The White House Embraces Ecosystem Services

Posted on February 8, 2016 by JB Ruhl

The ecosystem services framework focuses on the economic values humans derive from functioning ecosystems in the form of services—such as water filtration, pollination, flood control, and groundwater recharge—rather than commodities—such as crops, timber, and mineral resources. Because many of these services exhibit qualities similar to public goods, ecologists and economists began forging the concept of ecosystem services valuation in the 1990s as a way of improving land use and resource development decision making by ensuring that all relevant economic values were being taken into account when making decisions about the conservation or development of “natural capital” resources. Research on ecosystem services exploded onto the scene in ecology, economics, and other disciplines bearing on environmental and natural resources management. 

The policy world quickly picked up on the ecosystem services idea as well. In 1998 the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report emphasizing the importance of the nation’s natural capital. The United Nations embraced the concept at the global scale with its Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, in which it explicitly tied ecosystem services to human prosperity. 

By contrast, uptake in law has been slow to come. Almost two decades after the PCAST report, it is fair to say that the ecosystem services concept has made few inroads into achieving “law to apply” status in the form of legislative and regulatory text. In one prominent example, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a joint regulation in 2008 overhauling their policies on compensatory mitigation under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the agencies adopted a watershed-scale focus and declared that compensatory mitigation decisions would take losses to ecosystem services into account. See 33 C.F.R. 332.3(d)(1). This and the few other federal initiatives to use ecosystem services in decision making, while on the rise, have been ad hoc and uncoordinated. But a more coherent federal ecosystem services policy appears on the horizon.

On October 7, 2015, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), and Office of Science and Technology (OST) issued their Memorandum for Executive Departments and Agencies on Incorporating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making (the Memorandum). The Memorandum “directs agencies to develop and institutionalize policies to promote consideration of ecosystem services, where appropriate and practicable, in planning, investments, and regulatory contexts.” The goal of doing so is “to better integrate in Federal decision making due consideration of the full range of benefits and tradeoffs among ecosystem services associated with potential Federal Actions.” The scope of the policy goal is broadly stated to include all federal programmatic and planning activities including “natural-resource management and land-use planning, climate-adaptation planning and risk-reduction efforts, and, where appropriate, environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other analyses of Federally-assisted programs, policies, projects, and regulatory proposals.” To facilitate agencies in achieving its policy goals, CEQ will prepare a guidance document outlining best practices for: (1) describing the action; (2) identifying and classifying key ecosystem services in the location of interest; (3) assessing the impact of the action on ecosystem services relative to baseline; (4) assessing the effect of the changes in ecosystem services associated with the action; and (5) integrating ecosystem services analyses into decision making. In the interim, agencies have until March 30, 2016 to submit documentation describing their current incorporation of ecosystem services in decision making and establishing a work plan for moving toward the goals of the policy directive. Id. at 4. Meanwhile, CEQ has assembled a task force of experts from relevant agencies to craft a best practices implementation guidance, which will be subject to interagency review, public comment, and, by November 2016, to external peer review consistent with OMB’s information quality procedures and standards. Once the guidance is released, agencies will adjust their work plans as needed. The Memorandum also acknowledges that “ultimately, successful implementation of the concepts in this directive may require Federal agencies to modify certain practices, policies, or existing regulations to address evolving understanding of the value of ecosystem services.”   

ACOEL Fellows should watch the Memorandum’s implementation over the next year closely. In particular, incorporation of best practices for ecosystem services impact assessments under NEPA would project the ecosystem services framework into state, local, and private actions receiving federal agency funding or approval. To be sure, there is plenty of work to be done before one can evaluate the Memorandum’s impact on the mainstreaming of the ecosystem services framework into environmental law. Significantly, the timeline of the Memorandum directives will deliver the best practices implementation guidance in the final months of the Obama Administration, leaving it to the incoming administration to determine where to take it. Nevertheless, simply by declaring the incorporation of ecosystem services into federal agency decision making as an Executive policy and laying out the tasks and timelines for doing so, the issuance of the Memorandum has done more to advance the ecosystem services framework as a legal concept than has any previous initiative. 

Earth Day 2012 Ten Things You Can Do to Help Save the Planet

Posted on April 26, 2012 by Christopher Davis

April 22, 2012 was the 42nd Earth Day, an event that passed with limited notice by most Americans and the news media. For all but a few of us who work in the field, the environment is no longer a “top 10” issue. Yet objectively, the planet is in materially worse shape than it was on the first Earth Day in 1970. As a species, we are collectively destroying the earth’s natural systems, plundering its resources and squandering its natural capital at an accelerating and unsustainable rate. The “Tragedy of the Commons” that Garrett Hardin wrote so eloquently about in advance of the first Earth Day is rapidly unfolding just as he predicted.  

