The Chronicle Review

Who Is Conservation For?

Nick Norman, National Geographic, Aurora Photos

PROTECTION: In recent years, conservation scientists have emphasized the services that nature provides to human beings. Sea grass helps to prevent shoreline erosion.
November 10, 2013

Once, Gretchen Daily only had eyes for the rain forest.

Eighteen years ago, as a young scientist on the rise, Daily arrived at a renowned research station in the hills of Costa Rica armed with nearly 100 shellacked plywood platforms. As a student at Stanford University, studying under the famed biologist Paul Ehrlich, she had seen how large birds, defying expectations, seemed to thrive on small bits of forest spackled in the area's coffee plantations, when theory predicted their demise. On her return, she planned to spread her feeding platforms in staggered densities to test that observation; local kids promised to monitor the mesitas.

But when the morning came, so did the bees.

Africanized honeybees had swarmed the mesitas. The locals, always supportive of research on their lands, were peeved; every year these killer bees claim a few lives in Costa Rica. No one died, but the experiment was an utter, fast failure. "It was an 'aha!' moment," Daily said later, "but it was, 'Aha, what an idiot I've been.'" She was at a loss. She already had a spot at the station. She couldn't just leave, nor could she learn how to study a different creature before her stint was over. She knew birds, of course, but was never great at sorting species by their song, which ruled out work in the cacophonous forest. On the farms, though, she realized, she could use her eyes and master a smaller list of warbles, tying the birds' incidence to cultivation methods and the forest's verge. It was pure survey work, but it hadn't been done. And so it was that Daily looked outside the forest.

"Because of that chance of bad luck," she said. "I went out and opened my eyes and finally awakened to all the biodiversity in the countryside."

What she saw helped change the future of environmental science.

Daily crept among the arabica's cottony blooms, indexing hundreds of species thriving in what she had expected to be a dull monoculture. There were fiery-billed aracari, rufous-breasted wrens, even violaceous trogons, their golden bellies burning bright. Few of these birds—and, in later surveys, insects, frogs, bats, or other mammals—could be considered pests. There was a weave at work among the plantation, the forest, and the animals strung between them. The natural world had never left this man-made system; it was, in many ways, benefiting it, pollinating crops and chomping up berry borers.

In turn, the farmers were dependent on this natural capital, as Daily would call it, for their own economic well-being. Ehrlich had mentioned the benefits that humanity derived from nature. But why had she stayed so focused on the forest? Daily wondered. Because it seemed pristine, untouched? That was a lie; global warming was well under way. Humanity's shadow cloaked the planet, and all of its shades deserved study. "Any sensible conservation science should look at this," she thought.

Her own field of conservation biology—then a hot young science dedicated to saving endangered species, and a dominant voice in environmental science at the time—did not. And so Daily, now a professor at Stanford, along with a host of collaborators, set out to change the science.

Though Daily would never say this, her quest in many ways reflects the failure of a past generation. For decades, scientists have warned that the world is showing signs of deep environmental strain, close to suffering a great wave of human-caused species extinctions. Yet despite these calls of alarm, victories for conservation have been few and dear, and development has continued apace. Farming has grown to cover a quarter of the world's land. Fisheries and fresh water are ever closer to exhaustion. In the United States, wetlands are disappearing, and contaminants are often found in inland fish at harmful levels. Up to a third of the country's native species are at risk of extinction. In 2010 the world failed nearly every target the United Nations had set for halting biodiversity loss. And on top of all that, we are wrapped in warming at a rate unprecedented in modern times, thanks to emissions of fossil fuels. As one scientist told me, given the rising temperatures, the Joshua trees are leaving Joshua Tree National Park.

Humanity's great influence across the planet has even prompted many scientists to argue that we have left the Holocene and entered a new geological epoch, dubbed the Anthropocene. Many of the large nonprofit conservation groups, like the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund, prompted as much by the need for new donors as by scientific imperative, have embraced the concept, emphasizing pragmatic work that protects people and the natural world. It's strange to say, but climate change came with a silver lining, says Jonathan Hoekstra, director of WWF's conservation-science program and one of Daily's collaborators.

