defund any program that addresses climate change, including preventing the EPA from spending money regulating greenhouse gas emissions and slashing $48 million from Department of the Interior climate change adaptation programs (or if amended by a proposal by Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico, the Interior Department couldn’t spend a cent on climate change).

In the planet that is the White House, which seems to reflect the real planet earth, there is in fact climate change that is getting worse by the day.  Even with its legislative setback last year, the White House demonstrated on Valentine’s Day with the release of its annual budget that it is still committed to solving climate change and shifting our economy to cleaner energy sources.  For example, though Interior is cutting over $1 billion from its budget, the administration is proposing $175 million in “Cooperative Landscape Conservation”, or a $43.8 million increase over the fiscal year 2010 funding level.  The programs within Cooperative Landscape Conservation include all the elements in the Department’s previous Climate Adaptation Initiative including investments in science, planning, and on the ground restoration. Instead of making cuts across the board, the administration is actually prioritizing its spending, and making new investments in what is important to the challenges we face today.

Here is a breakdown of the House Continuing Resolution impact on climate change adaptation and other conservation programs.

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments

Wildlife in the proposed Forest Rule

Wildlife in the proposed Forest Rule

Here at Defenders we’ve spent the last week reading, thinking about, and evaluating the new Forest Service planning rule.  We’ve previously publicized our expectations for the rule, but as you can see from our initial response, our expectations have not been met.  Here are the key problems for wildlife in the proposed rule:

The American marten depends on national forest land to survive.

The viability standard is discretionary

A viability standard requires that the long-term persistence of all fish and wildlife be provided for.  The version of the standard proposed in the rule, however, only applies to those “species of conservation concern” for which the local forest determines there is “evidence demonstrating significant concern about its capability to persist.” The proposal does not set out clear criteria for how local forests are to make the critical determination of whether a species does or does not receive protection under the viability standard. Formal mechanisms for determining the long-term persistence of a species, such as population viability analysis, are not required. Criteria will instead be relegated to the FS Directive System.

Protections are not clearly defined

It is not clear what level of protection the standard affords a species. Under the proposed rule, a population’s viability is based on an undetermined relationship between the population’s distribution and the population’s ability to be “resilient and adaptable”. Because the terms “resilient and adaptable” are not defined, it appears that a local forest could determine at its discretion when a population is sufficiently distributed to meet the standard.

The “external factors” clause is ambiguous

Local forests are not obligated to meet the viability standard if the forest manager decides that the forest is incapable of supporting a viable population. While a reasonable “external factors” clause is good policy, the proposal introduces a non-standardized approach that would allow each forest to determine when the “inherent capability” of a forest precludes the obligation to maintain viable populations of species of conservation concern

The results of applying the standard are not evaluated through monitoring

In addition to the above weaknesses, there is no requirement to monitor the actual species of conservation concern to determine if the viability standard is being met.

The Forest Service justifies the narrow and discretionary viability standard by assuming that “healthy and resilient” ecosystems will “maintain species diversity.”

Unfortunately, no clear mechanism is provided to verify that ecosystems are in fact meeting species diversity objectives.  It is not clear how the local forest will define and interpret their obligations, and monitor their achievements under the “healthy and resilient” ecosystem standard.

The assumption that healthy and resilient ecosystems support species diversity could be verified if the rule required population monitoring of focal species to demonstrate that species diversity objectives are actually being met.  Unfortunately, the rule only requires a local forest to monitor the “status” of focal species to “gauge progress” toward achievement of planning objectives.  The failure to establish a management standard for focal species makes monitoring a paper exercise and fails to provide for any accountability.

You can learn more about what Defenders is doing to strengthen the rule here.

Posted in National Forests, Public Lands, Uncategorized2 Comments

Oregon Legislature Receives Report on Ecosystem Services and Markets

In 2009, Defenders of Wildlife and colleagues promoted a bill – likely the first of its kind in the country – to address the development of markets for ecosystem services. This bill, SB 513,  defines ecosystem services as the benefits human communities enjoy as a result of natural processes and biological diversity. It establishes a policy to protect ecosystem services across all land uses, encourages agencies to use market-based approaches to achieve conservation goals, and directed the Oregon Sustainability Board to convene a diverse group of stakeholders to address several thorny policy issues. The bill was based on policy recommendations contained in a report called Policy Cornerstones and Action Strategies for an Integrated Ecosystem Marketplace in Oregon.

The work group was supported by staff from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and included 28 people from diverse backgrounds. A policy-level ad hoc committee was formed to assist with political strategy and included another 17 people. Defenders staff was involved in managing the collaborative process and writing the report. Sara Vickerman was on the work group and is a member of the Oregon Sustainability Board.

The work group report was presented to the Oregon Legislature by the Sustainability Board in December 2010. It contained ten policy recommendations:

  1. Conservation and restoration goals need to be integrated across agencies to focus investment and priorities.
  2. More work is needed to address regulatory impediments to the application of market-based approaches.
  3. Public private partnerships are needed to develop more standardized tools for measuring ecosystem services.
  4. Agencies and local governments are encouraged to purchase ecological outcomes.
  5. Agencies should be able to sell ecosystem services under limited conditions.
  6. An adaptive management framework is needed to evaluate ecosystem service programs.
  7. State and local government are encouraged to use natural infrastructure in place of hard engineering.
  8. Planners should consider ecosystem services when making land use decisions.
  9. Pilot projects are needed to test the application of ecosystem service approaches.
  10. The policy dialogue needs to continue to address unresolved issues.

