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Project to develop conservation software

BY MARK SHWARTZ

The Natural Capital Project—a collaboration of Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund—has been awarded a two-year, $1.97 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to develop a software program for mapping and evaluating the economic benefits provided by temperate marine ecosystems.

Called Marine InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs), the proposed software will give policymakers and other stakeholders an easy-to-use program for calculating the multitude of services that people derive from ocean ecosystems and incorporating those values into the planning process.

"With Marine InVEST, people will be able to look at a comprehensive ocean management plan and ask what the monetary consequences of different plan configurations will be for a number of different ecosystem services, like fishing, shoreline protection, shipping, tourism and recreation," said Heather Tallis, lead scientist at the Natural Capital Project. "There are always tradeoffs in any planning process, but it's hard to get a sense of how big those tradeoffs are likely to be when you have to guess. Marine InVEST will let you get real numbers and use that information to pick the outcome that has the best balance."

Tallis said that when the software is ready in 2009, it will be tested at a coastal site in California or British Columbia. "There is a lot of interest right now in establishing ocean zoning as a major approach to ocean management that maximizes in a sustainable fashion the total—environmental, social and economic—value from the marine environment," she said. "That's a hard thing to do given the current science. So it's a really great time for us to be able to develop a tool like this."

The Marine InVEST research grant is led by Natural Capital Project Chair Gretchen Daily, the Bing Professor in Environmental Science and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute at Stanford, and Mary Ruckelshaus, a research biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle.

Earlier this year, the Natural Capital Project launched a beta version of InVEST for land-based resource planning that will serve as the technical framework for Marine InVEST. "We're now testing and refining InVEST for major resource decisions in landscapes around the world—in China, Colombia, Ecuador, Tanzania, California, Hawai'i and Oregon," Daily said. "There is tremendous demand for this tool and approach to guide strategic investment in natural capital. The time is ripe in both the business and policy arenas."

People tend to look at nature in one of two ways, added Michael Wright, managing director of the Natural Capital Project. "We either ignore the values it provides altogether, or we focus only on one specific commercial value, such as fisheries," he said. "We see individual pieces, not the whole. As a result, the collective value of nature is diminished. Through this grant we want to develop tools that do not just maximize the fisheries but capture all of the interests that depend on the oceans."

The goal of the Natural Capital Project is to illuminate the multiple values that nature contributes to human beings and turn that into knowledge that can be used by policymakers, Wright said. "We're well on the road terrestrially, and Marine InVEST really shifts our vision offshore to the open ocean and coastal areas," he said. "The willingness of the Moore Foundation to provide venture capital for the development of new tools, like Marine InVEST, based on cutting- edge science is really encouraging. The grant is a lovely combination of risk-taking with pragmatism."

Established in 2000, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation seeks to advance environmental conservation and cutting-edge scientific research around the world and improve the quality of life in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Mark Shwartz is communications manager at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford.