Category Archives: ecology

Don’t Drink the Water… for this too is California


This is not a scenario from some generic developing third world banana republic where environmental regulation is lax and the government/economy is weak and there is simply no wherewithal to provide safe drinking water to the public.

This is here in the central valley of California. In some of the richest most productive agricultural areas of the world, home to some of the world’s richest farmers (or agriculture corporations), in an American state whose economy rivals some of the richest nations in the world.

This is not the third world. Or is it?

While the US is plunging towards third-world-dom, lead by a priceless bunch of narrow-minded rightwing (that includes both political parties) “leaders”, the central valley of California has probably always had an air of the third world about it. My own first inklings of the economic disparities and deprivations hidden underneath America’s shiny global facade came from reading Steinbeck’s epic “Grapes of Wrath”, much of which is set right here in the valley. That book, along with “East of Eden” (both of which I devoured while in college in Bombay) also gave me my first new mental images of California that diverged from the more romantic ones perpetuated through Hollywood’s glamour on the one hand, and Ansel Adams’ Yosemite landscapes on the other. Here in this valley, sandwiched between those two more picturesque, salubrious California dreamlands, lies a third world that tells many a different tale: of massive land transformation and farm-worker exploitation; of green revolutions and pesticides; of laser-leveled land crisscrossed by massive canals and shrinking aquifers; of dried up prehistoric swamps and over-irrigated farmland abandoned to leaching selenium; of Steinbeck’s Okies and today’s illegal aliens; of big agribusiness and industrial animal farms; of sprawling suburbs and highways; of endangered species and disappearing ecosystems; of exotic invasive species (the other “illegal aliens”) and designer GMOs; of weed and meth and gangs and prisons; of vineyards and fruit orchards and nut farms overflowing with riches; of migrant farmworkers dying of dehydration and schools where feeding the malnourished children must take precedence over any “education”; of some of the nation’s foulest air and dirtiest water. This too is California.

That last item on litany above, Water, is the subject of a special investigative series by Mark Grossi, currently being published by the Fresno Bee under the headline “Don’t Drink the Water”! Now that’s a standard warning I’m is used to hearing when talking about travel to India or Mexico, or other developing countries. The Bee is telling us local residents here in this rich, poor, messed up valley: Don’t Drink the Water! At least read the special report first, and find out what cocktail may be flowing out of your faucet.

Don’t Drink the Water!

Welcome to California. This is indeed the third world within the first.

Symphony of the Soil – free film screening @Fresno_State this evening

We have another interesting soil-related even on campus this evening – a screening of a new film on the subject:


Here’s more about this film project from its website:


The Symphony of the Soil project consists of one feature film that examines soil in all its complexity and mystery and several short ‘satellite’ films that go deeply into single topics. The feature film explores soil as a protagonist of our planetary story, including the birth of soil, its life cycle, the many creatures making up the soil community, nutrient cycling, biological processes such as the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle, and succession. The film also examines our human relationship with soil, the use and misuse of soil in agriculture, deforestation and development, and the latest scientific research on the key role soil can play in ameliorating the most challenging environmental problems of our time. We will feature techniques from ancient wisdom to cutting edge science that preserve and improve soil. By gaining an understanding of the elaborate relationships and mutuality between soil, water, microorganisms, the atmosphere, plants, animals, and humans, we come to appreciate the complex and dynamic nature of this precious resource.


For more information about the feature film – SYMPHONY OF THE SOIL – stay tuned. We are currently in post-production and will have an update on the status of the film. There are work in progress screenings of the film. Find the schedule here.


The short films, which we are calling satellite films, are stand-alone films, twelve to twenty minutes in length. The short films provide information on specific topics such as dry farming, nitrogen, the Transition Movement, biodynamic farming, composting, soil/water relationships, and carbon sequestration. Below find a list of the short films completed to date:


PORTRAIT OF WINEMAKER (TRT: 15:36, work in progress)

TRANSITION TOWN TOTNES (TRT: 10:20, work in progress)

SEKEM VISION (TRT: 13:31, work in progress)

Posted via email from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

“Sustainable Economic Growth” and other oxymorons

Dr. Amartya Sen was puzzled to find himself part of a debate on India’s economic growth that he didn’t remember ever joining, but I am glad it has prompted him to join in now with a sharp critique of the country’s obsession with economic growth rate as an end in itself. The Nobel Laureate economist points out that growth itself is less important than what society chooses to do with the fruits of said growth: a common sense lesson that should be blindingly obvious to anyone who professes to care about the quality of our lives, yet so often, and easily, brushed aside by those in power and the middle classes who get some share of the current growth. While chasing after China’s double-digit growth rate, Dr. Sen points out that India is actually doing worse than not just China, but also Bangladesh in many social indicators that are far more important, such as infant mortality, children’s health, life-expectancy, literacy, and women’s empowerment. Bangladesh is doing better than India in all those areas despite having only half the latter’s per-capita income! Shouldn’t India aspire to do better by all of its people before trying to race China to the top of the economic growth index? Dr. Sen’s op ed piece in the Hindu ends on this much-needed cautionary note:

The central point to seize is that while economic growth is an important boon for enhancing living conditions, its reach depends greatly on what we do with the fruits of growth. To be sure, there are large numbers of people for whom growth alone does just fine, since they are already privileged and need no social assistance. Economic growth only adds to their economic and social opportunities. Those gains are, of course, good, and there is nothing wrong in celebrating their better lives through economic growth, especially since this group of relatively privileged Indians is quite large in absolute numbers. But the exaggerated concentration on their lives, which the media tend often to display, gives an incomplete picture of what is happening to Indians in general.

And perhaps more worryingly, this group of relatively privileged and increasingly prosperous Indians can easily fall for the temptation to treat economic growth as an end in itself, for it serves directly as the means of their opulence and improving lifestyles without further social efforts. The insularity that this limited perspective generates can even take the form of ridiculing social activists — “jholawalas” is one description I have frequently heard — who keep reminding others about the predicament of the larger masses of people who make up this great country. The fact is, however, that India cannot be seen as doing splendidly if a great many Indians — sometimes most Indians — are having very little improvement in their deprived lives.

Some critics of huge social inequalities might be upset that there is something rather uncouth and crude in the self-centred lives and inward-looking temptations of the prosperous inner sanctum. My main concern, however, is that those temptations may prevent the country from doing the wonderful things it can do for Indians at large. Economic growth, properly supplemented, can be a huge contributor to making things better for people, and it is extremely important to understand the relevance and role of growth with clarity.

Much as I like this critique, there are aspects of the economic analysis that trouble me nevertheless. Enough to compel me to leave a comment below the article on the Hindu’s website. While that comment is awaiting moderation, I thought I might as well share my thoughts here – so here’s what I wrote:

A sharp, insightful, and much-needed critique of the national obsession with the economic growth rate. What we do with the fruits of the growth is indeed far more important than mere growth for its own sake. As an ecologist, however, I must express my continued puzzlement at the use of the term “sustainable economic growth” which Dr. Sen also uses several times here. Isn’t the term an oxymoron? How can one possibly “sustain” such “growth” for any significant period of time in a world of finite resources? I know from his other writings that Dr. Sen recognizes the environmental ramifications of our economic activities – so it is doubly puzzling for me to see him use this phrase. How long can the nation possibly sustain this economic growth? We are already seeing (but turning a blind eye to) an ongoing collapse of the ecological foundations upon which this current economic growth very much depends. Not only must we temper the mania for growth with questions about what we are doing with the fruits of that growth for the majority of the people in the country, we must also ask how this growth is ripping the nation’s ecological fabric apart, and what we need to do to repair this fabric, the very basis for our long-term sustainability – without perpetual growth. It is well past time we start working towards a steady-state economy (rather an an ever growing one) which may then bear truly sustainable fruit that does not come at the expense of more lives, human and non-human, which really make life worth living.

Residential water management as a driver of urban biodiversity

67.11  Wednesday, Jan. 6  Resilience in urban socioecological systems: residential water management as a driver of biodiversity KATTI, M*; SCHLEDER, B; California State Univ, Fresno; California State Univ, Fresno

Cities are unique ecosystems where human social-economic-cultural activities prominently shape the landscape, influencing the distribution and abundance of other species, and consequent patterns of biodiversity. The long-term sustainability of cities is of increasing concern as they continue to grow, straining infrastructure and pushing against natural resources constraints. A key resource is water, esp. in the more rapidly urbanizing arid regions. Understanding water management is thus critical for a deeper theoretical understanding of urban ecosystems and for effective urban policy. Landscaping and irrigation at any urban residence is a product of local geophysical/ecological conditions, homeowners’ cultural preferences, socioeconomic status, neighborhood dynamics, zoning laws, and city/state/federal regulations. Since landscape structure and water availability are key determinants of habitat for other species, urban biodiversity is strongly driven by the outcome of interactions between these variables. Yet the relative importance of ecological variables vs human socioeconomic variables in driving urban biodiversity remains poorly understood. Here we analyze data from the Fresno Bird Count, a citizen science project in California’s Central Valley, to show that spatial variation in bird diversity is best explained by a multivariate model including significant negative correlations with % building and grass cover, and positive correlations with interactions between irrigation intensity, median family income, and grass height. We discuss implications of our findings for urban water management policies in general, and for Fresno’s planned switch to metering water use in 2013. Ecological theory, conservation, and urban policy all benefit if we recognize cities as coupled socioecological systems.