On a global scale, the earth’s ecosystems are under siege.  With a human population of 7 billion, and headed for at least 10 billion fairly soon, growing greenhouse gas emissions and resultant climate change, increasing regional water scarcity, and growing global competition for dwindling resources, the trends are to put it mildly, not looking good.  It has been estimated that we are now consuming the planet’s resources, emitting pollutants and generating waste at about 1.5 times the earth’s carrying capacity. The “externalities” of our ever growing global economy are overwhelming the earth’s ability to assimilate them.
[For a fairly comprehensive and sobering account of the causes, effects and trends of global environmental degradation, I recommend Paul Gilding’s recent book, The Great Disruption.]

If we continue on our present course, our environmental, social and economic systems appear to be headed for collapse, or at least some very rough sledding with unacceptably high (and of course, inequitably distributed) human and ecological casualties.  Catastrophic and irreversible climate change is a growing possibility, if not a probability, without fundamental changes in how we use energy.  After more than 40 years of effort, and a proliferation of “green” policies and initiatives, we are clearly losing the war of environmental protection and conservation.  This is particularly disquieting for those of us who work in the environmental profession, supposedly understand these issues, and presumably care about the real world outcomes.

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Preserving the Tallgrass Prairie in the Face of Stringent Air Quality Standards: The Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan

Posted on January 17, 2011 by Charles Efflandt

It is an environmental truism that increasingly stringent air quality standards can cause collateral damage – typically economic in nature. It is less common for such standards to directly impact preservation of a significant North American ecosystem.

Comprising a vast area in eastern Kansas and northeast Oklahoma, the Flint Hills ecosystem remains today the last unfragmented expanse of tallgrass prairie on the continent. Roughly two-thirds of all tallgrass prairie in North America is contained in the Flint Hills. The Flint Hills provide a unique ecosystem for numerous mammals, birds, reptiles and cattle (the surrogate for the bison that once roamed this area and that served as a keystone species in maintaining biodiversity). The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy have both identified the Flint Hills as a priority conservation action site.

Fire is a critical ecological driver in the tallgrass prairie. Lightning is nature’s tool for this process of ecological renewal. The burning of large sections of the Flint Hills was practiced for centuries by Native Americans. In more modern times, controlled burning has been utilized by conservation agencies and organizations, as well as by ranchers, as an ecological and agricultural management tool. Tallgrass prairie preservation requires frequent burning to prevent the encroachment of woody species and maintain the integrity of the plant communities and wildlife habitat. From an agricultural perspective, the burning and renewal of the tallgrass has been shown to significantly increase the productivity of the rangeland for cattle ranching purposes.
 

Such frequent and widespread burning, however, creates health concerns. Air modeling has shown transport of PM and ozone precursors as far east as Tennessee during the burning season. Air pollutants from Flint Hills burning have also adversely impacted or threatened the NAAQS attainment status of areas in Kansas and Missouri. With more stringent ozone regulations imminent, this conflict between ecological preservation and compliance with air quality standards will be exacerbated.

A recent ACOEL posting suggested, in the climate change context, that the severe economic consequences of the traditional legislative/regulatory process can and should be mitigated through creative voluntary community effort. With the ecologically and agriculturally beneficial practice of tallgrass burning on a collision course with NAAQS attainment, such an approach was recently embraced by the U.S. EPA, Kansas Department of Health and Environment, conservation and agricultural organizations and academia. The December 2010 approval of the Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan was the result of over a year of collaborative effort by these stakeholders. The key elements of the Plan include:

  • A new website with a predictive plume modeling tool for public and private decision-making.
  • Development of fire management practices to mitigate adverse health consequences and NAAQS violations associated with controlled burning.
  • A comprehensive data collection effort to better characterize prairie burning and its consequences.
  • Proposed limited legal restrictions on open burning during critical time periods.
  • Extensive outreach and education efforts, including prescribed fire training programs, public-private information sharing, and media exposure.
  • A pilot project in the spring of 2011 in two Kansas counties to implement the predictive computer modeling and fire management practices.

The Plan has been attacked by certain environmental organizations as a “smoke screen” whose objective is to facilitate EPA exemption of burning from enforcement in order to maximize beef production. These critics discount the ecological motivation for the Plan and allege that it is unlikely to adequately protect public health. I would suggest that the Plan should not be viewed as the final answer. Rather, it should be considered a working document that will evolve as the results of modeling and data collection and level of voluntary implementation are evaluated. Time will tell the extent to which the Plan can be cited as further evidence of the power of voluntary, collaborative