All posts by Elena Bennett

Three new positions in ecosystem services research at McGill University

We’re looking to hire three new people to join our team working on the role of landscape structure and biodiversity in the provision of ecosystem services. The new positions include a postdoc to work on developing models of ecosystem services, a PhD position in historical ecosystem ecology,  and a (part time) project manager. We’re working in the Montérégie, a lovely agricultural landscape just southeast of Montreal.

For more about the project, check out our website:

Here’s more detail on each of the three positions:

Postdoctoral researcher

We are seeking an outstanding postdoctoral researcher to be a part of a dynamic multi-lab team that is mapping and modeling past, present, and future provision of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the agricultural landscape around Montréal. The primary research project would involve synthesizing historical and current geospatial data to evaluate how landscape configuration effects the provision of ecosystem services in this region. This analysis will inform the development a spatial model of the provision of ecosystem services under different land use/land cover configurations in the greater Montreal region.

A successful candidate will have a PhD in a related field (e.g., Geography, Ecology); experience with ecosystem modeling techniques, including GIS and computer programming; and be familiar with the literature on ecosystem services. The applicant should have a good publication record and a demonstrated ability to work independently and as part of a large team. Capacity to read and speak French is a plus.

The successful applicant would be primarily based in the lab of Dr. Elena Bennett at McGill’s Macdonald Campus, but would also be supervised by the co-PIs on the project, including Dr. Jeanine Rhemtulla (Geography), Dr. Andrew Gonzalez (Biology), and Dr. Martin Lechowicz (Biology). An office on McGill’s downtown campus will also be provided. Salary will be $35,000 per annum plus standard McGill benefits. We encourage applicants of all nationalities to apply.

Applicants should submit a CV, a statement detailing how their research interests align with the focus of the project, and the names and contact information for three references. Start date is targeted for January 2012. Please submit applications by September 1, 2011 to: Elena Bennett (elena dot bennett at mcgill dot ca)

PhD Student in Historical Ecosystem Ecology

We are seeking a PhD student interested in historical ecology, landscape ecology, and ecosystem services to be a part of a dynamic multi-lab team that is mapping and modeling past, present, and future provision of ecosystem services in the agricultural landscape around Montreal. The student’s project would involve examining historical records to estimate past provision of ecosystem services, interpretation of historical air photos and other maps, and modeling relationships between land use, spatial configuration, and ecosystem services through time. There is considerable room for a student to develop their own project within these general parameters.

A successful candidate should have an MSc degree in a related field, experience with GIS, remote sensing, or other ecosystem modeling techniques, and an ability to work independently and as part of a large team. Ability to read and speak French is a plus.

The successful applicant could be a PhD student in either Geography or Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University and would be co-supervised by Dr. Elena Bennett and Dr. Jeanine Rhemtulla. McGill University, located in Montreal, QC, is one of Canada’s top universities and boasts a large international student population.

Applicants should submit a CV, a statement of research interests, a copy of their transcripts, and the names and contact information for two references. Start date is targeted for Fall 2012. Please submit applications to: Jeanine Rhemtulla and Elena Bennett (jeanine dot rhemtulla at mcgill dot ca) and (elena dot bennett at mcgill dot ca)

Project Manager (Part Time)

We are seeking an organized, energetic, and enthusiastic project manager for a new project about biodiversity, connectivity, and ecosystem services in the settled landscapes of the greater Montreal region. The project involves a large team of professors and their students (~30 people total) working on both the fundamental and applied aspects of this research. Our project seeks to understand how past and future land use change will affect habitat connectivity, biodiversity, and the provision of multiple ecosystem services. Policy makers and managers often must make decisions with limited rigorous information about how to manage for sustainable landscapes. In order to improve the link between science and decision making our project includes actively engaged partners from local cities, counties, NGOs, as well as regional and provincial government. Our research will improve both the science and decision-making required to manage for sustainable and resilient landscapes.

Project management would include:

  • Managing the activities and people associated with the project and ensure that we are meeting project goals
  • Ensure communication across the researchers involved with the project
  • Management of GIS data central to the project, creation of geodatabases
  • Coordinating and tracking the project budget
  • Maintaining communication with our project partners
  • Identify opportunities for improving and enhancing the project

We seek a project manager who is self-motivated, extremely organized, and has experience running a major research project or managing a research team. Because the project manager would also have a role in managing geodatabases for the project, experience with GIS and geodatabase management is also important. A graduate degree (M.Sc. or PhD) in environmental sciences would be an advantage. The position will involve considerable communication with our local management partners, so the successful applicant must be bilingual (French/English).