If you’re in Seattle – at the ongoing SICB meeting even – at 11:40 AM on Wednesday this week, and need some mental stimulation before lunch, why not join the throng at the above talk?

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

A river may once again run through it…


This past week has been a remarkable, mixed, week for the environment in the San Joaquin valley! First the good news: water began to flow through the San Joaquin river’s heavily impacted (dammed / modified / channeled / dredged / damaged) course as part of a major restoration effort decades in the making, when federal authorities released water from Friant Dam, just above Fresno. The Fresno Bee has been covering the story really well these past few days, with a special feature, and you can jump into the stream with this report from Friday:

FRESNO, Calif. — When Darrell Imperatrice was a boy, California’s San Joaquin River teemed with so many king salmon his father could catch 40-pound fish using only a pitchfork.

Then the salmon vanished from the icy river for nearly 60 years, after a colossal federal dam built to nurture the croplands below dried up their habitat.

Now, as federal officials try to bring the fish back through a sweeping restoration program of the state’s second-largest river – opening the valves for the first full day on Friday – those who know it best are debating its value and its virtue.

“There were so many salmon back then, you could fish any way you wanted, even dynamite. But when they built that dam, thousands of fish lay dead on the banks,” said Imperatrice, who at age 82 still treasures his father’s fishing gear. “There’s no real restoration that will bring back the river I knew.”

Yes, we are unlikely to ever really bring back the river from before agriculture took over this valley. But we sure can try, and this week we took a major step forward on that long arduous journey towards bringing the old salmon runs back to this damaged/heavily used river. Its an ambitious project that has (supposedly) pitted environmentalists against farmers (at least in the popular caricature, although there are farmers who are environmentalists too!) in many a legal and legislative battle over several decades – and that was before the water started flowing again! Let’s see how far we can take this.

Which brings us to the week’s bad news: even as the water started flowing down the river, a judge in Fresno reminded us that the battle to restore the river is far from over, when he decided that the government hadn’t done enough to justify diverting water away from farmland for the sake of the endangered Delta Smelt – a tiny fish from the San Joaquin Delta that has become a symbol of the fight between “environmentalists” vs. “farmers”. In hearing an appeal from some farmers against govt. rules favoring the Smelt under the Endangered Species Act, the judge didn’t really raise any serious objections to the fish being listed under the ESA in the first place. Rather, he objects, oddly enough, to a lack of an environmental impact study… on humans!! You read that right – the judge wants the federal govt. to present a study of the environmental impact of saving the Delta Smelt on humans!! Talk about turning the ESA on its head! He apparently thinks that the current rules issued by the govt for water management in the delta are already causing the human environment to deteriorate: our air is fouled by dust from farms that haven’t received water in the west valley, and land itself is sinking in some places due to increased groundwater pumping! As if over-irrigating and farming in arid landscapes, and careless use of underground aquifers, don’t have anything to do with those environmental impacts! Those are not problems in this Cadillac Desert – but attempts to restore the natural environment for some endangered native species is what we have to worry about, because, darn it, it raises dust into our skies, and forces us to suck so much water from underground that our lands start sinking!!

And you wonder why us environmentalists always have that sinking feeling…

Lost Sounds

ResearchBlogging.orgDeep in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, where the mighty Siang river carves its way through the Himalayan wall, nestled the Adi hamlet of Tuting, surrounded by a sea of green—overgrown fields, verdant mountains, the river itself deep green. The very moonlight seemed green as it shone on the ghostly mist rising from the gorge. Eighteen years ago, a search for India’s last Takin—that strange-looking, mysterious kin of the musk-oxen—had led me (and colleagues from the Wildlife Institute of India) to this remote village, amid dense rainforests that we’d only read about, us kids of the concrete jungle. We were wide-eyed with wonder.

Talom Yaying, an Adi hunter from Tuting took us to look for takin in the mountains, where he hunted regularly—living the “simple, good” life of harmony with nature? Maybe…! He offered us his cave for the night, in the heart of the rainforest, high up on a ridge overlooking the great gorge. Such wonderful, magical country—and so hopeless my attempts to capture its rapturous beauty on a few square centimeters of celluloid! Put that camera away!