"We were a field that always looked backwards in terms of trying to frame where we wanted to go," Hoekstra says. "It was like walking backwards through life. It was crazy when you think about it. Climate change has forced us to say, man, the world is changing. It's changing in ways that are unprecedented relative to our historic benchmarks. We need to be open to the possibility that the best possible future is going to be different, in possibly profound ways, from the past."

The rhetorical shift to a human-centered conservation has been quick, if not always easy—angry debate and ethical qualms are hallmarks of the change. But it has also called for a new kind of science, one that finds a way to understand humans, animals, and the environment at once; a science built to knit together the forest and crop rows of the Costa Rican coffee plantation. It's a science Daily has helped construct for the past two decades, combining economics and applied ecology to describe the benefits that humans gain from the natural world—drinking water, pollination, recreation. And at the base of it all is one snooze-inducing term: ecosystem services.

You can call it the jargon that ate conservation. The study of ecosystem services has exploded in recent years, passing from fad to the defining frame of conservation science. In 1995, ecosystem services were mentioned just seven times in the scholarly literature; by 2012, they came up 4,116 times. Biodiversity, once the north star of conservation, has become one light in a constellation. Even the famed Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, a sentinel against capitulation in conservation, can now be seen singing the benefits of nature's services.

But the rise of this human-centered science has not come without pain, or loss. A cohort of leaders who only 30 years ago created another radical science—conservation biology—is increasingly marginalized. The vigor of activism has waned. And much uncertainty remains about whether ecosystem services, as it steps into the real world, will serve as a conciliatory vision to save species and the world or will simply be ignored, its models spinning away unnoticed by the powers that be. Perhaps worse, it could be taken as an apologia for climate change, absolving humanity of its collective environmental toll.

Few are more responsible for popularizing ecosystem services than Daily, yet these are fears she shares. Which is in part why, in 2005, she and several influential peers began the Natural Capital Project to apply their nascent science in the real world. It's taken time, more time than they first imagined, but in the past couple of years, the project's efforts have begun to flower, Daily says.

"I'm hoping conservation will have legitimacy and relevance like it's never had in the past," she says. "And thereby have impact and success like it hasn't really had in the past. Not on the scale that's required."

When Paul Ehrlich, the long-tenured Stanford biologist and author of The Population Bomb, thinks back on his career, there are two students who stand out for their influence. One is Daily, whom he's known as a student and co-worker for 30 years. The other is Michael Soulé.

A charismatic and passionate scientist, Soulé is one of the founders of conservation biology. A mission-driven discipline that sprang into being in the 1980s, it was a science formed, in large part, out of two elegant ideas: evolutionary genetics and island biogeography, the latter an ecological theory built off observations that, as habitats fragment, they support an ever smaller plurality of species and genes—biological diversity, or biodiversity, as it became known. For the better part of two decades, before the rise of climate change, biodiversity became the world's defining environmental concern.

From the start, the discipline's practitioners, led by Soulé, embraced the notion that conservation biology was a "crisis discipline," like medicine, explicitly based on values that, above all else, saw biodiversity as an unfettered good, possessing intrinsic value separate from humanity's desires. Soulé went as far as to lay out principles of the field in a classic 1985 paper, "What Is Conservation Biology?" These scientists were saying, in effect, "we're not only experts on the data" but also "experts on a kind of spirituality in nature," says David Takacs, an associate professor at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law and the author of The Idea of Biodiversity. "It was and continues to be a very tricky tightrope to walk." But despite these qualms, which echoed continual debates in fields like ecology, biodiversity became the cause célèbre of nature nonprofits, and Soulé soon became the first president of the Society for Conservation Biology.

The field filled an empty niche. "People migrated there, and were drawn to it, because they had been waiting for it," says Curt Meine, a conservation biologist and historian. "It felt intuitively right. It provided that home that had been missing." It was the latest manifestation of a trend that went back a century, Meine says, to the land ethic of Aldo Leopold, and earlier. And while it paid lip service to traditional exploitation-based fields like forestry or fisheries science, the practice of conservation biology, in large part, revolved around preserving land from human influence. "It was seen as an avant-garde challenging the old guard," Meine says.