We envision a part-time (up to 3 days/week) position with a salary of approximately $20,000 per annum.

Applicants should submit a CV, a statement of interests and experience, and contact information for three references. Start date is targeted for Fall 2011. Please submit applications by July 1, 2011 to: Elena Bennett (elena dot bennett at mcgill dot ca)

Nonlinearity produces management opportunites for ecosystem services

A new ecosystems service paper from Koch et al Non-linearity in ecosystem services: temporal and spatial variability in coastal protection has just come out in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

While the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that nonlinearity in the provision of ecosystem services was likely to be an important factor complicating ecosystem management, there have been few quantitative examples of this nonlinearity in the literature. Consequently, scientists and managers often assume that ecosystem services are provided unvaryingly at a steady rate. This article provides quantitative evidence for seasonal and spatial nonlinearity in the provision of wave attenuation and coastal protection, an ecosystem service provided by marshes, mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs.

There is a great deal of interest in the literature right now in ecosystem services as a justification for conservation and as a tool for ecosystem management. Assumptions about linearity or nonlinearity of ecosystem service provision could have a huge impact on the success of this management. I found this paper interesting because it provides quantitative evidence for nonlinearity in space and time in the provision of key ecosystem services.

Are ecosystem service trade-offs relatively common?

A recent paper by Heather Tallis et al. reports the finding that win-win conservation projects — those that aim to achieve both conservation objectives and economic gains — are relatively rare. In this paper (Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2008 Jul 15 105(28):9457-64), the authors examine World Bank projects with dual objectives of alleviating poverty and protecting biodiversity and find that only 16% made major progress on both objectives.

These results suggest that trade-offs among ecosystem services may be more common than previously thought. (Fairly interesting since other studies have shown that win-wins are common;however, those studies have generally not considered agriculture/food to be an ecosystem service. Since agriculture is one of the key services that has trade-offs with conservation, it is an important one to consider when assessing the conservation potential in an area.)

Nevertheless, the authors point out that there are strategies for improving management of ecosystem services and human well-being. These include better monitoring of conservation projects’ effects on ecosystem services and human well-being and also improving monitoring of multiple ecosystem services, including the flow of services from one region to another and the effects of markets on provision of ecosystem services.

The long history of human-environment interactions in China

In a recent paper, JA Dearing and colleagues (J. Paleolimnology 40: 3-31) use paleolimnological techniques to explore the long-term history of the region around Erhai Lake in Yunnan Province. Lake sediment cores (which can explain catchment vegetation, flooding, soil erosion, sediment sources and metal workings) are complemented by independent regional climate time-series from speleothems, archaeological records of human habitation, and a detailed documented environmental history. The authors integrate these data to “provide a Holocene scale record of environmental change and human–environment interactions.”

They use these data to ask:

  • “How sensitive are the studied environmental system processes to climate and human drivers of change?”
  • “Can we observe long-term trajectories of socio-environmental interactions, or periods of social collapse and recovery?”

The authors identify a number of points at which there were major changes in the human interaction with the landscape, including ~9000 cal year BP, when sediment records show a ‘human-affected environment’, ~4800 cal year BP, when major deforestation for grazing led to the extirpation of forest species and some functional units, and ~2000 cal year BP at the introduction of paddy field irrigated farming, and ~1600 cal year BP at which point surface erosion and gullying were caused by increased exploitation of mountain slopes. They go on to suggest that these records indicate several major ‘periods’ in human-environment interactions in this area:

The earliest of these cases probably represents the dispersion of the population away from the established sedentary agricultural units on alluvial fans to the more inhospitable margins of the lake and the valleys. This perhaps signifies the end of the ‘nature dominated’ phase (Messerli et al.) where society could cause significant modification of the landscape but was still vulnerable to the main risks of drought and flood (though the evidence for climate determinism is weak). In contrast, the introduction of irrigation is associated with a trend of weakening monsoon intensity, increasing numbers of centennial scale dry phases, and population growth. It represents an agrarian society in transition, using technological innovation to raise carrying capacities without increasing greatly the vulnerability to drought or flood. The third period is linked to natural population growth, inward migration and metal extraction brought about by the rise of Nanzhao/Dali as a major center”

