Stanford research group combines economics with conservation for small fishing town

(Editor’s Note: this story was originally reported for, where Stanford journalists Jamie Hansen and Julia James maintain the blog Science, Upstream.)

Locals on Vancouver Island try to negotiate the line between economic growth and natural preservation.

One Thursday this spring, a group of locals in Port Renfrew, British Columbia, lingered after their Chamber of Commerce meeting to strategize about how the town could win a nationwide fishing competition, called Ultimate Fishing Town Canada. Right now, the 250-person town is in the running — even if it’s a bit of a long shot.

Port Renfrew is an old logging town, nestled in a scenic cove on Vancouver Island’s west Coast about two hours north of the province’s bustling capitol, Victoria. The logging business has dwindled in recent years, and the town’s slow economy shows: it mostly consists of two restaurants and a bar. But now, this tiny town is undergoing a sudden makeover as a tourist destination and eyeing its resources,  like great fishing and old-growth tree groves, in a new light. Like many some towns here in California, it sees a better economic future in catering to fishermen, tourists and hikers than in traditional, “extractive” activities, like logging and mining.

Rosie Bosworth and Tim Cash, respectively president and director of the Port Renfrew chamber of commerce, hung around to explain what victory would mean for the town. First $25,000, which residents would like to reinvest in the local fish hatchery. Then, a trophy — they’d have a parade for it. Finally, it would put Port Renfrew on the fishing map, drawing in more visitors and even full-time residents.

Cash moved to Port Renfrew from Toronto after falling in love with its remote beauty on a vacation. Now he runs a lodge. He’d like to see a few more people move in, so his young boy can have more playmates. And Bosworth, who also relocated to the community, dreams of a grocery store and a doctor’s office — “the small necessities,” she said.

“We’ll take what development we can get,” she added. Then, she expressed the paradox that many small communities with struggling economies but beautiful surroundings are dealing with: “But we want to preserve our old growth. It’s imperative for tourism. ”

Bosworth and Cash both lit up when describing the beauty of their surroundings. “We’re green here,” Cash said, gesturing to the rocky beach, the mossy cliff wall and the ocean. “It’s pristine,” Bosworth agreed, raising her nose to the air. “You can smell it.”

This paradox — using ecotourism as a conservation tool only to attract development and lose small-town character — is common to beautiful places around the world. People are attracted to places with natural beauty and solitude. But once they’ve arrived, they can’t help yearning for some of civilization’s comforts. So they bring them in at some cost to the beauty and solitude they came for.

Indeed, not everyone sees tourism as the best option. Some on Vancouver Island’s west coast worry about communities losing their identity. Others see development as more irrevocably destructive than logging.

Communities are having a hard time balancing these elements, called “tradeoffs” in the scientific world.

That’s where the Stanford-based research group the Natural Capital Project thinks its science can help. It’s economists, ecologists and computer modelers have spent much of the last two years focused on West Vancouver Island, developing a computer modeling tool that can give communities better understand their resources.

Stanford researchers go to Vancouver Island

Not long ago, Greg Guannel enlisted staff for an unusual task: measuring the West Vancouver Island shoreline with sticks and string. Guannel was making a computer model that would tell communities how vulnerable their coasts are to erosion. To do so, he incorporated information from government maps and databases. But he needed some specific information, about the slope and elevation of the coastline, that simply didn’t exist yet.  The problem that couldn’t be solved in the computer lab. Or over the phone. Or even by searching for files in a musty office.
It was an insurmountable problem for a scientist: he needed data.

“Data is gold,” Guannel said at a recent training on Vancouver Island. “The more the better,” he added for emphasis. His eyes glimmered at the thought.

Guannel is a coastal engineer with the marine initiative of Natural Capital, an economic and ecological research group based at Stanford University and built on the idea that humans can understand the value of ecosystems through economics. The Natural Capital staff, he thought, could help him gather the data he needed. So a group of them bought the tools they needed — sticks, rope and measuring tape — and headed out to the foggy coast to measure the beach.

Guannel said his low-tech data gathering speaks to the heart of what NatCap is trying to do — solid, reliable science that is not overly complicated. The data feeds a multi-faceted ocean planning tool, called Marine InVEST, that NatCappers hope will provide communities with easily digestible information about the value of the services the oceans provide — information communities will use as they decide how to manage them. So NatCap has to do good, accurate science. But people who are not scientists by trade have to be able to use and understand it, too.

So the Natural Capital Project staff finds itself in a unique position for a group of scientists — it has to deal with human, subjective questions. So the staff engaged in another form of data gathering — talking to people.

For the last few weeks, the NatCappers raced to ready Marine InVEST for its first major test of both criteria.  They were preparing for the May 13-17 International Marine Conservation Congress, a major gathering of marine scientists, nonprofit staff and policy makers. The Congress took place on Vancouver Island, a place NatCappers saw as fitting. After all, that was the island they’d spent the last two years visiting and modeling Marine InVEST for and on.

On May 13, Guannel and six other marine initiative NatCappers turned on a computer, launched Marine InVEST and hoped the 13 ecologists and planners facing the screen would understand it.

Early on, while taking in the spreadsheets, with dots and squiggles marching across the screen, one trainee turned to her partner with a problem NatCap tries to avoid: “Only GIS [a computer program dealing with geography] junkies know this stuff,” she said.

But numbers eventually morphed into colorful maps. That trainee and the others listened closely for the next three hours as the marine initiative staff took turns explaining the modules they’d developed: Wave energy. Coastal vulnerability to erosion and inundation. Habitat risk assessment.
Winnie Lau manages the Marine Ecosystem Services Program for Forest Trends, a Washington non-profit that takes a market-based approach to conserving forests. Friday was her first time working in person with NatCap, but she said she’s had her eye on Marine InVEST since she attended a webinar on the emerging project last year.

“I knew they were developing it,” Lau said. “Now they’re starting to have exciting functionalities and really develop the tool.”

Lau is currently working with communities in Mexico to help manage fishing and tourism near the huge, diverse Mesoamerican Reef. NatCap is employing Marine InVEST on a similar project in Belize. Lau hopes the two groups can work together to learn lessons from each ongoing project.
“If Marine InVEST were fully in place, we’d want to use it for our project,” Lau said. But because Marine InVEST is still developing, she hopes to apply it once its completed to the work they will have already done in Mexico, to test the choices they made without it and also to see if Marine InVEST works well on the reef.

For the last hour of the workshop, she and Guannel hunkered over a laptop to dig into his coastal vulnerability module.

The training and Congress took place in Victoria, Vancouver Island’s urban hub and British Columbia’s capitol. But a quick drive northwest from the island’s southern tip transports one into the region that NatCap is helping local government to manage. Bear and deer spot the road at dusk. Driving north, ancient hardwood forests border the right side of the road, where they haven’t been logged. Streams bearing salmon course under the road. To the left, the coast drops sharply to the ocean. In places, vacation homes speckle the view.

As NatCappers wrapped up their Friday training, they were already thinking ahead to their meetings with the island-based group West Coast Aquatic and communities similar to Port Renfrew. There, the newly-minted Marine InVEST would really have to perform, presenting logical and understandable tradeoffs to the issues Bosworth and Cash embodied.

Guannel thinks NatCap’s data-gathering excursions to the island will help. “We gathered data for the program but also for our minds,” he said. In other words, the group made an effort to talk to community members, to see what they wanted. They also absorbed the look and feel of the place so they could have a better understanding as they modeled back in their office. After the training session, he had a good feeling about how the community meetings would go.

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