There's a more cynical take on conservation biology's origins as well. In the 1960s, tropical biologists working in Latin America began to see the rain forests they studied, and loved, suffer deforestation. The biologists' study material, the grist of their careers, was disappearing. At the same time, the Endangered Species Act came into law, tipping research toward species. "For a bunch of these people, there was a sense of crisis," says Sahotra Sarkar, a philosopher and conservation biologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Their views verged on the messianic, and they sometimes overstated the science. "Was the idea of a crisis discipline justified?" Sarkar says. "Hindsight would probably say no."

There was no hindsight in the 1980s, though, when Daily, as an eager junior at Stanford, saw a data-entry position open up at Ehrlich's lab. Daily's father was in the military, and she had spent much of her youth in West Germany, which was experiencing severe acid rain. "You could see huge areas of forest completely devastated," she says. "They looked like Chernobyl did later." A teacher hooked her on studying river pollution, back when she thought simply studying the scientific problem would be enough to find a solution. Of course, she had also heard of Paul Ehrlich—the famous German physician and chemist. In an undergrad haze, Daily applied for the data-entry job thinking it was with the German Ehrlich, who had been dead for many decades. Daily, who still sits next door to Ehrlich the biologist, often tells audiences it was a "devastating disappointment" to find she had her Ehrlichs confused.

As Daily turned into Ehrlich's graduate student, conservation biology was just hitting its stride. Hoekstra, the World Wildlife Fund scientist, was then an undergraduate at Stanford, and he remembers taking the courses. Soulé's Conservation Biology was the bible. "It was all about designing reserves for endangered species," Hoekstra says. "To me, that was the sum total of what conservation biology was. ... What are the habitat requirements? What are the ecological requirements, and how do you make that happen?"

Like a good conservation biologist, Daily studied those Costa Rican birds in their fragments of rain forest. But even before her killer-bee moment, she had another strain in mind. Since the 1970s, Ehrlich had, off and on, written about humanity's dependence on nature's services (often with his friend John Holdren, who now serves as President Obama's science adviser). Nothing much came of the work, however. Conservation-minded scientists continued to run into an indifferent public. One of their great hopes, a 1,140-page report called the "Global Biodiversity Assessment," "sank like a stone," a metaphor that more than one scientist called on to describe the report's reception in 1996.

Like others, Daily began to see problems in some of conservation biology's theoretical foundations. Scientists had tried to establish a unified theory for how low in number a species could plunge before it spun into an irrevocable genetic decline, but a common method proved difficult. "There was some genetics stuff, what's the minimal viable population size," Daily says. "But everybody's moved way beyond that. The framework didn't prove very useful." At the same time, the theory at the field's root—island biogeography, which charts how biodiversity dwindles on smaller islands—was riddled with exceptions when applied to habitat fragments on land, to the point that today scientists question whether it remains a viable conceptual base.

All this was in Daily's mind when she received her call to arms. It was an evening in 1998, in a cabin at Colorado's Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, where Ehrlich often worked. Daily was talking with Henry Kendall, a Nobel-winning physicist and a founder of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Kendall, who died the next year, was an inveterate outdoorsman. "You're working on such critical stuff, but you're totally ineffective," he told her. "You've got to get organized the way the climate community got organized." (This is how scientific conspiracy theories start.)

Daily had already followed the advice of Jane Lubchenco, an ecologist and future head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who suggested that she edit a book about all the benefits that nature provided. "I got put in the forefront for doing the book because I had the least political baggage, and probably because I had the most time," Daily says. It's a hallmark of her career—powerful mentors leaned on her, and each time she ultimately surpassed their plans.

Maybe the book, Nature's Services, which came out in 1997, wasn't enough. Daily thought back to her killer-bee moment. All land, not just "pristine" ecosystems, provided some benefit. Maybe the problem wasn't just the message but the science. Her book had won wide acclaim. But her work was just beginning.

It's not easy to catch Daily in her Stanford office. She bounces between Costa Rica, Hawaii, and China, and schedules meetings in 20-minute slices. (One phone interview I had lasted 30 minutes, prompting a former student of Daily's to say, "That's generous! A half-hour!") Daily has a bob of shoulder-length blond-gray hair and, during my visit, had on blacks socks decorated with red-and-pink dragonflies. A drawing by one of her two young children hangs above her desk—a horse, maybe, with a star-patterned hide and rainbow ears—and a print of Barbara Ras's poem "Where Land Ends" greet Daily on her many trips out the door: "Haven't I spent a lifetime searching for the edge between the landing and the sea, the edge that ends, like vanity, at a new place depending on the day?" it reads.