On our way back, Talom told me he felt compelled to spend a few nights every week in his cave—away from his village home and family. For in the village, the only sounds to awaken him at dawn were chicken and dogs and pigs. But up in his cave, he was serenaded by the songs of wild birds and other animals! Even in Tuting, a village completely surrounded by the rainforest, he missed the sounds of the forest! Unlike us city-bred wildlifers, he knew exactly what he missed and where to find it. We don’t even understand what we’ve lost, when or where. Growing up amid the steady din of city life, most of us don’t even recognize those other natural sounds, the warbling of birds, the croaking of frogs, the chirrupping of crickets. How, then, can we hope to recover what we don’t even know we’ve lost?

All these years later, many spent studying songbirds in the wild and amidst human habitats, I share Talom’s sense of loss more keenly as I contemplate how all the noise we make adds another, barely recognized, dimension to the loss of biodiversity that all of us bemoan. We recognize, of course, the many overt ways in which our cities displace (if not outright kill) wildlife species by destroying and transforming their habitats. But we are only just beginning to understand the less visble impacts, such as the steady and growing hum of traffic and industry, which alter the behavior and diversity of animals in / near our cities.

Like us, many animals rely on sound to communicate with their mates, relatives, competitors, even enemies—and birdsongs offer the best studied examples. Birds use a variety of sounds to communicate, from simple tweets / whistles to elaborate songs rivaling the finest tunes coming from your FM radio. The more complex songs are used by males to attract mates and to warn rivals for territories. In general, males with bigger repertoires and more complex songs are more successful in courting females and fathering young compared to those that can hum but a few bars of one tune. What’s more, avian pop charts can also vary from station to local station, resulting in regional dialects of song. Some of us (the subspecies of humans known as birdwatchers) can identify different bird species by their voices, even among the duller look-alike warblers (the little brown/green jobs)—while keener ears can learn to tell apart the Greenish Warblers that spend their winter in Maharashtra / Andhra Pradesh from their cousins who prefer to settle in Tamil Nadu or Kerala for the winter!

How well sound waves carry your message depends, of course, on the medium they travel through—and background noise can seriously interfere with audio communication. As you know if you’ve tried to make a phonecall while stuck in traffic, or to sustain that philosophical discussion during a dinner party, the noisier the background, the harder it is to convey your message or understand what the other party is saying! Birds have the same problems: male birds are unable to show off the full extent of their vocal repertoire, especially the subtle vocal modulations, if their habitat is too noisy; and females suffer too because they cannot find the best males, thereby losing the chance to produce attractive sons who will in turn produce the most grandchildren (for that, indeed, is what the evolutionary game is all about when you get right down to it). A recent study found that Australian Zebra Finch females, given the choice between several different male songs (in the laboratory where they listened to recordings) were quite discriminating when the background was quiet, but became rather poor in distinguishing between songs when traffic noise was broadcast along with the same songs! Isn’t the audience always quieter—and more touchy about any noise—at a classical than at a pop music concert?

One way birds can cope with all the noise we make is by singing louder when it gets noisy—and this so called cocktail party effect has been observed in some species. Urban noise, especially traffic, also tends to be generally low-pitched, so an alternative is for birds to get shriller, sing at a higher pitch–exactly what Great Tits have been observed to be doing in Europe. A more subtle effect is for birds to simplify their songs, cutting out some of the fantastic frequency modulations, harmonics, and other vocal gymnastics they are capable of—not unlike how maestros of classical music may be forced to stoop to Bollywood tunes or advertising jingles to make a living! If those tricks don’t work, one has to find relatively quieter times during the busy urban day to sing one’s melodies—which may be why that annoying Magpie Robin keeps waking you up at 4 in the morning, well before dawn!

Of course, not many species are flexible enough to make these adjustments and continue living in the city. Those that cannot cope likely go extinct locally, leaving behind a poorer urban bird community. Chalk up another reason why cities worldwide are occupied mostly by the depressingly familiar contingent of pigeons and starlings and crows—the usual suspects in the homogenization of urban wildlife that seems part and parcel of the globalization package. In the long run, if our cities keep growing, and we keep finding more ways to make noise, we will chase away most of our more discriminating feathered singing friends, while those that remain will sing an impoverished urban dialect. And we all lose the symphony of biodiversity to the homogeneous urban cacaphony. We must all share Talom Yaying’s sense of loss—even though some of us just don’t know it yet!


