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Science Notebook: Transcript of Interview with Tim O'Higgins

Talking with most wetlands scientists these days you hear often hear the term "ecosystem services" but it's not really clear what this term is all about. To try to shed some light on ecosystem services and why the public should care about it, I'm chatting with Tim O'Higgins who is doing his post-doctoral work in EPA's Newport, Oregon lab on this very topic.

DMH: OK Tim, ecosystem services. What exactly does this term mean?

TO'H: Ecosystem services are the benefits obtained by human beings from their environment

DMH: Can you give me some examples of what you're talking about?

TO'H: There are four main types of ecosystem services. Provisioning services, such as the production of clean air and water as well as raw materials such as timber and food. Regulating services are things like the maintenance of climate through uptake of carbon dioxide. Habitat services are those that make a particular area suitable for animals or plants to live in. There are also cultural services such as the enjoyment we get from recreating in the environment and the are spiritual well being we get from nature.

DMH: I think that most people understand that nature is valuable so ecosystem services basically says "Yes it is valuable, and here's what it's worth?"

TO'H: Yes, in a way. Many of ecosystem services are not accounted for within the traditional economy, and the ecosystems based management approach seeks to include these non-market values in the decision making process. For example I do not have to pay every time I go fishing, but each fishing trip has value to me (whether I catch a fish or not).

DMH: Let's use recreational fisheries as an example of ecosystem services. How do you measure the value of recreational fisheries? What kind of data do you collect? Is it complicated?

TO'H: Though a certain ecosystems service or activity may not have a market value, people who enjoy that good or service may still be willing to pay for it. Economists have several different way to measure Willingness to Pay for recreational fishing. These methods usually involve surveys questioning people about their fishing preferences, and what they would be willing to pay for a given improvement in fishing quality or what they would be willing to accept for a dis-improvement in fishing quality

DMH: So you're basically assigning a dollar value to the act of fishing but so what? What is the goal of calculating this number?

TO'H: Well, very many decisions are made based on economic analysis, so by calculating dollar values for recreational activities and other ecosystem services we can include many more aspects of the environment its benefits, into the decision making process. One of the goals of my project is to develop tools for decision makers. These will take the form of maps of values, based on habitat maps, so that a manger or decision maker can see at a glance what are the most valuable natural areas within a given location.

DMH: And will values vary across a wetland or estuarine system? That is, could you have one portion of the estuary be worth $100,000 dollars and another portion only be worth $100? Basically, what scale are you talking about when you calculate these values?

TO'H: Values of different habitat types can vary greatly even within a single estuary. My work which examined only a small subset of services suggests that some habitats are worth at least several thousand dollars per acre per year and that these values may vary by a factor of 10 between habitats. Over time, the value of ecosystem services from sustainable systems can stack up quite dramatically.

DMH: How confident are you or how confident is any researcher in this field? Is there room for argument around any of these numbers? I can see cases where someone would want there to be a high value associated with an ecosystem while someone else, who perhaps wants to develop the land, may want it to be of low value.

TO'H: The science of ecosystems services is still in a developmental phase, and there is considerable uncertainly surrounding many value estimates. The job of the scientist in this field is to discover and quantify the links between the ecosystems we live in and the benefits they provide for us.

DMH: Do you have any real life examples of how ecosystem services have been used?

TO'H: There are many new examples of ecosysetem services success stories. For example here in Newport, the Wetlands conservancy has bought over 450 acres of estuarine marsh. By conserving these marsh areas we provide habitat for juvenile salmon species. Recreational and commercial Salmon fisheries from the Yaquina estuary are worth up to $3m per year. The recently purchased salt marsh habitat also supports species listesed under the endangered species act such as bald eagles and brown pelicans which are highly valued by the public.

DMH: I assume it's probably pretty easy to get data for something like recreational fisheries but are there other aspects that you can measure too?

TO'H: One of the aspects of my initial project description was to examine the value of biodiversity. Biodiversity is the variety of life within a given system. Having many species present can insure continued supply of ecosystem services even in the face of environmental fluctuations.

DMH: And why is that? How does a great number of species ensure continued ecosystem services?

TO'H: Well if you have several animals carrying out a similar role in the ecosystem, and for whatever reason one species should fail or decline, for example due to rising temperatures or declining water quality, another species may be there to carry out the service, however if only one species is present and it fails for whatever reason, there is no other species there to provide the service which have been lost.

DMH: So related to this, do some species provide more value than other species?

TO'H: Yes, for example in the Yaquina estuary two burrowing shrimp, the ghost shrimp and the mudshrimp are ecosystem engineers and very strongly influence the cycling of nitrogen within the estuary.

DMH: So does your work on ecosystem services involve a lot of field work? What's a typical year like for someone studying this?

TO'H: No, my work has focused around gathering and synthesizing existing data, this involves a lot of time in the library or behind a computer. I also do a lot or mapping work. I have also done a fair amount of travelling to examine first hand systems on each coast, I've been to estuaries in the Rhode Island, California and Florida.

DMH: How did you get interested in this topic?

TO'H: I did a lot of work In Ireland looking at the Liffey estuary which runs through Dublin. This estuary has been used by humans for a Millenium this really got me thinking about the interactions between humans and their environment.

DMH: So what kind of background do you need to have to study ecosystem services?

TO'H:I did a primary degree in Marine Science, which mainly involved biology. I then did an MSc in Oceanography and a PhD in environmental science. However ecosystem services research requires just as many social scientists. In reality, ecosystems services are of direct relevance to everybody living on the planet and anybody who is aware of their interactions with the planet is a student of ecosystem services.

DMH: So from your perspective, where do you think the field of ecosystem services is headed? Basically, what's next?

TO'H: The ultimate goal for ecosystem services is the integration of ecosystem goods and services into our economic models for society, so that we may include the natural phenomenon on which we so heavily depend, into the decision making process.

DMH: Thanks so much for your time today Tim and for explaining ecosystem services. Hopefully people will look at our natural resources a little bit differently now and will understand how "Going green" can now include the green of a dollar sign too!

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