Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Making the Invisible Visible: Using Science to Show the Value of New Hampshire's Natural Resources

When you think of New Hampshire, it’s hard not to think of the scenes of natural beauty—from the Seacoast to the White Mountains. Indeed, 80 percent of the state’s geographical area is covered by trees. Then there are its 1,000 lakes, and its 100,000 miles of rivers and streams, which supply the drinking water of 200,000 households. Nature is the reason people—tourists—come here. And nature is the reason that many of them–residents–stay.

But New Hampshire is currently beset by two forces that threaten our quality of life, and the state’s own image of itself: Climate change on the one hand, and growing urbanization on the other. Climate change is taking a whack at one of the chief outdoor recreational industries here: skiing. A warmer climate threatens to turn more than half of New Hampshire ski resorts into money losers, according to a recent study. And then there’s urbanization. As recent reports by New Hampshire’s own Carsey Institute make clear, our population is increasing, especially in the state’s southern counties. That’s because people are migrating here, driven by the quality of life and recreational splendor that we’re so known for. And with that population  comes increasing urbanization—housing developments built amid forests, strip malls constructed to service it all.

All of which raises the question: “How much is too much?” Or as Cameron Wake, a climate researcher in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of New Hampshire puts it: “How much can we develop, and still keep clean water, and clean air, and areas to recreate, and wood for timber, and areas for agriculture?”

That’s the challenge that New Hampshire has taken on, with a 5 year, $ 20 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s EPSCoR program (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research). The goal is to learn more about how to manage the state’s natural resources, so that population growth and development proceed in a sustainable fashion, without threatening the quality of life that makes New Hampshire such a desirable place to live and visit. This EPSCoR program runs a statewide network of ecological sensors that monitor forest quality, water quality, soil quality, snow behavior, and more. And now, researchers are working to design ecological and economic models that will use this body of data to show the consequences of a variety of land use changes for the state.

A critical benefit of this research will be to demonstrate the true value, monetary and otherwise, of natural resources to the people of New Hampshire. Scientists call it “ecosystem services”: Nature provides people with any number of benefits, from clean drinking water to the aesthetics of a landscape. But these benefits often aren’t measured or included in traditional economic models that are crammed with data on jobs, housing development, wages. That’s what the research will change.

“The payoff is making the invisible visible,” says Wake, “so people incorporate the understanding of these ecosystem services into their thinking.”

At present, the science is not yet at a place where it is possible to pop out a simulation that directly tells policymakers whether or not to, say, go ahead on a particular zoning project. But that’s the direction in which things are headed—and some of the possibilities are quite impressive. For instance, Kevin Gardner, associate director of New Hampshire EPSCoR, describes a scenario in which the research can even begin to help us value something seemingly hard to measure, like a “viewshed”: to assess the value of an untrammeled landscape when glimpsed from a particular place, and calculate how much that is harmed if you put in an interstate or a transmission tower.

It’s good news—not bad—that people want to come and live in New Hampshire. And this influx often includes highly skilled workers, for instance in the tech industry, who help contribute to our economy. Nobody’s knocking that. But as the state grows, improving the way in which we assess our impact on nature grows more and more vital. Making visible the natural world’s contributions to our quality of life means nothing less than envisioning a better future.