Katti, M. (2001). Vocal communication and territoriality during the non-breeding season in a migrant warbler Current Science, 80 (3), 419-423 PDF 

Warren, P., Katti, M., Ermann, M., & Brazel, A. (2006). Urban bioacoustics: it’s not just noise Animal Behaviour, 71 (3), 491-502 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2005.07.014  

Swaddle, J., & Page, L. (2007). High levels of environmental noise erode pair preferences in zebra finches: implications for noise pollution Animal Behaviour, 74 (3), 363-368 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2007.01.004 

Slabbekoorn, H., & Peet, M. (2003). Birds sing at a higher pitch in urban noise Nature, 424 (6946), 267-267 DOI: 10.1038/424267a 

Fuller, R., Warren, P., & Gaston, K. (2007). Daytime noise predicts nocturnal singing in urban robins Biology Letters, 3 (4), 368-370 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2007.0134

Urban forestry through the lens of “socio-ecological systems”

Contributed by Seth Reid, following a vigorous class discussion with guest presentation by Genevra Ornelas.

ResearchBlogging.orgOur March 4th class discussion revolved around urban forestry and how it pertained to an article written by John M. Anderis, Marcos A. Jannsen, and Elinor Ostrom. This article provided, “A Framework to Analyze the Robustness of Social-ecologcial Sytems from an Institutional Perspective.” The discussion was lead by a former graduate student, Genevra Ornelas, who is a certified arborist that worked with Canopy in Palo Alto and Tree Fresno. Both organizations are comprised of urban foresters who plant trees around their cities in order to enhance the social welfare of the inhabitants of their respective urban forests.

So what is a Social-ecological system (SES) and how does an urban forest fit within the system? A SES is an ecological system that is intricately linked with and affected by one or more social system (Anderis et. al 2004). Fresno’s SES is the city, its buildings and roadways, its trees and vegetation, its municipalities, and its people. All these variables interact with each other and affect Fresno’s hydrology, its temperature, its pollutants, and its infrastructure. A healthy urban forest can mitigate many of the negative effects of urbanization.

Trees improve hydrology by increasing water infiltration and reducing runoff. They reduce temperature by providing shade, decreasing albedo at the surface level, and decreasing the urban island effect. They decrease air pollution by removing particles from the air. They can even improve infrastructure by protecting asphalt, wood, and plastics from UV rays and heat damage. A tree can save the community time, money, and valuable resources in the long run.

Urban forestry organizations are the voice that advocate for trees. They are the liaison between public knowledge and institutional knowledge. Probably the most important role they have is to educate the public on the importance of trees and how trees integrate with local institutions and municipalities. An educated public can make informed decisions on where to plant trees, and which trees to plant. Organizations such as Canopy and Tree Fresno also help facilitate this by providing trees, hosting celebrations, and presenting awards to citizen tree stewards.

Simply planting trees in our cities is not the answer to all our problems. Dave Craig, an economics professor from the University of Wellington in New Zealand used to challenge our class with a quote, “To Every Complex Question, there is a simple answer, and it’s wrong.” Many trees emit volatile organic compounds, drop limbs, possess extensive canopies and root systems that can damage infrastructure. They do not respect property boundaries, and may do mischievous things like tap into a neighbor’s septic system or uproot city sidewalks. The right tree in the right place can help minimize the risks involved, but risks will still be present. Planting a tree that will bring more benefits then risks is quintessential.

A key component to urban forestry is the concept of the right tree in the right place. As we discussed in class, this is just another example of how humans assert their dominance and control nature. We control what trees grow where and genetically modify them to fit our needs. We select against smelly trees such as female ginkos, or messy trees like female Chinese pistache trees. We breed them to grow larger flowers such as saucer magnolias, or to produce no offspring like fruitless mulberries. We want the benefits of the trees, but we want to avoid many of the drawbacks that come with them. Often we prefer the living dead over “natural” trees. We want our trees to fulfill our needs, but we do not want to reciprocate. We want to control nature.

“The right tree in the right place” is a mantra that has been ingrained into my head over the last three years. In the interim between my undergraduate studies and graduate school I accepted the first job that was available; I became a utility forester with a company called ACRT Inc. My company is a PG&E contractor that is responsible for inspecting trees around the high voltage power lines. As a utility forester I am responsible for maintaining the power line right-of-way by assessing health and grow rates of trees. If a tree is in danger of encroaching upon the right-of-way and disrupting power then I list it for trim or for removal.

As a utility forester I also assume the role of liaison between PG&E, PG&E tree-trimmer, and property owner. This is challenging because all entities involved have conflicting goals. PG&E wants power reliability and fire safety, the tree trimmers want lots of units to trim, and property owners want to maintain the aesthetics of their landscape. When everyone is an agreement my job is easy, but in many cases I have to follow best management practices that leave one or more of the parties upset. Educating the public is the most effective way to accomplish these conflicting goals because most people are unaware of the laws regarding tree and power lines, and most people know very little about tree growth. Just like non-affiliated urban forestry organizations, education is the most powerful tool I have to rectify disagreements between interested parties.