She draws seemingly unanimous praise from her peers; even scientists deeply opposed to her vision—including Soulé, it turns out, but more on that later—save their attacks for others. She will be mortified to know how much this story fixes on her work, when so many others have done so much. Lists of credits stream from her mouth.

During my visit, she had just returned from Costa Rica, sad to have missed the capture of a spectral bat, a rare, huge breed, which had been hunting birds in the coffee plantation. The area has proved to be a remarkable research site. As Daily worked on the plantation a decade ago, though, she became unsatisfied with survey work, and sought a way to judge how much value wild bees (not the killer bees) added to the growers. That work culminated in a 2004 paper in which Ehrlich, Daily, and her student, Taylor Ricketts, found what the optimal rain-forest patch size would be for a coffee grower. "People laughed about this at first because they thought it was zero," Daily says.

But on one plantation, the researchers found 600 bee species sheltered by the forest, including stingless sweat bees that, when they get mad, tend to tug on eyebrows. It was painstaking work. Ricketts looped bags over the coffee buds, hand-pollinating them to compare against ambient pollination. The forest, they found, provided about $60,000 of free pollination services to the farm each year. Before this work, those services had been valued at $0.

After Ricketts's time with Daily, he went on to the World Wildlife Fund, and by 2005 was engaged in talks with Daily and Peter Kareiva, a lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy, the world's richest conservation group, about the need to raise their scientific ambitions. Many scientists had just spent years contributing to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which laid out the dismal state of the global environment. The report drew heavily on Ehrlich and Daily, defining itself around 24 ecosystem services provided by nature. (Only four services—crop, livestock, and aquaculture production, along with the carbon storage provided by reforestation—had improved over the past 50 years, it concluded.) Work on it hooked many on Daily's idea, and so by the time she hosted a small meeting at Stanford, it seemed obvious that the nonprofit groups and academic scientists should find a way to apply the idea of services in the real world.

Certainly the old ways were not working, Daily said during our visit.

"You're not going to stop development," she said. "That's been a losing battle, just putting up a red light everywhere. This was a new approach that involved more of a green-light, red-light, yellow-light system, recognizing that there are a lot of people on the planet and they all aspire to a U.S. lifestyle." Conservation had to be about more than the postage stamps, those lone, beautiful, protected places. "There was a recognition within the science community, more and more, that we need a conservation right in the thick of where people live and work and play and everything else," she said.

No one knew exactly how the science of ecosystem services would work, beyond the idea that it would combine ecology with economics. In paper after paper, it was ironed out. Cash would be the science's lingua franca; if a service could be valued in dollars, like timber production or irrigation water, it would be. (Others would be trickier. How do you find the real value of clean water?) It would be interdisciplinary in a way that conservation biology had never quite been, pulling in hydrology, geology, genetics—whatever was needed. People, by definition, would be at its core: An ecosystem can function without humans, but it can provide a service only if we use it.

Some 40 people now work on the Natural Capital Project, most based at Stanford, with pockets in Seattle, Vermont, Washington, D.C., and at the University of Minnesota. From early on, they put a piece of software called Invest at the project's heart. Free to use, Invest is a suite of models, each capturing a service, like fisheries, or an intermediary system, like water quality or biodiversity, that feeds into the services. The models are conceived from the ground up to work in mapping software common in government agencies across the world. The physical values they spit out are then turned into dollars through market comparisons—how much would New York City have to pay for clean water if it didn't have protected lands in the Catskills?—or through "ecological production functions," a term borrowed from the equations that economists use to show how labor plus capital turns into widgets. Rather than widgets, though, the project's equations look at, say, how the presence of bees results in improved pollination, or how sea grass prevents coastal erosion.

The group has 16 ecosystem-service models out, with five more to be released this year. None of them are crystal balls. By necessity, they are rough sketches. They require little data, because in much of the world little exist. They're well documented, since the project's ultimate goal is to put itself out of business as local experts pick up its methods. Each poses its own problems, some more fiendish than others. The recreation model, for example, has to tease out the reasons that people visit a locale, which it does by comparing location-tagged photos shared online—a more rigorous proxy than you might imagine—with nearby resources that may cause a visit: reefs or whale watching, yes, but also banal realities like a road or motel. A statistical story emerges, a tale the project can then connect to management changes in the future. Save a bit more of that reef, they'll say, and your tourism dollars may go up.