The authors then ask at what stage of the adaptive cycle the modern Erhai socio-ecological system exists:

At Erhai, the slow processes of weathering and soil accumulation, in association with vegetation cover held fairly constant by a benign early-mid Holocene climate, were interrupted by fast processes of anthropogenic modification of vegetation. For many centuries, this concatenation of ‘slow–long’ and ‘fast–short’ processes led to a resilient land use-soil system (cf. Gunderson and Holling). But increasing perturbations led to system failure, and we can observe that the late Ming environmental crisis represents the end of the last release phase. Thus, the modern landscape may be approaching a conservation phase (K) characterised by minimum resilience.

Dearing and colleagues explore the meanings of this research for current sustainability and conclude that the main threat to the region is high magnitude-low frequency flooding of the agricultural plain and low terraces, which is exacerbated by:

  1. continued use of high altitude and steep slopes for grazing and cultivation that generate high runoff from unprotected slopes and maintain active gully systems, particularly in the northern basins;
  2. reduction or poor maintenance of paddy field systems, engineered flood defences, river channels and terraces; [and]
  3. increased intensities of the summer monsoon.

This fascinating paper is an excellent example of how historical data sources can be integrated to provide a new perspective on social and ecological change over long periods of time.

UNEP launches database of advertising dedicated to sustainability

The UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) has launched “The Creative Gallery on Sustainability Communications,” a website dedicated to maintaining a database of advertising which uses sustainability as a major theme. The site is, as UNEP describes it, “the first international online database of corporate and public advertising campaigns specifically dedicated to sustainability issues and classified by sustainability themes.” The Gallery is available at

The site currently lists just over 700 public and corporate ads, which can be browsed by theme (e.g. “water”) or searched by keyword.

The goal of the project, according to UNEP, is to “… inspire and foster more and better communication on sustainability issues from all stakeholders involved in the promotion of sustainable development.” It can also has an obvious function as a source of information for research into advertising and marketing related to sustainability.
Anyone can submit an ad after registering with the database.

For a few examples, see this paper ad by AGBAR (Aigues de Barcelona) about water conservation, or this Saatchi &Saatchi tv ad for WWF’s Oceans Recovery Campaign.

Wetland Mitigation Banking Shortchanges Urban Areas

In a study highlighted in the National Wetlands Newsletter, J.B. Ruhl and James Salzman show that wetland mitigation banking redistributes wetlands from urban areas to rural ones, leaving urban residents with less access to important ecological services provided by wetlands, such as water filtration, erosion protection, and flood control.

Ruhl, J.B. and Salzman, James E., “The Effects of Wetland Mitigation Banking on People” (January 2006). FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 179 Available at SSRN).

Wetland mitigation banking is used to ensure no net loss of wetland area under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Basically, mitigation banking allows developers who damage or destroy wetlands to buy off-site wetlands as compensation. Many studies have examined whether the new wetlands adequately replace wetland values and functions, but few have examined the social impacts of wetland mitigation banking.

Ruhl and Salzman studied 24 wetland mitigation banks in Florida (accounting for 95% of bank activity, and representing over 900 development projects). They show that in 19 of 24 banks, wetlands “migrated” from urban to rural areas.

“The whole point of wetland mitigation banking – what makes its economic incentives work – is that developers get to wipe out wetland patches in the higher priced land markets and bankers get to establish wetlands banks in the less pricey land markets,” Ruhl said. “It’s not surprising then that development projects using wetland mitigation banking often are located in urban areas and the banks they use are located in rural areas.”

The populations of winners and losers in wetland mitigation banking are quite different, as you might expect. The banks (where wetlands are restored) are, on average 10 miles from the projects (where wetlands are damanged). The average income was nearly $12,000 lower in projects compared to banks, and the average minority population was 13% higher projects.

The researchers suggest that further examination of wetlands mitigation banking is needed. ” … wetland mitigation banking has been touted as a “win-win” program, but unless someone keeps score we really can’t know whether it truly fits that billing.” For now, it seems that not actively including the value of ecosystem services means inadequately assessing the true costs and benefits of the program.