PG&E is a major social component that affects the ecological system of Fresno and my company is just another urban forest organization that is a liaison between the public and a municipality. In order for Fresno to improve its urban forest and maximize the benefits it can provide to humankind, all parties need to compromise and cooperate with one another. But one question still lingers in my mind, where is the Lorax who speaks for the trees?


Anderies, J. M., Janssen, M. A., & Ostrom, E. (2004). A Framework to Analyze the Robustness of Social-ecological Systems from an Institutional Perspective Ecology and Society, 9(1): 18. [online] URL:

Ecosystem services, biodiversity conservation, and how to pay for them

Brad Schleder shares this summary of class discussion of two very interesting papers that Brett Moore brought to the table.

ResearchBlogging.orgModeling multiple ecosystem services, biodiversity conservation, commodity production, and tradeoffs at landscape scales

Erik Nelson, Guillermo Mendoza, James Regetz, Stephen Polasky, Heather Tallis, D. Richard Cameron, Kai MA Chan, Gretchen C. Daily, Joshua Goldstein, Peter M. Kareiva, Eric Lonsdorf, Robin Naidoo, Taylor H. Ricketts, and M. Rebecca Shaw.

The discussion began with a brief overview of the relationship of economic and ecological models. With that in mind the class explored the first paper, which examined three future development scenarios of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The intent of the paper is to quantify the range of goods and services ecosystems generate with the goal of using this information to improve land-use and management decisions. The three models are plan trend (current policies), development plan (a loosening of current development policies), and conservation (emphasis on slow development and restoration). The modeling tool used was the Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs (InVEST). Being more familiar with papers that discussed their data analysis in more detail the class was unclear on how this tool worked. However, after some searching, a 49 page appendix detailing the mathematics used in the model was found, which is based on a mechanistic spatial model using ecological production functions and economic valuation methods. Models were run on water pollution, storm peak mitigation, soil conservation, carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation and commodity production value.

The conservation scenario produced the largest gains, or smallest losses, in ecosystem services and biodiversity conservation with the plan trend and development plan outperforming in regards to the aggregate market value of commodities produced on the landscape. An interesting outcome of this analysis was that there was little difference between the provision of ecosystem services and biodiversity conservation. This was attributed to the conservative use of the model based on Oregon’s history of resource protection, social behaviors and land-ownership practices.

The class wrestled with a few methodologies of this model. First, the use of phosphorous as the sole indicator for water pollution was questioned. Second, using 24 vertebrate species as the only biodiversity measurement might not have been adequate. However, it was agreed that the attempt to quantify different types of development scenarios and the use of an economic framework to assess costs and benefits of ecological resources is a useful model for studying the dynamics of future development.

ResearchBlogging.orgPaying for environmental services from agricultural lands: an example from the northern Everglades

Patrick J. Bohlen, Sarah Lynch, Leonard Shabman, Mark Clark, Sanjay Shukla, and Hillary Swain

The second paper, in keeping with the economic theme, explores one implementation of a market-like program that would pay farmers and ranchers for producing environmental services. The government does provide programs such as subsidies for implementing best management practices, which are designed to increase provision of environmental services from agricultural lands. However, one disadvantage of these policies is the inability of determining their effectiveness. One proposed alternative is to create a market-like program that will encourage producers and sellers to develop innovative programs with environmental results that can be economically valued.

In the northern Everglades lands were drained for the development of both agriculture and human settlement. These land-use changes are having adverse effects on the Lake Okeechobe watershed. In addition to fragmenting wildlife habitat it has accelerated the rate of the flow of water and nutrients into regional bodies of water. This increase in nutrients has drastically affected water quality. These environmental problems prompted the Florida state legislature to create programs to decrease the water flow and increase water retention on public and private lands. In lieu of a large scale construction of above and below ground reservoirs the State began a pilot program, which is working with cattle ranchers in the affected watershed to provide water recharge and storage on their ranches. In addition to the government agencies, the program also involved the National Audubon Society, The World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy. Instead of paying for massive building projects for water storage the State would pay cattle ranchers for creating water retention areas on their properties. This project involved many agencies, much red tape and considerable negotiations from all parties. One of the most difficult parts was in determining a value for the ranchers’ environmental service. Designing this program was as much of a socioeconomic challenge as it was a technical or scientific one. The pilot program appears to be promising and there are plans to increase its size. Imperative to its continued success is the sustained involvement and good will of the parties involved.

I wondered if there was more information on other environmental services that were paid for and found several examples. On a global scale, one project investigates the potential for compensating farmers of the Peruvian Amazon to provide carbon sequestering by maintaining or increasing forest habitat on their lands. Their compensation would be obtained from carbon emitters in developed countries. In Costa Rica, private landowners are being compensated for providing water resources for their communities.