Since ecologists produce research based on dozens of measures, though, like gamete size, abundance, and biomass, the vast majority of applied ecology's core research simply can't be used in ecosystem services. It can all get a bit squishy, like most modeling. There are a lot of assumptions that need to be tested more rigorously.

For the first few years, the project wasn't terribly helpful to locals trying to plan how to use the land they manage, says Mary Ruckelshaus, its managing director. "They got the impression that we were just a bunch of academics writing models," she says. But the models matured, built on the backs of eager staff and postdocs. The team has had notable successes, including work with the Nature Conservancy that has persuaded more than 30 cities in Latin America to establish "water funds" to conserve the landscapes that provide them with drinking water. And Daily—well, as Ehrlich puts it, "She's got about two-fifths of China."

China was on Daily's mind during our meeting. She had skipped a few 20-minute meeting chunks for our talk, but she had visitors from across the Pacific whom she couldn't ignore much longer. After all, she is now one of the leading environmental voices in the country.

Since 1998, when it was devastated by droughts and flooding, China has invested heavily in ecosystem services, requiring that a quarter of its land be managed with dual goals in mind: alleviating poverty and securing natural capital, the latter aimed at preventing floods and dust storms, maintaining hydropower, increasing carbon-dioxide absorption, and protecting biodiversity. The government will protect some lands, but much of that will involve paying people to manage the land—farms, rice paddies—in a more sustainable way. Those payments will be guided by Daily's team.

We had been talking about the role that biodiversity played in her broader framework—it's a term still very much on her lips—and Daily pointed out that the Chinese government has always included biodiversity as one of its five goals, when it cannot, on its own, be considered an ecosystem service. That goes to show that people often value biodiversity, even if they can't put a dollar figure on it.

Even after decades of work, there's still much uncertainty about how biodiversity benefits particular ecosystems. "It's going to be many years before we know how dependent people are on different elements of biodiversity," she said. That suggests that biodiversity should be preserved as a precaution, which is more likely to happen as a byproduct if governments and businesses integrate the value of natural capital into their everyday decisions, she said.

"I'm hopeful the approaches will be in beautiful alignment most of the time," Daily said. "But they won't always be in alignment."

The founder of conservation biology, and Ehrlich's other star student, Michael Soulé, has watched his field's development with growing unease. His old lab seems foreign now. He sees the science he created losing its radicalism, its mission, and its integrity in an effort to court government and, especially, big business.

He's frustrated. And he's decided to let everyone know.

In March he appeared at the annual meeting of the George Wright Society, the leading association for the managers of protected landscapes, held in Denver. Over the past year, murmurs had circulated in the conservation world about his dissatisfaction, but this was the first time he would speak of them to a broader audience. Wearing a white shirt and well-trimmed white beard, his sleeves slightly rolled, he began with a stern warning: Humanity is well into destroying the wild world.

Life is a singularity, he said. It is precious and holds manifold values. It brings spiritual satisfaction, it causes beauty, joy. And most important, it has value apart from whatever humanity decides. We need not find a use for it. "It has inherent intrinsic value," he said. Each extinction diminishes our reservoir of life. The genesis of new species "is essentially over for mammals and birds, and most reptiles and amphibians," he said. Death is one thing; the end of birth, of new species, is another. Yet despite this dire news, here come the new conservationists, touting ecosystem services and celebrating the Anthropocene, when all that represents, he said, "is the final conquest in our manifest destiny to conquer the earth."

Soulé saved his ire especially for Peter Kareiva, an ecologist who is now chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy. If Daily is the heart of the new conservation, Kareiva is its mouth. For the past couple of years, he has conducted a rhetorical war on the old ways of conservation biology. Expanding on the more moderate Daily, he has scolded environmentalists for relying on horror stories; for focusing solely on endangered species; for consistently fighting human development. Wilderness is a myth; nothing is pristine, and flux is the only constant. Embrace the Anthropocene, he argues, and practice conservation on the farm, on degraded lands, in the city. Biodiversity isn't everything. Put people at the center of your work.

