August 2006  
Conservation Central's The Daily Show
by Cameron Walker

July seems like a typical month for Gretchen Daily: jam-packed. The Stanford University ecologist is getting ready to fly to Hawaii to check out her research sites, shooting off emails to students and colleagues and reporters, talking to the nanny about her two sick kids—and words like tremendous, fantastic, great, and just plain cool keep coming up as she talks about her early entry into the world of ecosystem services and where the field is headed today.

Daily directs Stanford University's Center for Conservation Biology, one of the world's most important incubators for ideas about how to take conservation mainstream by making it profitable. Now, she is also Stanford's lead in a new program, the Natural Capital Project, linking the university to conservation powerhouses The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund.

Another project? No problem. The Natural Capital Project, Daily says, "is just like a start-up. It's really exciting and fun—I'm kind of dabbling in everything."

Through these and other programs, Daily has become the poster-child of ecosystem services science. Mother Jones called her "a rising star of population biology" in 1994, when she was 29; she's been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, among other honors, and has published more than 100 papers and several books about the connection between ecosystems and human activity.

With the same enthusiasm and a heavy dose of modesty, she says none of this has been a solo effort. "The support of mentors and friends and collaborators in all of the science and policy have meant the world to me."

From Acid Rain to Island Ecosystems

Early on, one mentor was key in transforming Daily's early love of the outdoors into hands-on research focusing on environmental issues.

Daily was living in Frankfurt, Germany at the age of twelve (her father was working at the U.S. Army Hospital), when she learned the country's iconic forests had started disappearing because of acid rain falling from the sky. "It was incredibly eerie and dramatic to see as a teenager," she remembers. "It sounds so ordinary now."

A "fantastic" chemistry teacher, Dan Holmquist, helped Daily convert her concern about acid rain into a love of science and its ability to address the world's problems. Every afternoon, she'd stay after school conducting chemical tests on water samples she collected nearby. (She'd wanted to tackle acid rain, but they decided river pollution would be a more manageable project.)

Daily's research has since peered into issues both big and small: red-naped sapsuckers in Colorado and butterfly conservation in Costa Rica, poverty and the environment in developing countries, and valuing ecosystem services on a global scale. Now, under the Natural Capital Project, she's looking at ecosystems on the big island of Hawaii to address the disappearance of forests and rare species.

Who's Who

Stanford has been Daily's home base for most of these investigations. But her long-term stay there started with a case of mistaken identity. When the time came for Daily to decide on college, she says she would have been happy to stay in Europe as a ski instructor, but her father wanted her to head back to the States and find a university that had good access to the slopes. Stanford, at 3 ½ hours to Lake Tahoe's snowy peaks, seemed to count.

Once there, she saw a familiar name on the faculty: Paul Ehrlich. In Europe, the man was famous – Paul Ehrlich, everyone knew, had won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his work in immunology. So Daily and a German friend decided to apply for a job with the renowned scholar.

The pair got their dates a little off. Paul Ehrlich, the Nobel laureate, had died in 1915. "It was a total disappointment to hear it wasn't the original Paul Ehrlich," Daily says with a laugh. But working with Stanford University's Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and Ecoscience, proved far from disappointing. Ehrlich's work in the 1970s and 1980s provided a whole new foundation for environmental science. Intrigued, Daily stayed on with Ehrlich for her graduate work.

"I've always been interested in the big environmental issues that face us," Daily says. Ehrlich's work in threatened tropical areas—along with his interests in areas like population growth and valuing biodiversity—gave Daily a chance to explore these larger problems.

In fact, Stanford soon became the epicenter of a novel brew that mixed environmental science with economics. With Ehrlich and other luminaries like economists Sir Partha Dasgupta and Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow, Daily has since published dozens of studies about subjects ranging from tackling overpopulation and combating poverty to the value of ecosystem services on a global scale.

At the time, it was a radical notion that environmentalists and economists could address global problems together. "That's all old news now," says Daily, who now directs an interdisciplinary PhD program at Stanford that focuses on environmental problem solving. "Things have come a long, long way."

Natural Capital Project

This blending of different strengths is the focus of the Natural Capital Project, set to launch this October. The Nature Conservancy, Stanford, and the World Wildlife Fund will focus on three areas—the Afromontane region in East Africa, the Sierra Nevada region in California, and the Upper Yangtze River Basin in China.

The Natural Capital Project picked the sites to represent a range of social, political and environmental situations—in hopes that the lessons learned in each setting could be relevant at sites around the globe, says Christine Tam, the project's director. Additional demonstration sites will be added to the project in coming years.

Local researchers and the three institutions will develop maps and dynamic models of the flow of ecosystem services, in both biophysical and economic terms, in each region. "At a minimum, we'd be mapping out carbon, hydrological services—and there are different ones—and then biodiversity at the three main sites," Daily says.

These maps will depict trade-offs associated with investing in different conservation options and help researchers where to invest their efforts when "trying to achieve a bunch of potentially-conflicting conservation goals."

Tam, who worked previously with The Nature Conservancy in China, says the program will provide the best tools and information to people working in each region. Local scientists and policymakers don't always have the international connections of university researchers. Many times in China, Tam says, she and other local conservationists were frustrated because the latest conservation research and approaches were hard to access.

In turn, Stanford academics and their peers will have the chance to get feedback from their in-the-field partners. "They really want their work to be relevant," Tam says of Stanford's researchers. "You get the link between science and policy and actual implementation on the ground."

Mightier than the Sword

All of these dynamic developments seem light years away from the mid-1990s, when Daily and collaborators started writing about the then-nascent field. In 1997, Daily edited Nature's Services, an early compilation about how ecosystem services are generated, how people affect them, and how to balance human activity while maintaining these services.

The project began one evening as an after-dinner conversation in the Arizona desert. At a meeting of the Pew Fellows in Conservation and the Environment, a group of researchers started talking about how much society relies on ecosystem services—and how little people valued them. The result: a collection of essays from leading scientists about everything from climate cycling to soil.

Looking back to the essays in Nature's Services, Daily says: "The science has advanced so much since then, and in a beautiful way that's really interdisciplinary." Engineers, biophysicists, economists and environmental scientists understand more about carbon and hydrological dynamics, about soil productivity, about conservation values of biodiversity—all of which can play a role in establishing economic incentives for conservation.

A few years later, regional programs on several continents had started to address these issues—and a new collaboration was born. Daily met Katherine Ellison, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, after a lecture of Daily's at Stanford. Together, Daily and Ellison chronicled market-based approaches to preserving the environment in their 2002 book The New Economy of Nature. The team reported on the sometimes-awkward first steps of an emerging carbon market and the progress of these regional case studies, including New York's multibillion-dollar effort to protect drinking water by preserving watersheds.

The book's epilogue details the successes and failures of the programs. "Every revolution has its fits and starts, and the great number of frustrations actually reflected the great number of experiments being launched," they write.

The newest grand experiment, The Natural Capital Project, expands on this work—and might temper some of the earlier frustrations – by pairing extensive academic research with the locally-based fieldwork of two of the world's largest conservation organizations. "It has the potential to take conservation to the next level," Tam says.

Ecosystem Services, Island-Style

Along with being the Stanford faculty liaison for the Natural Capital Project, Daily's own research takes her to the big island of Hawaii. "I'd always thought of it as this American vacation spot where people did golfing and sat on beaches—not at all my thing," she says.

But instead, Daily says, "it's a place much more complex and deep and interesting than I had originally anticipated." She says it's both inspiring and humbling to get to know Hawaii's people and places, "and a real honor to work there." A huge resurgence in Hawaiian culture, led by in part by the biggest local landowner, Kamehameha Schools,K has brought a diverse group of people into dialogue about how the island's forests and pastures should be used.

Daily wants to map the flow of ecosystem services on the big island—a spot that depends on locally-supplied fresh water and has areas of extreme dryness along with forests. As a result, figuring out how freshwater moves through the island's landscape is crucial.

In Hawaii, Daily's role as a magnet for multidisciplinary efforts continues—bringing together the landowners, ranchers, and others who manage the island's resources with the developers who need water for their projects.

These novel collaborations seem to be working. Jimmy Greenwell, the president of the Hawaii Cattlemen's Council, says Daily has been able to bring together people with different interests in the land and has previously contentious factions talking like allies. "She has the most positive, can-do attitude," he says, "and her excitement is just contagious."

Greenwell runs a ranch in Kona that has been in his family since the 1850s. He was invited to a conference at Stanford—and wasn't really sure what he was in for—but came away impressed by the respect that scientists, conservationists, and environmentally-savvy business people have for Daily's research. He also started thinking that he and others who work Hawaii's lands may be contributing to their communities by providing ecosystem services.

"She's a breath of fresh air to cattlemen like us who are struggling to hang on to land that is heritage land," Greenwell says. These new ideas come at a crucial time, as the area is undergoing a community development plan to deal with rapid growth along the coast and the challenges of preserving upslope forests and pasturelands (and the ecosystem services they provide) and keeping them economically viable.

Now, Daily and her students are working at a study site on Greenwell's land, Palani Ranch, comparing how pastureland and forests retain and contribute water to the aquifer. While conventional wisdom holds that dense forested canopy is the ecosystem best suited for funneling precipitation, it's possible that trees might snag the moisture mainly for themselves, letting the water they collect transpire and evaporate before it ever reaches the aquifer. The research team is comparing pastureland and forest to residential sites as well.

No matter what this and other research uncovers, Daily's work is transforming ideas about the local environment's assets. "We're just seeing a huge change in the way that people think about land," she says.

Daily cites all the people who've helped her along the way, but colleagues suggest she is on the giving end more often than not. "People all love to work with her," Tam says. "She really is so knowledgeable and supportive of everyone she works with to achieve this dream of making conservation commonplace."