The lively, sometime contentious process included consideration of a series of case studies describing previous attempts, some successful, some frustrating and disappointing, to implement  wetland and conservation banking, water quality trading, and other programs. Common problems included conflicting agency missions, high transaction costs, and a lack of shared conservation goals.

Another bill has been drafted and will be introduced in the 2011 legislative session, which begins in February. Stay tuned for information on the next round of policy changes.

Posted in Pacific Northwest, Paying for Conservation0 Comments

Obama’s Forest Rule: Seeing the Forest for the Wildlife

Obama’s Forest Rule: Seeing the Forest for the Wildlife

President Obama’s draft forest rule is coming soon, and here at Defenders we’ve been thinking a lot about what a successful rule will look like (see our full report here).  This rule will be about so much more than just forests – it’s about the wildlife that depend on our national forests, the water that millions of Americans drink every day that is sourced from national forests, and creating resilient ecosystems that can stay vibrant in the face of climate change.  For us, of course, the protection of wildlife is job number one.  Here are the three key components of wildlife protection that we’ll be looking for in the forest rule:

The American marten depends on national forest land to survive.

Mandatory Species Viability Standard

The Forest Service has a duty to protect biodiversity on the national forests.  For decades, a clear and nondiscretionary species viability standard has been in place as a measure to live up to this duty, and we want to see this standard carried forward.  A viability standard works by requiring that management actions provide for the long-term persistence of fish and wildlife on our national forests.  This means that as the Forest Service plans for the future, the impacts that actions will have on fish and wildlife must be weighed and considered to be sure we aren’t hurting their chance to survive and thrive on our public lands.

Scientists suggest that the viability standard should allow a small loophole – an exception for “external factors” – so that the Forest Service isn’t held responsible when factors beyond its control (like activities on neighboring land) cause a species to decline.  We support the use of such an exception, however, it will only work if applied only when absolutely necessary, and we will be looking for a clear definition.

Assessments of risk to wildlife and habitat

The rule must establish a process for assessing and responding to threats to fish, wildlife and habitat in the development and implementation of forest plans.  The Forest Service cannot maintain the viability of species if it is unaware of what threats to viability exist.  By assessing the likely impacts of climate change on sensitive species, for example, forest managers can take actions to help those species withstand future changes.  We will be looking for strong assessments to inform smart forest management.

A scientifically defensible monitoring program

Forest plans are really all about implementation, and investments in assessments and planning must pay off in good on the ground decisions.  To determine if forest plans are effectively doing the things they say they will, including providing for the long-term persistence of fish and wildlife, the rule must include a science-based monitoring strategy that can be applied to every forest.  Successful monitoring and strategic evaluation is all about collecting the right bits of information that tell you a lot about your effectiveness without wasting time and money.  To evaluate an ecosystem, you need to look at its key components, the elements that make the system tick.  To ignore critical components is to deprive oneself of invaluable information, at the risk of not realizing when the condition of a forest may be collapsing.  For that reason, evaluating a forest’s entire condition based only on the status of it’s trees, and not actual wildlife populations, is like a doctor telling a patient their heart is healthy because they “appear to look good” while ignoring their blood pressure.  We will be looking for a monitoring program in which targeted population surveys for a small group of key wildlife species are used to validate that forest plans are effectively making forests healthier.

Those are our expectations; what are yours?  We welcome your questions and comments!

Posted in National Forests, Public Lands2 Comments

Table with examples of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's recovery priority system

Recovery priorities for endangered species explained

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a complicated job in managing the conservation and recovery of more than 1,300 U.S. species protected under the Endangered Species Act.  In 1983, they established a priority system, to help them make choices on where to invest in developing recovery plans and implementing those plans – and to provide transparency to the public on those choices.

The system has 36 ranks for wildlife and plant species and uses the following nested variables to sort through species:

  • Degree of threat: Species are assigned to either a high, moderate or low degree of threat.  High means that extinction is almost certain in the immediate future because of population decline or habitat destruction.  ‘Moderate’ means extinction is not immediately likely to occur if investments in recovery are temporarily delayed.
  • Recovery potential: Species are assigned one of two categories – high or low recovery potential.  ‘High’ potential for success are species with threats and biology well-understood and recovery actions that are either not intensive or are actions that have been used before and have a high probability of success.
  • Taxonomy:  The most genetically distinct species receive a higher priority.
  • Conflict:  Because of 1982 amendments to the ESA, species which are in conflict with construction, development or other economic activities are meant to be a higher priority for the agency.

The system works like this:

Table with examples of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's recovery priority system

In practice, there is little evidence that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses this system in deciding which recovery plans to implement and which actions to fund.  This 2008 report to Congress provides the latest information on the priority ranks of each species.  In 2005, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a report that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not have a process to measure the extent to which funding is aligned with this and other priority systems.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

Obama’s Forest Rule:  A checklist for success from Defenders of Wildlife

Obama’s Forest Rule: A checklist for success from Defenders of Wildlife

Cover of the Obama's Forest Rule reportA new report from Defenders of Wildlife provides a checklist for evaluating President Obama’s 2011 forest planning rule, likely to be released in draft form later this month.  The forest planning rule drives planning and management on every acre of our 190 million acre National Forest system, and impacts the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans.  The report introduces a step by step grading system for the new planning rule in four critical categories: wildlife and watershed protection, climate change response, the use of science, and consistency of approach.

See our checklist below and read the full report to learn more.

Image of checklist from Obama's Forest Rule report

Posted in National Forests, Public Lands1 Comment

dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.