After more thought on this subject I feel that placing an economic value on the environment and the resources it provides is not only a step in the right direction, but perhaps the most effective strategy for conservation. Without placing a value on the many services that the environment provides invites the exploitation of lands for the benefit of a few and the cost to many. In essence, this is the “Tragedy of the Commons” Garrett Hardin wrote of in 1968; a parable describing the destruction of one resource shared by many, but owned by none. For example, placing a value on the hydrology of the northern Everglades takes this system out of the “commons” framework and provides incentive for its conservation for the benefit of the stakeholders affected by the harmful outcomes of individuals’ land-use decisions. This type of policy, while challenging to implement and manage, has the potential to substantially benefit both humans and the environment.


Nelson, E., Mendoza, G., Regetz, J., Polasky, S., Tallis, H., Cameron, D., Chan, K., Daily, G., Goldstein, J., Kareiva, P., Lonsdorf, E., Naidoo, R., Ricketts, T., & Shaw, M. (2009). Modeling multiple ecosystem services, biodiversity conservation, commodity production, and tradeoffs at landscape scales Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 7 (1), 4-11 DOI: 10.1890/080023

Bohlen, P., Lynch, S., Shabman, L., Clark, M., Shukla, S., & Swain, H. (2009). Paying for environmental services from agricultural lands: an example from the northern Everglades Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 7 (1), 46-55 DOI: 10.1890/080107

Coupled Human And Natural Systems – a class discussion

Heather Hanlin wrote the following summary of our class discussion on Feb 17th:

ResearchBlogging.orgWe discussed two different papers: “Coupled Human and Natural Systems,” by Jianguo Liu et al (2007), and “The Effects of Human Socioeconomic Status and Cultural Characteristics on Urban Patterns of Biodiversity” by Ann Kinzig et al (2005). The “Coupled Human and Natural Systems,” are referred to as CHANS. CHANS are ways to incorporate humans and the natural environment interactions, so that social-ecological and human interactions and their effects can be better understood and used to predict future effects. These results can be applied to such topics as government and environmental policy. The paper was very information intensive and had a lot of jargon, which made it a bit difficult to grasp the paper in it’s entirety, but the topic is of great importance and much can be gained from integrating all the areas covered including: the organizational, spatial, and temporal couplings of CHANS; their direct and indirect interactions, from local to global scales, and from simple to complex patterns and processes.

Historically they have been viewed at a more local scale, but now trying to integrate more of all the levels, from local, regional, continental, to global. There are three types of CHAN couplings: organizational, spatial, and temporal. Within the organizational couplings there are reciprocal effects, for example a power plant does not always just deplete the surrounding environment but there can be a lush preserve right alongside it, and feedbacks. There are indirect effects within organizational couplings, for example in making plastics the energy required to produce them and dispose of them, as their production requires petroleum. The emergent properties of organizational couplings are the results from the interactions, and not the products of pure nature or pure social aspects. The vulnerability of the organizational couplings, are its ability to deal with changes. The threshold of organizational couplings are how much change they can handle until they can no longer return to their original state, and their resilience is how well they can recover from the damage caused by the change (back to point A).

There are three levels of spatial couplings. The first looks across spatial scales, for example world trade. The second looks beyond boundaries, which includes what is shipped out of the area from which the products originated. For example, most American companies claim to recycle and properly dispose of electronics such as computers, but on many occasions we ship these products to other countries for them to sort out. In a sort of out of sight, out of mind mentality. These companies use other countries lax environmental laws to get around our more rigid, slightly more environmentally friendly ones and to save money. This is still polluting the planet, but we pay less attention when it is in out own back yard. The third looks at heterogeneity.

Temporal couplings have several aspects, which include: 1) a massive increase in the human impacts on the natural systems, 2) rising natural impacts on humans, 3) legacy effects, for example our stopping of naturally burning forest fires, 4) time lags, for example the CFC’s used in aerosol cans, 5) increasing scale and pace, meaning the exponential increase of the number of people in the world and the advancement of transportation technology has allowed people to go across the globe in a matter of hours, and 6) escalating indirect effects, for example invasive species brought around the globe by people.

All of the implications from the conducted studies point toward a need for change in policy. They stated that a change in view from “humans conquer nature” to “humans co-evolve with nature” is required. Our own class could not agree on where we fall within this wide spectrum. Not a whole lot of policy in the government reflects a view of “humans co-evolving with nature.” The general public needs a paradigm shift in order to change their views. We need to view the economy as a steady state, instead of needing constant growth. Our current economic system expects to see growth every year, and if we viewed it as a fluctuating system we may actually view our limited resources as what they are, limited resources. We are headed in the right direction but we need to change our view of scale and look at not only the local but integrate the localàstateà countryàglobal interactions as well.