Those messages, in milder forms, pervade the Natural Capital Project. And they can also be heard from many younger scientists outside of its orbit. They follow Kareiva's lead and call their discipline "conservation science"—the name of his recent textbook—and not conservation biology. Kareiva went as far as to publish a paper titled "What Is Conservation Science?" in the same journal as Soulé's seminal paper. Soulé did not seem to take it as a compliment.

This new conservation science, Soulé said, is pitched by a powerful few, including the Nature Conservancy, its wealthy board, and its leader, a former Goldman Sachs executive; the Breakthrough Institute, a California think tank; and "certain academic institutions in California." They are "gardeners," he said, and they'll let all the wildness be taken out of the world. There won't be inconvenient species, like elephants, rhinos, or bobcats. Their human-shaped ecosystems will be fragile. "If gardens are the final solution to the biodiversity question, I don't like it," he said.

What the new conservationists represent, in Soulé's view, is nothing more than the human project in sheep's wool. Terrific skirmishes were fought in the 1990s between conservation biologists and antipoverty campaigners over priorities for the developing world. Daily and her colleagues might see their work as solving that conflict, but to Soulé, it's capitulation. "It's not conservation," he said. "It's humanitarianism."

Soulé is a generation older than Daily, and never overlapped with her at Stanford, but he still sees Ehrlich once a year. The lab has changed a lot since Soulé left, and he understands the shift in some respects. He won't deny that his idea of conservation has struggled. "If you look at the extinction rate, apparently it hasn't made a dent," Soulé says in a phone interview. It's a smart strategy, in some respects, to adopt the rhetoric of neoliberalism, of business. By swearing fealty to human development, perhaps the new conservationists can better influence how decisions are made. But in his view, it's a surrender.

If it is a white flag, though, it is flying high. The World Bank is looking to adopt ecosystem services in its work, and Nat Cap has embedded one of its scientists in the bank's D.C. headquarters. The Obama administration, too, has started to grapple with natural capital; in 2011, the president's council of science advisers—led by Paul Ehrlich's old partner, John Holdren—released, to little fanfare, a report titled "Sustaining Environmental Capital." There are 39 efforts at ecosystem valuation going on in the agencies. And notably, the United Nations' effort to study environmental health, begun this year, is called the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

It's possible that the push for a new conservation science is simply an exhibit of how science evolves, says J. Baird Callicott, an environmental philosopher and a professor at the University of North Texas. What was once a radical science is institutionalized. Young scientists take courses, get doctorates, do research. "To some extent," Callicott says, "they feel the older generation of conservation biologists are an embarrassment to the scientific integrity of the field." The crusade is over.

Certainly many of Daily's generation are less willing to think they can dictate the future of development. Jonathan Hoekstra, the World Wildlife Fund scientist, remembers trying to tell a county commissioner in California to rezone an up-and-coming housing district because of a rare grasshopper, a classic use of the Endangered Species Act. It didn't go well. The Natural Capital way, he says, is not to walk into a meeting and say, "'Here's my extreme left, my extreme right, and my Goldilocks alternative.' ... That's just advocacy to me."

It seems unlikely that the philosophical dispute underpinning conservation will ever be solved. Some scientists have tried recently, arguing that the intrinsic value of nature can be considered a "cultural" service under their utilitarian view of nature—not the most persuasive argument for the unconverted. When conservationists are threatened, they typically circle the wagons and shoot inward, Soulé says, well aware that he's fired some shots himself. "We fight with each other because we can't succeed in fighting the real enemies, because they're much more powerful," he says.

Daily, for one, is not looking to engage in rhetorical disputes. There's value in the traditional conservation ethic, in protecting biodiversity for its own sake. "Everyone always takes the moral high ground, though," she says. "If you're in human development, you can say you're ethically motivated to not continue the horrible misery." Ehrlich, meanwhile, is glad Soulé is out there, raising hell. "I don't think there's one right path," he says. "Michael provides a nice outlier. And I don't think he's wrong, necessarily."

What Soulé wants to see, more than anything else, is success. It's well and good to remind people of nature's value, but how often will anyone pay to protect something they get free? At their best, ecosystem services seem like a slippery slope to privatizing nature, he says. And he has yet to see an example where it really works.

