Innovative Tool Provides Development Alternatives

Hannah Kett

No market works if you can’t measure the quantity and quality of goods and services being sold, and ecosystem markets offer a product that is notoriously difficult (and expensive) to measure.  Several tools have emerged to try and fix that. Here’s a look at how Parametrix developed one of them.

No market works if you can’t measure the quantity and quality of goods and services being sold, and ecosystem markets offer a product that is notoriously difficult (and expensive) to measure.   Several tools have emerged to try and fix that. Here’s a look at how Parametrix developed one of them.

28 July 2011 | The San Pedro Watershed feeds the San Pedro River that winds through the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts in Arizona and Mexico.   Though sparsely populated, growth could eliminate fragile ecosystem services, which are already degraded by the region’s cattle farming.

To keep the ecosystem service damage to a minimum, developers may want to put new housing on the plot of land labeled St. David, according to the results of an exercise conducted last May at the Ecosystem, Tools and Market (ESTM) Working Group roundtable sponsored by BSR, a global network of companies focused on sustainable development.  

At the roundtable, eight ecosystem decision-making tools were applied to an actual landscape to determine the best 500-acre piece of land to build a hypothetical development based on four key ecosystem service parameters: water provisioning, carbon sequestration, cultural services and biodiversity.   The hypothetical offered the opportunity to compare the different applications of each of these tools and to understand how they might work in a corporate setting.


St. David was selected by a tool called EcoMetrix, which was designed to evaluate site-level impacts of new development instead of looking at impacts from a landscape-level context.   It works by modeling and measuring the positive and negative impacts that a proposed development will have on the site’s landscape and ecosystem services.   The tool is built to provide the evaluation of a variety of scenarios, allowing developers to compare the impacts of different development alternatives. Within the context of EcoMetrix, the ecosystem includes the natural and human environment as well the economy.

In the case of the St. David, the model first identified the negative impacts of development – namely, that it would scrape away vegetation,   pave over natural land cover, and decrease floodplain connectivity – and weighed it against both mitigation opportunities and the impact of developing alternate sites.   The conclusion was that developing St. David would have the smallest impact on ecosystem services.

Typically, corporations would have an established site before they engaged with EcoMetrix.   Their goal with using this decision-support tool would be to understand how site-level activities would improve or degrade the ecosystem services.   These development alternatives also include mitigation opportunities to offset the ecosystem service impact of development.

“What we were measuring is how an activity will change the landscape,” says Kevin Halsey, a lead for the Ecosystem Services Consulting team at Parametrix, which developed the tool.   “As we measure how that landscape changes, it’s going to lead to a change in performance—which could be good or bad.   In a lot of instances, you may do restoration activities that will improve some aspects of the ecosystem but will actually diminish others.”

Because it quantifies these changes, EcoMetrix can be utilized as a transaction tool.   For example, if a development had caused a negative impact, users can determine an offset alternative that would provide equivalent benefits.   This can be done in a formal market setting or as part of the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) report.

Evolving with a Purpose

This transaction aspect came from the tool’s origins in an Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) project.   In 2003, ODOT was looking to replace all of the failing bridges in the state.   As part of the project, ODOT developed the Comprehensive Mitigation and Conservation Banking Strategy Program to effectively mitigate the impacts of the project.

At the beginning, the Parametrix role simply involved building a system for permits.   “As part of that (project), they brought us to in to figure out how to integrate their permitting processes into a single programmatic,” says Halsey.   ODOT and the team at Parametrix were happy with the results of this permitting system and thought they could create a similar system for mitigation.  

“We should be able to identify ecosystem priorities on the landscape, identify mitigation sights that were providing those ecosystem uplift opportunities that would meet those priorities, focus on ecosystem restoration and then figure out how it relates to the distinct regulatory processes,” says Halsey of their original thought process.

Two years later, the result was the development of a “function-based accounting methodology for calculating salmon and wetland credits” utilized for the ODOT project. (link)

Through this process of trying to create a simple credit and debit system for mitigation of development, a number of complexities arose—including the fact that salmon and wetland landscape functions could not be completely differentiated.   This prompted Parametrix to continue the work, eventually releasing the first version of EcoMetrix in 2008.

