Assigning Value to Ecosystem Services

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One of the things we often struggle with is how to measure the increased value of the ecosystem services from managing land using Holistic Management techniques.  In a world where the monetary value of something is the yard stick by which most things are measured, it would be useful to be able to be able to use the same language when we describe the benefits to the environment from our management.  If there’s a bean counter out there looking at how to  justify using a holistic approach versus a conventional one, showing the “return on investment” in terms and language he/she understands might be the difference between being hired to manage a property or not.

HMI recently hired an engineering consultant to employ a technique called a Habitat Equivalency Analysis (HEA), to measure the improved function in ecosystem services from a well pad site restored using targeted, Holistic Planned Grazing.  The HEA process was developed by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to measure the loss of ecosystem function due to accidents like oil spills.  The process has help up in court cases and is recognized by other government agencies.  HMI decided to flip that process inside out and use it to measure the improvements to ecosystem function instead.

A report of that analysis follows.  It makes for some interesting reading.  Maybe it’s a process you While some of it seems too technical in nature, it’s could be a valuable analysis to use when assigning value to ecosystem services.

 

Habitat Equivalency Analysis

 Of Well Site Restoration on Devil Springs Ranch

Farmington, New Mexico

 

Conducted by R2 Engineering

For

Holistic Management International

April 2010

Executive Summary

R Squared Incorporated (R²) and Holistic Management International (HMI) have engaged together to provide environmental protection and preservation in concert with energy development.  R² and HMI are jointly supporting the Open Space Pilot Project (OSPP) in the San Juan Basin, New Mexico, which is a comprehensive planning and implementation program for management of energy development site disturbances.  HMI has provided a unique opportunity to productively integrate existing land uses with energy development and reclamation.   R² has implemented quantification tools to capture the improvements of the practices being implemented as part of the OSPP.  The ultimate message of this cooperative project is that it is possible for private land preservation, environmental protection, energy development and generation of economy to coexist productively for the benefit of all.

Introduction

R Squared Incorporated (R²) is providing technical support to HMI through quantifying changes to the ecological services of the habitats contained within the OSPP in the San Juan Basin, New Mexico.  Based on visual observation, it is readily apparent that the HMI practice applied to reclamation creates substantial benefit in terms of habitat quantity and quality.  This project was designed to measure and quantify the benefits provided through the HMI practice.

The OSPP, a project implemented presently on the Devil’s Spring Ranch in New Mexico, is a comprehensive planning and implementation program for management of energy development site disturbances.  For new sites, the OSPP supports a framework for site development and management, including reclamation.  For existing sites, it provides a means of site reclamation that is economically viable, environmentally responsible, sustainable and socially acceptable. The program integrates energy development, local and broader economy generation and environmental sustainability.  The primary energy development activities within the OSPP are natural gas; however, there also are coal bed methane gas wells. This project includes using HMI framework, scientific principles, engineering approaches integrated with local conditions resulting in a minimal footprint for overall energy production.  The OSPP incorporates goals and responsibilities of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the energy companies, with priorities of the grazing permittees and landowners, into a collaborative process to produce energy resources in an environmentally beneficial and long- term responsible manner.  The OSPP is 5,760 acres, contains 99 existing wells with another 44 to be drilled, and 23 miles of roadway. The key of the OSPP is to reduce both interim and long term land disturbance through energy development in the San Juan Basin.

Holistic Management International (HMI) is a non-profit organization dedicated to maintaining grasslands worldwide. When those grasslands have been impacted or destroyed, they support private, public and communal grassland restoration by managing resources in partnership with nature to increase the productivity of the land, optimize water resources, preserve food sources, create sustainable livelihoods and sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The objectives of the partnership between HMI and R² for this specific project are:

  •  Identify “undisturbed” habitats and their natural resource components within the OSPP
  • Determine the ecological “value” of parcels of land used as well pads, before and after energy development well pad creation
  • Quantify increase in ecological service value through reclamation provided through HMI practice

Concept of Ecosystem Services and Valuation

The quantification process is extrapolated from the Habitat Equivalency Analysis (HEA) model designed by the United State Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) and modified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) through the natural resource damage assessment (NRDA) process.  All natural resources provide services to other natural resources and humans.  When the natural resources experience an impact, it often generates an interim lost use of services of those natural resources.