The localization of policy design is important to CHANS, and they need to be looked at in a very context specific manner. We need to address the details of the system, and not just the overall system. We need to think in terms of an abstract local area, and not just a geographically local area. Management systems need to be dynamic, and appropriately adapted to the details of the system. We need to understand the system in order to be able to push the system in a particular direction, and shape its future. If we looked at the infrastructure as fluctuating and not static, the interactions within the system, and how will small scale decisions affect the larger scales we would realize how much there is to be aware and conscience of.

Some of the necessary approaches discussed were: 1) maintaining margins of safety for uncertainty, for example people that live on the coast, 2) factoring in insurance as a hedge against disaster, and 3) ensuring adaptive mechanisms. The challenges and opportunities included linking coupled human and natural systems across scales, utilizing more integrated tools, comparative studies and portfolios are needed, collaborations among all fields of relevant coupled natural systems, for example more interdisciplinary studies in academic institutions, and getting beyond the “Ivory Tower,” so that whatever the outcome the applications must be practical. CHANS are rapidly changing, and you need to know more on the multiple scales.

The second paper: “The Effects of Human and Socioeconomic Status and Cultural Characteristics on Urban Patterns of Biodiversity,” discussed how species richness in urban areas is also affected by socioeconomic and cultural factors, and additional incorporation of these factors could improve current urban species richness predictors. Humans are increasingly altering the landscape, and cities are one example of how we modify the surface of the earth. Most people living in urban areas will only experience the natural world by what is in their city environment. Cities can host quite a wide variety of species, and we need to better understand the interactions that involve our socioeconomic and cultural influences on these interactions. The traditional paradigm uses a “gradient approach,” which searches for regular patterns of biodiversity relative to gradients of land use, distance form the urban center, or human population density. They looked at urban patterns of diversity across a gradient. The scale is important, for species, location, etc. since the definition of urban vs. rural varies. They tested this theory in Phoenix, Arizona by using avian and plant diversity within neighborhood parks and residential areas. They did find that by including the socioeconomic and cultural variables does add information for determining species richness in an urban setting. Of course not all patterns of urban biodiversity are affected equally, and they spilt these up into bottom-up and top-down influences. They separated the patterns into four categories: 1) perennial plant diversity in parks is affected by top-down processes, 2) perennial plant diversity in neighborhoods is affected by bottom-down processes, 3) bird diversity in parks is affected by more top-down than bottom-up processes, and 4) bird diversity in neighborhoods is affected by more bottom-up than top-down processes (since birds are mobile avian diversity is more complex). They predicted that the more bottom-up influences would be affected by the socioeconomic and cultural influences, and as predicted they found plant diversity in neighborhoods were most affected, plant diversity in parks was least affected, and avian diversity in neighborhoods and parks was intermediately affected. They did find that by including the socioeconomic status the sensitivity of determining biodiversity increased, and that integrating this information into the traditional methods only improves their predictive ability.

Income captures a lot of socioeconomic variables, which is why the median income was used. This has strong inference for environmental justice issues, since top-down government choices for city planning in parks may be biased by the socioeconomic status of the surrounding community. There may be more plant diversity in higher socioeconomic communities, as indicated by a study conducted in Brazil. If most people living in cities experience nature by what is in their urban setting, and there is less diversity in a lower socioeconomic neighborhood that implies that they are experiencing an environmental injustice. People in these areas may be less concerned about environmental issues regarding topics they themselves are not experiencing. If they are experiencing a very limited view of the world, an attitude change will be much harder since it is outside their area of influence and they aren’t being exposed to the natural environment. Birds can also be indicators for environmental health status as well. There is definitely a need for more studies of urban ecological relationships, especially since the global population is increasing the most in urban areas.


Liu, J., Dietz, T., Carpenter, S., Folke, C., Alberti, M., Redman, C., Schneider, S., Ostrom, E., Pell, A., Lubchenco, J., Taylor, W., Ouyang, Z., Deadman, P., Kratz, T., & Provencher, W. (2007). Coupled Human and Natural Systems AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, 36 (8), 639-649 DOI: 10.1579/0044-7447(2007)36[639:CHANS]2.0.CO;2

Kinzig, A.P., Warren, P., Martin, C., Hope, D. and Katti, M. (2005). The Effects of Human Socioeconomic Status and Cultural Characteristics on Urban Patterns of Biodiversity Ecology and Society, 10 (1)23. [online] URL: