Using causal inference in environmental impact evaluation

Liz Law

More complex than BACI design, but you may not need as much information as you think

At the recent ICCB in Baltimore, I was lucky enough to score a place in the “Environmental impact evaluation and causal inference” workshop run by Paul Ferraro and Merlin Hanauer. I would highly recommend everyone working in conservation related fields to explore this field. Two of the main conclusions that I got out of this course were that: a) once again, my undergraduate education was flawed: before-after control-impact (BACI) is NOT the epitome of experimental design, particularly in the case of conservation impact evaluation, and b) to provide policy relevant information you may not need as much data as you think.

We’ve all heard the calls for evidence based environmental policy, and recognize the relative paucity of studies that evaluate conservation intervention effectiveness. Many have the common belief that the data for such evaluations is simply not available, often due to time and financial constraints as much as lack of motivation or will. Yet this belief may be constructed under false pretenses, a result of having BACI design celebrated so religiously through our undergraduate training. The field of causal inference and impact evaluation has long moved on.


Identifying causal effects

“Correlation does not imply causation and lack of correlation does not imply lack of causation.”

To identify causal effects we are really trying to eliminate rival explanations Continue reading Using causal inference in environmental impact evaluation

Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Review

Recently we reviewed the draft conceptual framework to guide the delivery of IPBES. The IPBES is the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services ( We recognise the challenges associated with developing this framework: while biodiversity and ecosystem services are all encompassing, they are poorly defined in theme, space, and time, and are inherently linked to society’s institutions and economy. We also acknowledge the importance of a conceptual framework for ensuring uptake and involvement of all key stakeholders of the IPBES. We applaud the expert working group who met in Bonn earlier this year for developing the draft conceptual framework and the attempt to capture the complexity inherent in the mandate for the IPBES. We also recognise the challenge of developing a conceptual framework that adds value to predecessors and that speaks to the four core functions of the IPBES .

Our review focused on three themes:

1.      Treatment of biodiversity: including definitions and relationship with ecosystem services

2.      Treatment of spatial and temporal scales

3.      Knowledge generation and decision making: including emphasis on how decisions are made and the importance of scenarios.

You can see the full content of our review here. We grouped our comments in relation to these themes, and attempted to clearly outline suggested actions to redress them. In some cases the three themes were interconnected. In an attempt to clarify our suggestions, we (well, mainly Liz!) developed a revisedschematic of the conceptual framework based on our comments (see below). We are looking forward to contributing to other intersessional activities of the IPBES – it was fun to gather our thoughts on how we conceptualise ecosystem services and biodiversity and the important role that imagining potential futures has in bridging the science-policy interface.



Ecosystem services journal club: a review of 2012

This week we decided to catch up on some of the recent ecosystem services literature, running though a selection of papers we found interesting, novel, useful, or just thought we should read, from a very flexible definition of the year “2012”.  Here are a few we discussed:

Martin-Lopez, et al. 2012. Uncovering Ecosystem Service Bundles through Social Preferences. PLoS One. In this paper the authors investigate the ES bundles and trade offs from a social perspective.  ES bundles are sets of ES appearing together in the landscape and trade offs arise when the provision of one ES is enhance at the cost of another. In this sense the use of bundles is explained by looking at preferences of different social groups towards ES in different ecosystems through an extensive face to face interview process. The findings are that different groups of people are related to ES in different ways, with variables like level of formal education, environmental behavior and gender being the most influential in the probability to recognize the provision of ecosystem services (for example women appear to value regulating services more highly than men). They also found a clear tradeoff between provisioning services versus regulating services and almost all cultural services. They identified bundles of ES mainly associated with the conservation management strategy and the rural urban gradient. The contribution of this study is that the authors empirically demonstrate that the value of ecosystem services depend on the people that is benefiting on them deepening the understanding of what type of stakeholders values what types of ES.

Willemen, et al. 2012. A multi-scale modelling approach for analysing landscape service dynamics. Journal of Environmental Management 100, 86-95.This paper presents a conceptual and methodological approach to assess the spatial and temporal dynamics of ES supply in function of regional societal demand and the management of landscapes. Here, all processes and interactions are assumed to take place in three levels: the level at which ES are supplied (local), the level at which demand is represented in policy targets (regional) and the level at which land is actually managed (management unit). The modeling approach consisted in three steps: the quantification of the ES at the local and regional level, defining ES demand at the regional level and allocating land management per management unit. Overall this approach focuses on the exploration of solutions to meet the demand for ES determined by regional policy targets. They translate the resulting conceptual framework into an operational model using a rural region in Netherlands as a study case simulating changes in three ES (plant habitat, arable production and cultural heritage) supply by regional actual policies. The contribution of this type of study is that identifies and quantifies temporal and spatial dynamic patterns of multiple ES, including multiple uses of a single location and show potential for quantitative assessments of ES for policy discussions on landscape management.