Habitat Equivalency Analysis (HEA) is an analytical framework that originally was developed to calculate compensation for loss of ecological services resulting from injury to a natural resource through a spill of oil or a release of a hazardous substance.  HEA has been tested and upheld in Natural Resource Damages (NRD) litigation and determined to be appropriate quantification methodology to determine the value of ecological services of natural resources and to adequately equate the debits from injury to natural resources and services to the credits generated from restoration, or in this case, reclamation.  The HEA identifies:

  • Interim lost natural resource services
  • Resources/Service losses due to injury = Resource/service gains from compensatory restoration project
  • Obtain equivalency between the resources/services lost and those gained through restoration (in this case reclamation)

The Natural Resource Damage Assessment statutes require natural resource trustees to determine when a natural resource has been injured. The HEA was initially designed to support the trustees with these determinations and quantification of the loss or “debit”. The injury is calculated in DSAYs, discounted service acre years, rather than a monetary calculation, so that compensation in the form of restoration can be scaled and designed to offset the debit.  DSAYS relates to the amount of ecological services that were lost because of the injury to the natural resource.  The output is discounted by 3%, as nationally agreed to by economic professionals, in order to compensate for the naturally occurring changes in ecosystems and their services over time.

The goal of the NRDA is to provide compensation to the public for those injuries and the interim lost use of the natural resource services through achieving the following goals:

  •  Make the public whole for injuries to natural resources that result from the release of hazardous substances or oil
  • The public is made whole through “restoration” (damages recovered must be used for restoration)
  • NRDA restoration complements, but is distinct from, “cleanup” actions

When the injury is calculated in DSAYS, the restoration project is then also put through the HEA to demonstrate through DSAYS that the restoration designed is adequate in DSAYS to offset the DSAYS resulting from the injury.

R² Incorporated extrapolated the “HEA approach” from the NRDA arena to bring the appropriate quantification methodology to:

  •  Identify and quantify the baseline condition of the land prior to E&P activities (well pad construction)
  • Quantify the increase in natural resource services through reclamation utilizing HMI practices vs traditional reclamation of well pads

HEA incorporates the resource service level at the time of “the impact”, or in the case of this project, at the time of construction of the well pad.  Additional variables for the analysis include the time when the habitat replacement begins (or reclamation is initiated), the annualized per unit value of the impacted habitat through construction of the well pad, the level of services per unit being provided by the replacement habitat (reclamation through HMI practice), the initial services per unit of the reclamation, the discount factor (which has been previously established at 3%), the total in acres of the reclamation that equates the impacts to the gains through reclamation.

Methodology

R² Incorporated conducted a site tour of the Open Space Pilot Project Devil’s Spring Ranch on April 28-29, 2010.  A site visit was made to several well pads, but specifically focusing and comparing the reclamation efforts at San Juan Basin 28-6 Unit 124-M.  The well pads visited included both recent (less than 3 years) reclaimed and not recent (greater than or equal to 3 years) reclaimed pads.  Typical well pad construction for natural gas wells include temporary surface disturbance of approximately 215 foot by 300 foot well pads, a construction zone up to 50 feet wide around the perimeter of the site, to a total disturbance  of 2.89 acres with approximately 1.0 acre of long-term disturbance for the collection facilities, tank and road for access.

Two specific well pads were identified for analysis:

  • One plot reclaimed with Best Management Practices for the San Juan Basin; and
  • One plot reclaimed with HMI practices

Observations made during the site inspection included:

  • visual observations and description;
  • photographs of the reclaimed area(s),
  • measuring abundance, stem height and density of grasses present

The application of HEA for this specific project included collecting information for two reclaimed well pads within the San Juan Basin Unit 28-6.  Data collected included:

  •  the year “impact” began which is the year the well pad was constructed
  • the  habitat quality and type adjacent to but not impacted by the construction of the well pad
  • the amount of vegetation “measured” during the site visit
  • the type(s) of vegetation growing on the reclaimed well pads during the site visit

R² extrapolated the HEA approach to “measure” the service(s) provided by the habitats observed during the field visit to the OSPP.  Prior to the construction of the well pads for exploration and production, certain habitats existed and provided natural resource services.  Those services were temporarily interrupted through the construction of well pads and drilling for energy.  Reclamation is required as part of the permitting process for petroleum exploration and production.  The HMI practice has been integrated into the reclamation on the San Juan Basin Unit 28-6 #124-M.  Based on visual observation, the HMI practice has provided significant support to the reclamation, as compared to other well pads reclaimed without the HMI practice application, and is responsible for successful re-vegetation and creating an increase in habitat type and ecological services provided by the created habitat.  Measuring services of a habitat are no easy task as habitat functions are complex.  A “metric” must be selected to support the determination whether a restoration project (or in this case a reclamation project) has been successful.  R² chose measuring the amount of grasses within a plot area on each reclaimed well pad, and the stem height of the grasses present, as the appropriate metric to quantify the benefits created through reclamation on the OSPP.  Since habitats typically provide numerous services, R² focused on the services of the grasses for this project, in order to prevent the process from being overcomplicated and so that a straight-forward quantification could be provided.  Stem height is an attribute that can be used to measure the services provided by grasses because it is an easy non-destructive measurement and because it represents the functional roles of the habitat:

  • food sources
  • shelter for small terrestrial receptors including insects and other invertebrates
  • soil stabilization
  • nutrient recycling

Results

Based on visual observation, the HMI-reclaimed pads demonstrate a much greater reclamation success.  Within each of the visually inspected reclaimed pads, a small location within the total 2.89 acres disturbed area considered “the plot” was measured for vegetation type, vegetation abundance and vegetation stem height to confirm a level of maturity within the vegetation and habitat.  It is an area of approximately 1” by 2”, chosen to be representative of the entire reclaimed area. The stem height of the grass plots in the HMI pad were approximately ½-3” high.  The stem height within the non-HMI reclaimed pads never measured higher than ½”.  The abundance of new grasses and other vegetation growing at the HMI-reclaimed pad, based on visual observation is substantially greater than the vegetation growing on the Conoco Phillips pad that has been reclaimed for 3 years and exhibits less than 1% vegetation across the entire reclaimed pad. (Plate 1-photos of the reclaimed pads).  The reclamation is a success from several perspectives, including supporting a greater range of wildlife as well as complimenting the local land owner uses.

The information collected during the field visit April 28-29, 2010, for two well pads were input into the HEA model.  Running the HEA model, the debit or interim lost use resulting from the creation of the well pad was 6.65 DSAYS (discounted service acre years).  This means that 6.65 acres of habitat is required to compensate for the interim lost use resulting from the construction of the well pad.  The HEA results for the HMI-reclaimed pad were 6.82 DSAYS, which means that there were greater ecological services created in one year through the HMI reclamation practices than the reclamation calculated as required through the HEA.  The non-HMI reclaimed pad HEA results were .61 DSAYs documenting that the HMI-reclamation generated a greater amount of ecological services in one year, than the non-HMI reclamation provided over three years.

The results are displayed below:

The graph above depicts the difference in the Service Level Acres (SLAc) of the traditional reclamation effort versus the reclamation accomplished through HMI practices.  The results of the HEA additionally depict not only that there is significant difference in the level of ecological service value resulting from the two reclamation efforts and that the HMI-reclaimed pad will continue to “sustain” the ecological service value and potentially continue to increase over time thereby providing a significant habitat that supports livestock and wildlife, a desired outcome for the BLM and other stakeholders.

The presence of abundant vegetation also serves not only to provide valuable habitat and nutrition sources for both wildlife and livestock, but also to prohibit the erosion of valuable top soil, another priority of stakeholders of the Devils’ Spring Ranch, and the San Juan Basin.

The habitat prior to E&P activities, as documented in the Revised Environmental Assessment (EA) for the San Juan Basin 28-6 Unit #458S is primarily pinon-juniper woodland with areas of reclaimed community.  The reclaimed co munity is dominated by Russian thistly (Salsola tragus) and Prostrate vervain( Verbena bracteata).  The undisturbed proposed project area is a combination of pinon pine (Pinus edulis), Utah juniper (Juniperus osteospera) as well as rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa) and big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) (Ecoshpere 2009).  Overall, the vegetation has been estimated to be at about 1-10% cover in the well pad locations, prior to E&P activities (primarily construction of well pads).

The OSPP is located within the San Juan Basin, which supports abundant wildlife species as well as domestic land uses such as livestock grazing.  Primary wildlife includes mule deer, desert cottontail, ground squirrels, kangaroo rat, black-tailed jack rabbit and prairie dog, and elk utilize the area in the winter months.  The open terrain (primarily to the east and along the canyon walls of the basin), the pinon-juniper woodlands and the open grasslands provide marginal foraging and nesting habitat for large raptors, in particular golden eagles, prairie falcons and red-tailed hawks although no raptors, nests or whitewash was observed in the project area.  There are also over 350 avian species in San Juan County and the surrounding area.  A total of 136 species were confirmed breeding in San Juan County (Ecosphere 2009)

Grass is a preferred food of elk, however they can thrive on forbs and woody browse as well. Mule deer are primarily browsers, with a majority of their diet comprised of forbs (broad-leaved, non-woody plants) and browse (leaves and twigs of shrubs and trees). Deer digestive tracts differ from cattle and elk in that they have a smaller rumen in relation to their body size and so they must be more selective in their feeding. Instead of eating large quantities of low quality feed like grass, deer must select the most nutritious plants and parts of plants.

The presence and condition of the shrub component is an underlying issue found throughout different ecoregions and is important to many factors affecting mule deer populations. Shrubs occur mostly in early successional habitats; that is, those recently disturbed and going through the natural processes of maturing to a climax state. This means disturbance is a key element to maintaining high quality deer habitat.  The HMI-reclaimed pad, based on visual observations and supported by the HEA quantification, provides a broader reaching and more abundant habitat to support both livestock and wildlife since the threat of shrubs taking over valuable foraging habitat for wildlife is reduced by the presence of abundant grasses resulting from the HMI-reclamation efforts.  In winter range areas, expansion and maturation of pinon-juniper woodlands in the absence of fire has decreased understory diversity and productivity resulting in less winter forage for deer. (BLM, XXXX)  In ponderosa pine forests, suppression of regular, natural understory fires has increased ladder fuels, increased crown fire potential, and reduced understory productivity.  The HMI-reclamation provides for greater habitat generation, protection and receptor support.

In addition to changes in plant species composition that favor less palatable and often non-native species, nutritional quality of deer habitat can also decline as preferred plant species mature and older growth accumulates. As plants mature, cell walls thicken, anti-herbivory defenses become more developed, and the relative amount of nutritious, current annual growth decreases. Periodic disturbance is often necessary to stimulate plant productivity. Traditionally, this disturbance has been created through controlled burns or removal of certain vegetation, primarily sage and pinon-junipers.  The collaboration between the production of energy and reclamation has allowed for complimentary “disturbance” to the ecosystems in the San Juan Basin.  The disturbance provided by the construction of well pads which are then reclaimed through the HMI practice serve to not only support the necessary interruption of “over growth” of mature species that decline in habitat and nutritional value over time, but also to produce a more valuable habitat and nutritional source through reclamation.