Ruhl is the Matthew and Hawkins Professor of Property at the FSU College of Law, and Salzman is a professor at the Duke University School of Law and the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Evaluation of ecosystem services provided by multifunctional agriculture in the USA

George Boody and colleagues used a scenario-development exercise to discover that some types of changes in agricultural management can lead to economic benefits as well as improvements in the delivery of multiple ecosystem services.(Boody et al. 2005. Multifunctional agrcitulture in the United States. BioScience 55: 27 – 38.)

The team of 17 members (including farmers, government agency workers, and acadmics from several disciplines) worked with stakeholders in 2 southern Minnesota (USA) watersheds to develop 4 scenarios evaluating the future of agricultural management in the area.

These two watersheds face many of the same issues found in other agricultural regions of the United States: there are fewer farms now than in past decades; farms are growing in size as farmers buy out their neighbors; more land is leased; the diversity of crops is declining; and more land is managed by large companies working on non-contiguous areas, necessitating transport of manure and other items around the region.

The 4 scenarios they developed were (click for maps of landcover in one of the watersheds):

A) continuation of current trends
B) Implementation of BMPs (best management practices)
C) Maximizing diversity and profitability
D) Increased vegetative cover

The team estimated changes in fish populations in each watershed’s streams, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, and carbon sequestration in each watershed under the conditions of each scenario. In one watershed, Scenarios B, C, and D all reduced N loading to the Mississippi River by at least 30% (a goal set by the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Nutrient Task Force). In the other watershed, simply implementing BMPs (Scenario B)was not enough to reach this reduction goal.

In addition, the team estimated the short-term economic effects of each of the 4 scenarios, including net farm income, farm production costs, and commodity and CRP payments. Net farm income was greatest in Scenario C or D, depending on the watershed, despite declines in CRP and commodity payments in those scenarios. The authors also estimated externality cost savings due to reduced sedimentation and flooding.

In their conclusions, the authors state (p. 35):

Our analysis indicates that diversifying agriculture on actively
farmed land could provide environmental, social, and
economic benefits.Citizens would be willing to pay for these

They also point out the importance of social capital and changes in agricultural policy to the ability to achieve the transitions required to enter Scenario B, C, or D.

More detail about this project can be found in the report here, and more information on other projects related to stewardship of farmland, sustainable agriculture and sustainable communities can be found at the web site of the Land Stewardship Project.

Ecosystem Tradeoffs and Synergisms in Agriculture

How can we feed ourselves without degrading other ecosystem services? This critical question has often been couched as a debate between maximizing production through high input/high efficiency agricultural systems versus minimizing impact by practicing less intensive but more extensive farming. (See Balmford et al. 2005 “Sparing land for nature: exploring the potential impact of changes in agricultural yield on the area needed for crop production” in Global Change Biology 11:1594-1605. or RE Green et al. “Farming and the fate of wild nature” in Science 28:550-555.)

However, a new paper by Pretty and colleagues in Environmental Science and Technology indicates that this debate may miss important opportunities for achieving win-win solution in developing countries. (J.N. Pretty, A.D. Noble, D. Bossio, J. Dixon, R.E. Hine, F.W.T. Penning De Vries, and J.I.L. Morrison. 2006. Resource-conserving agriculture increases yields in developing countries.)

Focusing on the use of seven different resource-conserving technologies (Pest control management, integrated nutrient management, conservation tillage, agroforestry, aquaculture, water harvesting, and livestock integration) in developing countries, Pretty it is found that farmers could both improve their sustainability and increase production. The mean relative increase in crop yield was 79% across a wide variety of crop types and farming systems. In only 3 cases did yields decrease as a result of implementing sustainable farming practices, all in rice farming systems.

Approaches that allow increases in multiple ecosystem services provided by farmland – increased food production as well as improved environmental services, for example – solves a critical problem for farmers as well as the world at large.

Poor farmers need low-cost and readily available technologies and practices to increase local food production and raise their income. At the same time, land and water degradation is increasingly posing a threat to food security and the livelihoods of rural people who often live on degradation-prone lands.

The authors think that 3 types of technical improvement were key players in the increased food production:

more efficient water use …; improvements in organic matter accumulation in soils and carbon sequestration; and pest, weed, and disease control emphasizing in-field biodiversity and reduced pesticide … use.

It would be interesting to find out if “green” farming practices would have similar impacts on production in developed countries, too.