Holmquist, et al. 2010. To restore or not? A valuation of social and ecological functions of the Marais des Baux wetland in Southern France. Ecological Economics 69: 2383:2393. In this paper, they use “Choice Experiment” to see the preference of local people in the decision of wetland restoration. By given multiple plans which are including wetland’s ecosystem services (provisioning, supporting, cultural services), the results show that most people prefer to restore the wetland in only one third size of the wetland. The control of mosquitoes is necessary to the local people and is better under biological control than chemical one. The recreational facilities and more trees to defend against wind are needed.  This paper also indicates that high biodiversity is essential to bring up people’s environmental concerns.

Macfayden, et al. 2012. Managing ecosystem services and biodiversity conservation in agricultural landscapes: are the solutions the same? Journal of Applied Ecology 49: 690-694. In light of the premise that biodiversity conservation and agriculture are traditionally conflicting, this paper reviews published examples of management in agricultural landscapes for biodiversity and ecosystem services. They outline a number of asymmetries involved. First, the type of taxa normally considered in agricultural ecosystem service management are microbes and invertebrates, occasionally non-native species (particularly in the case of biological control), whereas biodiversity is focussed more on a variety of native species. Furthermore, they note the level of biodiversity considered is often much lower in ecosystem service management (often one or few species) compared with biodiversity management. Second, spatial scales are often very different, small and local in ecosystem service management, and large or regional when considering biodiversity. Third, there are often different shares of costs and benefits to private and public stakeholders, both direct, and through incentive schemes (e.g. PES). Overall, these asymmetries mean that biodiversity management does not automatically beget ecosystem service provision, and vice versa. While this throws a shadow on our hopes of “win-win” outcomes, accepting it is likely to avoid disillusionment and ultimately result in better outcomes for all.

Lautenbach et al. 2010. Quantifying ecosystem service trade-offs. International Environmental Modelling and Software Society 2010 International Congress on Environmental Modelling and Software, Ottowa, Canada. This paper contrasts three options to compare trade-offs between ecosystem services, including map comparison, scenario analysis, and trade-off analysis using optimized landscapes. Map comparison involves, for example, simple, usually pair-wise correlations and congruence between services based on spatial location. These are usually land cover based / static models, and this method examines patterns, but often the mechanisms and processes defining and resulting in trade-offs (i.e. outcomes under different decisions) are not readily observable with this method. Scenario analysis and optimisation can help to reveal some trade-offs, particularly when based on process models. However these usually come at a cost of research time and effort, and need to balance pragmatic decisions of model complexity, realism and processing time. This paper would have benefited by following the same example though the case studies: as it stands it is difficult to evaluate the real benefit (net of the costs) of the additional effort.

Also, while we did not discuss it on the day, we note the recent arrival to the on line literature: Crossman et al. 2013. A blueprint for mapping and modelling ecosystem services. Ecosystem Services. The latest review paper of mapping ecosystem services, it is possibly a good introduction into the many papers (and other review papers) that look at the very diverse methodologies to map and model ecosystem services, looks to have come out of a workshop at the last Ecosystem Services Partnership Conference.

And that is a lovely segway into some shameless self-promotion: we are going to be holding a workshop/open session at the next Ecosystem Services Partnership Conference (, to be held in Bali, in August. It is called What decision makers need: scenario driven, systematic decision making and policy analysis for multifunctional landscapes”. Integrating ecosystem services into holistic landscape planning requires consideration of synergies and tradeoffs in multifunctional landscapes. To show how this challenging task is being addressed, we will discuss and showcase several case studies that develop and extend diverse toolsets and approaches for integrating ecosystem services into land-use decision making at various scales of governance, in contrasting biomes, and anthromes. Hope to see you in Bali!


Ecosystem Services Meets Systematic Conservation Planning

by Liz Law

This week saw the inaugural joint meeting of the Ecosystem Services Discussion Group and the Marxan Party to discuss software and tools for planning and prioritization of Ecosystem Services.

The Ecosystem Services framework has developed in recent years, encapsulating land stewardship to foster the many benefits that we derive from our ecosystems. These benefits are many and multifaceted, ranging from agricultural production and climate change mitigation, to regulating watersheds, and stimulating inspiration in diverse cultural settings. However, like biodiversity, planning for ecosystem services requires balancing the management requirements of a diverse range of sometimes opposing land uses, resulting in potentially complex, multi-criteria problems.

Ecosystem services, meet Systematic Conservation Planning.

Systematic Conservation Planning has grown from the need to solve multi-objective allocation problems in a repeatable, transparent way. Typically focused on multiple species or ecosystems, Systematic Conservation Planning has increasingly accounted for real world complexities such as direct and opportunity costs, equity of impact, physical and thematic connectivity between planning units, and contribution of multiple land use types. Continue reading Ecosystem Services Meets Systematic Conservation Planning

Conserving Country: Reflections on the SCB-Oceania Conference

by Nancy Auerbach

Tal Polak and I (Nancy Auerbach) recently represented the Environmental Decisions Group (EDG) and the Wilson lab at the recent Society for Conservation Biology’s Oceania section regional conference, held in Darwin, NT between Friday 21 and Sunday 23 September 2012.  The conference theme was on ‘People and Conservation in Land and Sea Country,’ and communications on Indigenous conservation management were encouraged.  Some of the indigenous philosophy underlying land and sea country management that includes the tradition of passing along knowledge is widely shared by conservation biologists across the globe, and several of us from the EDG shared our current research in presentations at the conference.

