Archive | Pacific Northwest

Ecosystem Services Payments: Opportunities and Challenges

A new report written by Defenders of Wildlife in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station discusses the opportunities and challenges related to ecosystem service payments.  One of the most challenging issues in environmental policy today is how to create incentives for private landowners to participate in conservation efforts that protect biodiversity and prevent forest and farm lands from being lost to development. No single regulation, government incentive, tax program, or other tool operates at the scale that is necessary to accomplish this goal. To improve how we approach biodiversity conservation, market-based payments for ecosystem services could be used in conjunction with other policies to create better incentives.

Ecosystem services are the benefits human communities enjoy as a result of natural processes and biological diversity. Some of these services are already recognized and sold into established markets. Timber, food, fuel and fiber are all examples of services with recognized economic value. Yet there are other services produced from healthy, functioning landscapes that are not well recognized in current payment structures, providing little or no incentive for landowners to maintain them. These services include sequestering or storing carbon in trees and soil, providing fish and wildlife habitat, filtering water, and reducing damages from natural disasters. In addition, most programs pay landowners to protect or restore a specific service rather than the suite of services produced from well-functioning ecosystems. Various incentive programs need to be better integrated or new programs need to be developed that recognize the value of ecosystem protection.

Bundling and stacking payments for ecosystem services offers a promising option to improve landowner compensation while also delivering better ecological outcomes. Rather than being compelled to focus on one particular attribute or a discrete portion of regulated services as current programs and markets do, landowners should be able to benefit from the multiple services, both regulated and voluntary, their land is producing on a broader, landscape scale. To be both ecologically and economically effective, payments, at a minimum, need to address multiple values, function at the landscape scale, and minimize transactions costs.

Posted in Pacific Northwest, Paying for Conservation0 Comments

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

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

A photo of an estuary

At the front lines of climate change

A photo of an estuaryEstuaries, the ecosystems that exist where rivers and oceans meet, are at the front lines of climate change. Rising sea levels threaten to inundate coastal wetlands, increasing their salinity and causing a shift in vegetation communities. Air and water temperatures, precipitation patterns, and ocean chemistry are also changing. All of these processes likely add up to a loss many of the values these systems provide, including providing habitat for fish, migratory birds, and other species, filtering water, stabilizing shorelines, and buffering coastal communities from storm damage.

On November 18-19th, a group of researchers and managers got together in Newport, Oregon, to mull over what to do about this situation. We asked ourselves:  How can we best manage these sensitive ecosystems so that they continue to provide fish and wildlife habitat and other important values as the climate changes?

The question is a particularly tough one, because relatively simple physical changes in climate and water chemistry will create complex effects in biological systems. For example, we know that air temperatures here in the Pacific Northwest are likely to rise some 2-5°F over the next several decades and that we can expect on the order of 3-4 feet of sea-level rise globally by the end of the century (although the magnitude of sea-level rise remains much debated).  These changes are likely to affect factors that are critical to estuary function like water salinity, sediment deposition, and vegetation type, but we know relatively little about exactly how these cascading effects will play out on the ground. As a result, many managers feel that climate change projections are still too uncertain to inform management decisions

One of the conclusions from the group was that many of the conservation tools we already have will be useful in responding to climate change. For example, many estuaries can effectively migrate inland as sea levels rise. Where they are hemmed in by development, though, they are unable to shift and some of their function and value as wildlife habitat is almost certain to be lost, so protecting coastal lands from development through conservation easements and purchase is vitally important. We also discussed some creative strategies for managing estuaries and the riparian areas that feed them, such as reintroducing beavers into streams and rivers improve water storage on the landscape and help moderate water flows.

Many of these strategies are robust to uncertainty, in the sense that they are very likely to be beneficial even if we are wrong about the magnitude or effects of future changes in the climate. Developing more of these robust strategies will help keep conservationists from becoming paralyzed by the uncertainty inherent in climate prediction and modeling. In Oregon, the next step is to delve deeper into some of the solutions we identified and start thinking critically about what tools to use, where, and why. We’ll also be working to spread the word so that that general public is more aware of likely climate change impacts and our options for managing it.