Building a Function

To evaluate how activities are affecting ecosystem services, the team at EcoMetrix built a model of the landscape functions that impact these services.   The process of building these functions allows EcoMetrix to accurately measure the existing sites condition—the first step in the tool’s methodology.

These landscape functions include carbon sequestration, infiltration and groundwater recharge.   To define these functions and build a complete picture of how these functions work, EcoMetrix literally begins at ground-level.

Function developers identify which landscape attributes are impacting functions and what relative contribution that particular attribute is providing to the overall ecosystem service value.   These attributes are the individual tangible aspects of the landscape—like soil type and canopy cover.

 “We work from the bottom up,” says Halsey.   “You have to understand attributes to understand functions—which will tell us about services and then we determine values.”

For example, if one is examining climate regulation as part of the ecosystem service landscape, it would first require building concept models of the functions that make up climate regulation—such as the function of carbon sequestration.     Questions to ask would include: “What is above and below ground that is contributing to carbon sequestration?   Does anything need to change for sequestration to occur?”   Through these types of questions, the function developers can identify all the important landscape attributes.

To ensure consistency—and accuracy—each of these attributes is evaluated using standard datasets.   These datasets are a part of the function’s conceptual model.   These conceptual models provide an understanding of how these attributes relate to the functions—and therefore to ecosystem services.

Each function in EcoMetrix is developed through these steps.   Then the conceptual models that are built from this process provide the basis for the scoring algorithms used out in the field.   These scoring algorithms are fixed and therefore provide a basis for site comparison.   Currently, the EcoMetrix team has developed concept models for 56 physical and species support functions.

With this base, EcoMetrix can move through the process of measuring the performance of these functions on any site.

Measuring the Functions

In the case of the BSR Roundtable hypothetical, examining key indicators of a function’s performance meant examining the status of the vegetation, soil and water on the 5 different test plots.   These plots, selected with the assistance of the BSR team, were chosen as a representative sampling of the landscape, both in geography and ecological condition.   Each plot consisted of 20 acres, with the assumption that it provided a representative analysis of a 500 acre site.

Along with gathering data at the site, EcoMetrix utilized available public data about the landscape attributes.   Understanding the status of these different attributes, such as soil type and percentage of groundcover, provided the data necessary to establish a baseline performance of functions.

The functions’ performance values are then aggregated to form a picture of the overall service performance of the landscape.

“We started realizing that that really provides the building blocks to think about how change in functional performance is affecting ecosystem service benefits,” Halsey says.   “The question is can you identify what the relevant functions are and then measure how those functions are changing and how they relate to provide those benefits.”

“The ability to measure multiple resource and services at once is a critical function of EcoMetrix, particularly when used to generate credits that will be bought and sold in a mitigation or ecosystem marketplace context,” says the EcoMetrix introduction.     Since functions are first measured separately and then aggregated, corporations can avoid double dipping or generating multiple credit types from the same uplift.

As part of the BSR hypothetical, EcoMetrix evaluated the impact of development on the ecosystem service of water provisioning.   Water provisioning depends on the performance of a number of functions, including evaporation, surface flow, subsurface flow and interception by vegetation.  

The performance of these various functions was aggregated to establish a baseline performance for water provisioning.   In the case of the St. David plot, the baseline performance was determined to be 36%.   Projected out to 500 acres, that mean the plot had 162 service acres.   In this case, one service acre is equivalent to one acre of land performing water provisioning at 100%.

This means that the St. David plot was severely degraded in the context of this ecosystem service.   According to Halsey, any site that has ecosystem services performing at below 60% has been severely degraded.   To be considered to be performing efficiently, the land should have a baseline performance of 80% or above.

With this baseline performance measured, EcoMetrix now can calculate the impact of development on the ecosystem services.   The BSR roundtable utilized a typical site design for the 1000 house development.   This includes characteristics like impervious driveways and a pool with a concrete patio.

According to the EcoMetrix calculations, building this design at St. David would result in a decrease of 29 service acres for water provisioning.   In other words, developing would cause a 6% degradation to the ecosystem service of water provisioning.

As an isolated ecosystem service, this may seem significant.   However, because EcoMetrix evaluates the service acreage of multiple ecosystem services, it can provide a broader understanding of the overall impact.