"Whether or not it's effective, that's the question," Soulé says.

It's what I wanted to see, too. Were all these models actually improving decisions on the ground? Daily conceded that it's hard to say. But there was a place to find out: a project that had been ferrying her scientists for years up the coast to British Columbia.

Sitting in a large room with orange-Creamsicle walls, an industrial coffee machine at idle in the corner and a flock of flimsy plastic tables pushed together at its heart, Spencer Wood and I stared at his well-traveled laptop, waiting for his crap model to start.

I had arrived on Vancouver Island that day via float plane, meeting Wood, one of Natural Capital's young staff members, and Andrew Day, a Canadian who, as managing director of a public-private partnership called West Coast Aquatic, has spent nearly two decades trying to solve the clash of interests lining the island's western shores. With wispy brown hair and a face pulled down at the sides, Day has the air of a longtime mediator. Name a group, and he's worked with it. The timber companies, which used to pretty much run the island until their fortunes waned. The salmon fishermen, sport and commercial. Tourism, centered on booming Tofino. Offshore aquaculture, on the rise. Strands of protected provincial parks, and federal land, too. And the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, 15 related tribes, who are striving to maintain traditions stretching back hundreds of years. The possibilities for conflict here could keep an environmental reporter going for months.

West Coast Aquatic was born out of that pain, Day said. Catching salmon, harvesting sea urchins—these traditions have defined aboriginal life on Vancouver Island. But in the late 1980s, the government, in a pioneering move, introduced fishing quotas to protect the salmon. The quotas could be sold, however, and many poor First Nations fishermen lost their rights to competitors with more money. (By some accounts, British Columbia's wealthiest man owns 60 percent of the quotas for seining salmon.) "First Nations really did get pushed out of industry, especially the fishing industry," Larry Johnson, natural-resource director for the Huu-ay-aht First Nations, told me. "That's what our livelihood is. We're a fishing people." The board of West Coast Aquatic, which started in 2001, and the plans it would eventually produce for the coast, provided a way for those complaints to be heard.

A few years ago, the group began in earnest on its coastal plans, gathering all sorts of local knowledge and far-flung data. Almost all of the region's interests have a place on the board, but participation varies. When First Nations hear about spatial plans, Day said, "they think, 'They're going to take space away from us and make it into a park.'" Meanwhile, commercial fishing companies are naturally reluctant to reveal where they want to seine in the future. Day wanted a plan that could reflect the diversity of ways that coastal waters could be used. But while his team could map the realities on the ground, it couldn't predict how any proposed changes would work together. That got irreducibly complex. And that's when Day met the Natural Capital Project.

After a quick visit to a patch of the island's dwindling reserve of old-growth rain forest, Wood—a skinny, tall marine ecologist with a hawklike visage, who has been with Nat Cap for a couple of years—drove us down to Port Alberni, a town, large by local standards, poised on the tip of a skinny fjord that thrusts into the western shores like a crooked index finger, bent north. It's not a town that has driftwood. It has drift timber. Lumber mills clog its waterfront; most are active, if less so than they used to be. Bungalows line its broad, truck-accommodating avenues. A four-prop red-and-white water bomber, stationed in a nearby sound, is a source of pride, its image decorating lobbies, hotels, and a floor-to-ceiling mural on the building opposite West Coast Aquatic's office. For the past two years, this has been Wood's home away from home.

Over that time, Wood and his peers have built and tweaked their ecosystem service models to fit West Coast's needs. Take just one pressing problem: the houseboats used by locals up and down the coast, including Lemmens Inlet, a fjord known for its clear water, wild geoducks, kayaking, and wildlife viewing. Some 15 houseboats line the inlet, their residents evacuating their toilets straight into the water. West Coast surveyed who treated their waste and who did not, and then Nat Cap refined its water-quality model to judge how reductions in fecal coliform, a microbe well known as a proxy for poop, would spread through this web, improving, say, the value of the shellfish harvest or the extent of recreational kayaking.

Sitting at his laptop, a wall of Linux prompts in front of him, Wood pulled up his program. "This is the model," he said, as lines of the Python programming language popped on screen. He pulled in the data needed: a shape file for the inlet's contours. The houseboats' locations; the water's velocity and tides; estimates of the waste dumped; its decay rate.