In conclusion, the San Juan Basin is currently the object of energy development, primarily natural gas exploration and production.  A great deal of the land contained within the OSPP, which is included in the San Juan Basin, is either owned privately and grazed, or owned by the United States or the State of New Mexico and leased for grazing.  There is a need to create a balance between the development of energy, the private use of the land, the generation of economy and the preservation and restoration of the environment.  The balance achieved and demonstrated through the efforts implemented at the OSPP through the incorporation of HMI practices in reclamation are evidence of the capability to balance the production of energy, the generation of economy and protection of the environment for all stakeholders in a collaborative process with land owners and private enterprise, leaving the land with a much greater legacy.

REFERENCES

Operating Standards and Guidelines for Oil and Gas Exploration and Development, “The Gold Book”, Fourth Edition, Bureau of Land Management 2007.

Environmental Assessment, BURLINGTON RESOURCES OIL AND GAS COMPANY, LP. SAN JUAN 28-6 UNIT #126N, PROPOSED NATURAL GAS WELL PROJECT, MINERAL LEASE NM NMSF-079192 Ecosphere Environmental Services (2009)

 

Plate 1: Photos comparing Non-HMI reclamation vs. Holistic Managed-reclamation.  Photos on left is San Juan Basin 28-6 Unit 124-M (non-HMI site).  Photos on right show HM-reclamation.

 


HM reclaimed well site.

Phenological Grazing Planning

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According to Wikipedia1, “phenology is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and inter-annual variations in climate.”  The discipline of phenology is often attributed to the great naturalist and author Aldo Leopold.  In fact, phenology is an ancient science that human beings have studied and applied for millennia.

Phenological phenomenon are expressed in the annual cycles of nature: a bear emerging from hibernation, a spring ephemeral blooming in the forest, or a grass seedling germinating and establishing itself with the assistance of summer rains.  Phenology is proving a critical science in studying the effects and pace of climate change around the globe.  Understanding phenology, moreover, is a critical part of land management, and grazing planning is no exception.

To date, attempts at phenological grazing planning have been subtle or poorly documented.  It is imperative that we improve our existing planning tools; this can be achieved by monitoring ecosystem phenology, and by incorporating phenological data into the grazing planning process.

Monitoring is the first critical element of phenological grazing planning.  Phenology is highly place specific, factors like elevation, latitude, seasonal variation, and species composition will affect annual ecosystem cycles.  Many groups have felt the need to develop a landscape-scale, collaborative phenological monitoring protocol and database.

This need has led to the USA National Phenology Network.  They have developed data collection sheets, documentation on collecting field data, and a collaborative web-based interface to enter and retrieve data from across North America.

Learning how to use and expand upon these kinds of tools will be critical for the continued development and refinement of planned grazing.  In 2011, HMI will be looking to build a stronger relationships between our community and organizations like the USA National Phenology Network.  We will encourage the use of these monitoring tools via outreach and education, and also explore ways to integrate these tools within the framework of holistic planned grazing.

In my next post, I will explore some of the possibilities that phenological grazing planning offers to the land manager.

1http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenology

Dan Dagget: An Audio-Visual Presentation

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Below is a series of videos featuring author, environmentalist, journalist, and ecosystem restorer Dan Dagget. In this series Dan shares with us a series of slides showing the on the ground techniques of active ecosystem restorers. Featured is a discussion of goals vs. issues, cattle as a tool to restore mine tailing sites, the damage to land caused by rest and preservation, strategies for conserving endangered species, and a critique of environmentalism as driven by politics instead of results on the ground.

 

 

 

 

HM Podcast Series: Towards Holistic Research

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We are joined by Josh Egenolf, who is a Ph.d. candidate with the Odum School of Ecology, which is part of the University of Georgia.  Josh is currently developing a research proposal that will evaluate the relationships between management typologies and sustainability indicators.  His approach is a participatory one that will directly involve producers from the Indiana Beef Alliance, and will be looking at how Holistic Management practitioners make decisions.

Topics of discussion include a description of the general research design, the methodological considerations of holistic research, the importance of farmer participation in research implementation, research as a means for seeking divergent solutions, and the difficulties in funding holistic research.

Download the mp3 file. Or listen by using the player below.