In the case of St. David, development would actually improve some of the landscape functions.   Much of the degradation that existed was caused by exhaustive cattle ranging.   With cattle removed from the landscape, the Chihuahuan desert scrub—the main source of vegetation in the region—could be begin to grow back.

Leveraging the Change

At this point, EcoMetrix would consult with the corporation to discuss opportunities to decrease the negative impact on ecosystem services.   Since it looks at the specific site rather than the landscape, EcoMetrix provides alternative design analysis for that specific location.

Since corporations might have already purchased a piece of land, the actual development location could be non-negotiable.   This aspect of the site analysis provides site design and land management alternatives that would decrease the ecosystem service impact.

At the St. David site, EcoMetrix proposed basic design changes, such as changing the rooming color, replacing the backyard pool and concrete with trees and vegetation and using pervious materials for the driveways.

In addition, they proposed additional land management alternatives, including increasing green infrastructure to lower costs of storm water management.   Specifically, the team recommended planting native species along the stream and riparian areas and restoring upland areas impacted by cattle and other land uses.  

Improving these aspects of the landscape would improve the riparian habitat used by the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher, improve the scrub-shrub and forest land near the river system to increase habitat areas and improve the aquatic habitat—which includes those used by the endangered Gila chub. They calculate the resulting change in performance for ecosystem services, providing a comparative design analysis to the developers.

Bringing it into Context

The final step in the EcoMetrix process is to place these results into the context of landscape level analyses, stakeholder priorities and ecosystem valuation studies.

For the St. David site, the landscape perspective was key.   Though the baseline degradation of services at other test plots was lower than at St. David, the land surrounding those sites had a high functional performance.   St. David, on the other hand, is surrounded by land already impacted by urban and agricultural activities.

Landscape level decision-support tools like AIRES and InVEST complement EcoMetrix and provide the larger picture to understand the true impact of land management decisions.   In this case, it revealed that the negative site-level ecosystem service impacts at St. David were insignificant at the landscape level because the land was already so impacted.

“All these tools seem to have the potential to answer different questions and we are interested in exploring that,” says Halsey.

Though they approach decision support in different ways, these tools share three distinct aspects:
Each compile a specific set of data in an effort to answer a specific question
Each define how certain data on the landscape assists in answering the specific questions
The complex relationships captured from these datasets are displayed in an easy-to-understand format.

The data analysis performed by EcoMetrix is done with an eye on ecosystem markets and offset opportunities.   Beyond suggesting different land management techniques, EcoMetrix works with the land developers to identify possible markets that reflect that particular property’s needs.

While these markets could be an opportunity for corporations to purchase offsets for their ecological impact, corporations can also sell uplift credits from strategic land management.   For example, if a corporation is considering preserving or restoring a wetland on their property, EcoMetrix can determine the number of credits it has the potential to generate.   This can become an alternative revenue stream for the corporation.

Looking ahead

The development of EcoMetrix is not complete.   As Halsey puts it, “We have way more plans than we can actually get to.”

As the tool naturally evolves, the team will continue to develop new functions.   Currently, they are interested in developing a function around the bio-availability of metals in the context of a landscape.   For example, says Halsey, “How is an adequate amount of leaf litter and duff—suspended organics—helping to improve water quality.”

Beyond that, the team has three big picture goals to ensure the continued effectiveness of EcoMetrix.   The first is to house the system in a wiki format.   With this, people could access the tool and make comments so that the tool would be refined and evolve over time.   The peer review provided by this type of system would allow EcoMetrix to change based on people’s actual application.

Secondly, the Parametrix team would like to expand the system.   Currently, it is focused on ecosystem services.   In the future, they would like EcoMetrix to move beyond that.   “We would like to incorporate that structure that we’ve got into a system that also thinks about economic and social functions so that we can think about the entire landscape and how the built and natural environment are working together,” says Kevin Halsey.   This, according to Halsey, is an ambitious goal.

Finally, the goal that is most in reach is for ParaMetrix to implement a more intricate user interface.   This would increase accessibility for people over time.

These decision tools are enabling a larger group of people to engage in markets, as they encourage them to consider the intersection between economic and environmental impacts.

Additional resources
Hannah Kett is an editorial assistant with Ecosystem Marketplace and a free-lance journalist focused on the non-profit sector.  She can be reached at [email protected].

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