Wood was recreating a case study for Lemmens Inlet, plotting out three futures: one status quo; a "conservation" plan, in which four houseboats are removed, two oyster harvest leases added, kayaking expanded, and geoduck harvest banned; and an "industry" plan, in which five houseboats and five oyster licenses are added, and geoduck harvest allowed. The conservation plan would increase the shellfish harvest by 18 percent and improve water quality by 32 percent; under the industry model, shellfish would go up by 67 percent and water quality down by 31 percent. West Coast took these results back to the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations, using them as the basis for talks, still under way, of how the inlet might be rezoned.

When West Coast talks with the First Nations, though, ecosystem services doesn't get mentioned. "We actually don't use that language," one staff member told me. "We call it matching suitable uses and activities to suitable places." The defining principle of the effort is tsawalk, a term from Nuu-chah-nulth that roughly translates to "all is one." The idea of nature as a factory to provide services to humans can be offensive to some elders. "If you believe that nature and different species are very alive," Day said, armed with "a different kind of intelligence that's not less than human intelligence—where there's a real magic in nature—then thinking of it as ecosystem services is really simplistic."

Like nearly everyone I talked with for this story, no matter their scientific frame, Day has a deep love of the outdoors. In the summer, he swims in the ocean almost daily. He makes furniture out of driftwood. He takes his kids out to harvest sea asparagus and kelp. He wants to change the coast's future. Nat Cap has given him great tools, but one theory can do only so much. He empathizes with the plight of scientists like Soulé and Daily. You're always trying to convince leaders that they should use these tools and knowledge, he said, "but ultimately it's the decision maker making the choice, and you don't have a lot of control over that."

Another source of frustration: the sheer time Day and his staff spend swaying from one group to the next, walking them through how the modeling sausage is made, hearing out their critiques. It's exhaustive, and exhausting. My second day in town, I sat in one technical meeting, in the orange-walled room, where conversation went on for more than an hour about how areas facing ecological risks would be "clumped" in a model. Would it favor grouping protected areas together, or let them scatter, creating more protected pockets? The group squirmed against its options, moving toward middle ground. "We're going to end up with a Canadian solution," Day said in summation, "and choose medium targets, medium clumps?"

So this is what conservation science looks like. The Natural Capital scientists are essentially consultants, advising the planners, who then cajole interests to follow their zoning guidelines through regulatory action or peer pressure. It all reminded me of a writing term: the ladder of abstraction. At the top sits the Blue Marble view of the world; at the bottom, one human's concrete actions. We were stranded in the ladder's middle, vague, questionably effective. Certainly the conversations have shifted; no one had talked about the importance of sea grass for stopping coastal erosion before Wood and company arrived. But would all these plans change the coast's future?

Then there's the issue of replication. If West Coast Aquatic is a success, it will be because Day devoted several decades to making it so. Can Day be replicated?

On my first day in Port Alberni, after Wood demonstrated his code, including the recreation model I saw up in Stanford, he suggested getting the heck out of the Creamsicle room.

Desperate for some natural beauty, we drove down to the inlet, past the curling rink and Industrial Heritage Center. The city had reclaimed this bit of waterfront, thrusting two slabs of former floating bridge into the inlet, a massive T-shaped breakwater for its small fishing fleet. The winds were howling down from nearby Mount Arrowsmith. We walked among the trawlers, seiners, and yachts. Finally we reached the end of the pier, where we saw an older couple, dressed in Pacific Northwest Authentic, walking out on the converted floating bridge. It was all slightly scenic, the mills hidden behind us, uncut forest in sight across rapping waters.

Looks like we have some recreation, I said, nodding at the couple.

Wood paused as his mind retreated into the clockwork of his recreation model. "The key is," he said, "do they do it in their leisure time? I would say that's a leisure activity right there. Some of that must be an environmentally based motivation."

The couple was getting a view of Arrowsmith, which dominates Port's rear horizon, at least on rare clear days. How did they value that view? Was it just the dollars they might spend on a nearby restaurant? Was there an intrinsic spiritual value? They left before I could ask.

"Yeah, they've come to see the water, be near to the water," Wood said. "To get a view of the inlet. That counts."

Paul Voosen is a senior reporter at The Chronicle.