Posted in Climate Change, Pacific Northwest0 Comments

Photo of a greater sage grouse

Sage Grouse Conservation Strategy Delayed in Oregon

Photo of a greater sage grouse

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Faced with strong opposition from wind developers and some eastern Oregon counties, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission has delayed final adoption of the state’s updated sage grouse conservation strategy, which had been scheduled for December 3.  In the meantime, the Natural Resources Conservation Service is moving ahead with the next round of funding for its Oregon sage grouse initiative, providing an additional $3.5 million for projects to improve habitat for sage grouse on private lands in eastern Oregon.  The focus is on juniper removal within three miles of sage grouse leks in Baker, Crook, Deschutes, Harney, Lake, and Malheur counties.  Deadline for signups is December 15.  Payments for juniper removal typically average about $141 per acre.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Pacific Northwest, Renewables0 Comments

Oregon celebrates passage of Measure 76

Getting 954,000 Oregon voters to say yes to anything, much less funding for conservation, is pretty remarkable.  But the 69% vote in favor of the Water, Parks and Wildlife initiative also included majorities in every county (with a high of 77.5% in Benton County and a low of 53.6% in Grant County), according to the final Measure 76 tally.  Many joint venture partners can share in the credit, but we all owe a big debt of gratitude to The Nature Conservancy, which provided much of the leadership and the bulk of the money for the successful campaign.  Looking forward, the most significant change for the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board’s grant program will be the elimination of the current distinction between capital and non-capital expenditures, which should open the door to a more holistic approach to project funding.   Joint venture partners will also be seeking statutory and administrative changes to improve OWEB’s process for land acquisition grants.

Posted in Pacific Northwest, Paying for Conservation0 Comments

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge develops planning alternatives

In eastern Oregon, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge tested a set of preliminary draft alternatives in several stakeholder meetings in October.  The two action alternatives are likely to differ primarily in their emphasis on restoration of a more natural river through the Blitzen Valley;  consensus among the stakeholders has been that control of the carp that have decimated Malheur Lake and other refuge wetlands is priority number one, and the major question is how much else the refuge should try to take on with its limited resources.  In the Blitzen Valley, conservation interests have signaled their willingness to consider use of a targeted grazing program to meet specific ecological objectives in conjunction with a rigorous monitoring and evaluation program.

Posted in National Wildlife Refuges, Pacific Northwest, Public Lands0 Comments

The Fate of the Washington Ground Squirrel

The Washington ground squirrel’s largest remaining block of habitat is effectively an island of native grasslands and sagebrush steppe in a sea of dryland wheat and irrigated croplands.  The Navy operates a naval weapons training facility in the area, but their activities have been primarily focused on electronic warfare tactics.  The squirrel is listed as endangered under Oregon’s law and has been listed as a candidate species (currently a category 5 priority for listing) under Federal law.

Threats to the squirrel were not considered imminent until a few years ago when the Oregon National Guard proposed building a heavy weapons training on the Navy’s Boardman Bombing Range in the heart of the Washington ground squirrel’s remaining habitat. The proposed facility would offer live-fire training exercises and utilize tanks, artillery, machine guns and ground-launched missiles.  Not only is there a risk of direct loss of squirrels due to ground disturbance, construction activities, and increased road traffic, but also increased threat of wildfire and encroachment of invasive species.  Using live ammunition is likely to result in fires, also increasing the post-fire invasion by cheatgrass and weeds.

The Oregon Military Department issued a Draft Environmental Assessment in 2006 but the training facility has been on hold until recently when the U.S. Navy’s announced their plan to draft an Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed project.  As threats become more imminent, Defenders and other conservation groups close to this issue are preparing scoping comments for the EIS and will work to protect the future of the Washington ground squirrel.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Pacific Northwest0 Comments

Settlement funds pay for land conservation in Oregon

The state of Oregon’s $150 million settlement with the Bonneville Power Administration for mitigation of wildlife habitat affected by the federal hydroelectric system in the Willamette Basin cleared the way for last-minute closing of two big land deals in late October.  The Nature Conservancy completed its $23.4 million purchase of the 1,270-acre Wildish property at the confluence of the Willamette River’s coast and middle forks,  long identified as one of the highest conservation priorities in the Willamette Valley.  BPA provided $20.8 million for the Wildish purchase, OWEB contributed $2.5 million through its Willamette Special Investments Partnership, and TNC tapped its Northwest Wildlife Conservation Initiative for $100,000 from the Doris Duke foundation.  The settlement agreement also included BPA’s $9.7 million purchase of a conservation easement on the 1,310-acre Trappist Abbey property near Lafayette, one of the valley’s largest remaining blocks of upland forest.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, BPA will provide an additional $2.5 million a year in 2011-13 for projects recommended by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, increasing to $8 million per year from 2014 to 2025. BPA will also give ODFW $837,000per year in 2011 and 2012 to operate the mitigation program, including maintenance of conserved lands, increasing to $1.7 million per year starting in 2014.

Posted in Pacific Northwest, Paying for Conservation0 Comments


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.

www.defenders.org