The ecosystem service framework was originally designed for practice – a simple way to help decision makers take notice of the contributions of nature to people. Although the framework has proliferated in science and policy, it still lags a little in practice. We have some ideas of why that might be, but co-chairs Elena Bennett and Ciara Raudsuppe-Hearne (both from McGill University) argue that maybe it is time we ask practitioners. When do they think the ecosystem service concept is useful? What tools do they find useful? What are the challenges with implementing ecosystem service tools and concepts? And how can scientists better support them?
In this thoroughly planned and well-crafted session, the two-co-chairs enlisted the help of three practitioners (who clearly did a huge amount of preparation for this meeting), to facilitate a discussion between scientists and practitioners to help answer some of these questions.
In the first part of the session, we heard from the practitioners.
In a fast-paced, thoroughly informative talk, Andrea Mackenzie (Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority) walked us through the challenges of conducing a county-wide ecosystem service valuation exercise. She particularly focused on integrating county-level metrics in decision making, at a local level. “We need to come up with new frameworks and locally relevant data that fits the level at which decision making takes place”, she urged. In doing this, we need metrics that can compare with traditional economic metrics.
Speaking from a Mexican perspective, Renée González Montagut (Mexican Fund for the Conservation of Nature) made a strong case for payment for ecosystem services. She explained that it is not so much the values of ecosystem services themselves, but rather the ways in which PECS has helped to get the right people in the room, that has been useful. On her wishlist is an ecosystem service assessment in every catchment. “If we had that, we could actually base our decisions on science. Some people say that you need to be careful. Yeah, but just so you know, right now we’re basing our decisions on no information”.
Gillian Kerr (Government of Alberta, Ministry of Municipal Affairs) presented a “recovering economist’s” view and focused her talk more on externalities. “The norm is not to include these in decision-making”, she lamented. She challenged scientists to better craft their research agendas to reveal the importance of externalities for trade-offs that result from decisions.
Following the three talks, the room divided into five groups, each facilitated by a practitioner (and Elena). Groups considered challenges in the realm of trade-offs in land use planning, economic valuation, communication of the ecosystem service concept, and the scale and complexity of assessments. It was inevitable at a science conference, I suppose, but I was a little disappointed by how heavily weighted the breakout conversations were towards scientists’ perspective. Although the discussions were rich and delivered some useful ideas (we are, after all, grounded social-ecological scientists – pat on back), I thought that there were some spectacularly impractical and tone-deaf suggestions too. Acknowledging a lost self-deprecating entertainment opportunity, I will not dwell on these too much here, but rather offer five themes that I did find quite useful. I wonder if practitioners would agree?
In communicating the ecosystem service concept, use media and tools that can help engage and start conversations. Maps are usually excellent. Videos and infographics can also be helpful, but it depends on who you are talking to. If you can help it, don’t use the term “ecosystem services”.
Methods such as participatory mapping, scenarios and stakeholder analysis can really help engage stakeholders to help identify trade-offs.
Simplifying is fine, but always communicate assumptions.
Include primary studies that can help “ground truth” broader scale assessments in research agendas – these lend credibility to ecosystem service assessments and help to engage stakeholders. Please can these studies not take two years.
Simple is usually better. An answer or analysis is only too simple if it does not give an optimal answer (and as scientists, it is our job to figure out when that is).
Lopsidedness aside, I find it encouraging that practitioners and researchers are starting to have real conversations about ecosystem service research and practice (also see recent work by Dick and colleagues). I’m look forward to the results of Elena and Ciara’s follow-up practitioner-focused survey and hope that we’ll also have these sorts of discussion outside of scientific conferences. I’m excited about what that might mean for how we do science. To quote Elena: “We’ve had 40 years of doing ecosystem service science. It is time to get real”.
Caption: The Open Space auhority’s “Greenprint” conservation priority map was based on a county-wide ecosystem service assessment (map credit: Open Space Authority, Santa Clara Valley)
I’m a lecturer in Environmental Science at Rhodes University, South Africa. I started off my career as a behavioral-ecologist researching seal-shark interactions. These days, however, I’m mostly focused on protected area systems, thinking about questions related to scale, ecosystem service flows, and (spatial) resilience. I’m increasingly interested in thinking about the protected area (networks) of the future, and all the tricky and complex questions related to protected area benefits to society. As an educator, I’ve also been thinking about methods used to understand social-ecological systems. I’m not averse to a good dollop of technology with my research, and am, as a general rule, easily fascinated.
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II CONFERENCE OF THE PROGRAMME ON ECOSYSTEM CHANGE AND SOCIETY