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Number Cruncher

VALUE ADDED Mary Ruckelshaus hopes to resolve thorny economic arguments.
What matters more? Jobs in tourism? Offshore oil drilling? Fish habitat? Maybe computers can provide the answer.

Environmental policy is something of a family business for Mary Ruckelshaus. Her father, the attorney William Ruckelshaus, became the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, when she was in fourth grade, and returned for a second term in the mid-1980s. "We had a lot of great dinner table discussions," she recalls, but her own interest was in science more than legal policy. A Ph.D. in biology led her to Seattle, where she worked on salmon and orca recovery for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In 2010 she became managing director of the Natural Capital Project, an environmental think tank based at Stanford University. Advancing ideas developed by co-founder Gretchen Daily in her groundbreaking books Nature's Services and The New Economy of Nature, the project's team of biologists, economists, data analysts, and legal scholars collaborates with governments and NGOs to fairly value ecosystem services -- the value of healthy marsh grass to Louisiana's shrimp industry, for instance -- in the planning and permitting of new development. Ruckelshaus is based in Seattle, where she spoke with OnEarth contributing editor Bruce Barcott.

How did you go from salmon recovery to the Natural Capital Project?

At NOAA, we realized that if you're trying to recover a species or an ecosystem, you have to engage the public to help solve the problem. You can't ignore the people side of what you're trying to do. NOAA decided to have the federal government identify the goal but let the wider community decide how to get there. With salmon and orcas there are so many possible avenues to restoration. You could cut down salmon harvest; you could change agricultural or industrial practices; you could reduce pollution; and so on. There are different combinations, and NOAA decided to let the most impacted communities decide which one to use.

Anne Guerry, a colleague at NOAA, and I started working on ecosystem services as they related to Puget Sound, looking at things like changes in crab habitat and how eelgrass stores carbon emissions. We worked with colleagues at the Natural Capital Project on that, and eventually they asked if we'd help build a marine component of InVEST, their computer modeling program.

How exactly does computer modeling come into this?

InVEST is software that allows decision makers to model how a change in coastal management might affect fisheries, coastal protection, and recreation, or how a new fisheries policy might affect recreational fishing and diving revenue in the local economy. Politicians are managers. They're barraged by competing interests arguing that their particular use of a natural resource is the best and highest value. They don't have a common way to value all those competing resources.

InVEST can estimate a fair value for different ecosystem benefits. We can quantify that in dollars, or we can use another criterion that is meaningful to those involved, like the number of visitors to a particular recreational site.

Have you had a chance to try out the marine version yet?

Yes, we're partnering with the West Coast Vancouver Island Aquatic Management Board -- everybody calls it West Coast Aquatic -- which oversees about 285 miles of coastline. There are a whole bunch of groups under this umbrella: the provincial government, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the First Nations bands, and local business, which is mostly tourism. West Coast Aquatic is going through a marine spatial planning process, a kind of quasi-zoning, to decide where they want shellfish harvest, where they want tourism development, where they want recreation. We're also working in Belize.

Are the issues similar there?

Belize is working on a countrywide coastal zone management plan. Essentially they're asking the same question as Vancouver Island: How do we apportion human activities and achieve multiple objectives? Tourism is big in Belize. So is hurricane and storm surge protection, which is an ecosystem service the mangroves offer. They've also got commercial fisheries for lobster and conch. And there may be a little bit of oil and gas permitting on the horizon. So there are trade-offs. If you cut down the mangroves for development, you're losing coastal storm protection and a nursery habitat for fisheries. They're trying to balance tourism development with commercial fisheries and coastal storm protection. And they're on a fast track; the government wants a plan to present to its ministers later this year.

How easily do data from one place transfer to another?

Not very easily. For example, marsh habitat may be worth $6 a hectare [about $2.40 an acre] in a certain area. But that doesn't help people trying to make local decisions, because the value of a marsh in Florida is very different from the value of that same habitat in Thailand or Belize. We don't have a central database that offers a universal value of habitat like mangroves. We think that's misleading.

Who are your clients?

NGOs with specific projects and government people at all different levels. Often they're administrators who have been given a mandate by their legislature to include broader-scale concepts like ecosystem services in their zoning and planning processes. It's the same sort of zoning they've always done, but now they're told to bring nature's processes into account. And they don't know where to turn.

How much is that because of controversies over jobs and economic benefits? In disputes over land or water use nowadays, everyone arrives with their own competing claims.

Right, and certain sectors have the numbers at their fingertips, and others don't. When people don't have all the data they need, we can act as a go-between. We can move those very real on-the-ground questions back to the scientists and say, Okay, here's a challenge from the field. How are we going to solve these problems?

Fracking seems like a classic example. We had a job fair here in Seattle recently, with energy companies hiring folks to work in North Dakota, where they use fracking to get at the shale oil. The attraction of jobs got a lot of play. But nobody mentioned the potential long-term cost to other jobs like farming and ranching if fracking pollutes the water table.

We saw the same thing after the Deepwater Horizon blowout. There was a lot of pushback from the oil and gas community. They argued that if the government shut down further drilling, the community would lose this many jobs. But then you've got to ask what happens if there's another spill. How many shrimpers will be put out of business? How many tourists will stay away from the Gulf Coast beaches and put hospitality industry workers out of a job?

What other projects do you have coming up?

Right now we're partnering with a lot of people in the development community in China and Latin America. The idea is to combine our efforts with poverty reduction and to link human well-being to the health of ecosystems. We're also working more with private companies on getting to a sustainable bottom line. One of the first projects in that area involves Dow Chemical and the Nature Conservancy. Dow wants to take a cradle-to-grave look at the environmental impact of their products -- what they call a life-cycle analysis -- up and down their supply chains. Because they use a lot of water in their manufacturing processes, they want to figure out how to better sustain the water supply in different regions of the world where they operate. I think we can help them with that.

image of Bruce Barcott
Bruce Barcott was a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow in nonfiction and is the author of The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw and The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier. He writes frequently about the outdoors and the environment for such... READ MORE >