My contribution was in speaking on ‘The state of threatened species prioritisation in Australia’ in a symposium organized by Judit Szabo (formerly EDG, now Charles Darwin University) on ‘Socio-economic aspects of threatened species conservation in Oceania.’   The summary of my presentation is that the states and territories of Australia currently have heterogeneous plans for managing threatened species, and species would be better served by a national plan that includes management collaboration amongst states.  Many species’ needs are being ignored, and some sub-species have gone extinct with little notice.  We recommend that an over-arching, functional, and strategic national plan is urgently needed.  A national plan would ideally prioritise projects comprised of actions that would benefit threatened species, and should account for feasibility of project success as well as the cost of actions to achieve an overall defined species conservation objective.  The governments of New Zealand and the state of New South Wales are currently implementing such a strategy, modelled after the Joseph et al. (2009) Project Prioritization Protocol.

This Silvereye (Zosterops lateralis) migrates interstate between Tasmania and Queensland. While the Silvereye is classified by the IUCN as ‘least concern,’ other threatened birds receive inadequate protection from legislation. For example, the Mt Lofty Ranges subspecies of the Spotted Quail-thrush (Cinclosoma punctatum anachoreta) was last sited in 1981 and is presumed extinct. Photo: ©Dirk Hovorka

Tal Polak (PhD candidate, Wilson lab) presented results from her first PhD project on ‘Optimal planning for mitigating the impacts of roads on wildlife.’  Continue reading Conserving Country: Reflections on the SCB-Oceania Conference

Getting Started in R

By Liz Law

So you want to learn R, but just don’t know where to start…


The R website is your friend:

The index on the left has several points of interest:

  • Manuals & Contributed – these pages have many “introduction to R” and quick reference things in English and Belorussian (among other languages… )
  • Task Views – this links to several pages describing a whole bunch of “packages” that are used for different fields. For example, Environmentrics (ecology), Econometrics (economics), Spatial, Optimization programming, Multivariate stats, Graphs, basically all the things you could imagine.

I use RStudio – I find it a really nice way of viewing code, history, workspace, plots, help etc on the one page. But there are a number of other gui interfaces, they can be found on the R website here

I found “Quick-R” a useful reference page to start as well, it explains things cleanly with code examples. Another useful way to start, particularly if you are also rusty at basic stats, is to go through Crawley’s “Introduction to Statistics Using R” (note, full text is available online through the UQ library).

All packages will have a pdf manual, generally readily found by searching for “r cran” and the package name. However, it is always worth searching if the package also has other documentation (often called a vignette) or a website which goes through worked examples of the process. These can be more useful, particularly when Continue reading Getting Started in R

Mapping Ecosystem Services (ES) at Multiple Scales

By Maria Martinez Harms

This week we are happy to welcome a new PhD student, Maria Jose Martinez Harms, in to the Lab. Maria Jose is from Santiago, Chile, and she is interested in the implementation of ecosystem service (ES) theory in to conservation practice. Specifically through the development of methodological tools to support decision making process to inform about ES supply, exploring the spatial tradeoffs between ES and biodiversity with the aim of including ES in conservation planning.

Maria is concerned about conservation issues in Latin America. In her Honours she worked under the supervision of Professor Rodolfo Gajardo in the University of Chile in the development of a methodological approach to justify the existence of protected areas in the Chilean Western Patagonia because of their potential to supply ecosystem processes and ES (Martinez-Harms & Gajardo 2008). The background of this concern about Patagonian conservation issues is because in Chile more than 80% of the protected surface is located in Western Patagonia (Luebert & Becerra 1998). Nevertheless these areas aren’t ‘hotspots’ of global biodiversity (Myers et al. 2000; Mittermeier et al. 2004) and in the current days the construction of seven big dams and a transmission line is considered by the national government in this region, threatening the conservation of these wild areas (Vince 2010). A Multi-criteria Evaluation was applied using land cover and vegetation maps, scoring each vegetation type according their capacity to supply ES using expert knowledge and available bibliographic information. The main finding of this study was the identification of the most important ecosystem processes and ES these landscapes provide and the assessment of their spatial distribution.

Figure 1: A natural protected landscapes of the Chilean Western Patagonia

Maria did her Master studies in the Centre of Ecosystem Research (CIEco: in Mexico, under the supervision of Patricia Balvanera, first working with ES provided by Tropical Dry Forests (TDF) (Balvanera et al. 2011). Specifically analysing how their ecological characteristics, Continue reading Mapping Ecosystem Services (ES) at Multiple Scales

Depression and delusion in conservation

Garnett and Lindenmayer argue that like Cassandra of Greek mythology, "foretellers of doom alone will always be ignored until too late"

By  Luke P. Shoo

Conservation biology is generally regarded as a crisis discipline (Soulé 1985). However, consensus on the nature of the discipline does not extend to how the science should be communicated in order to further the primary goal of conserving biodiversity.  Garnett and Lindenmayer (2011) contend that relentless communication of an impending mass extinction may actually be counterproductive for conservation and cite evidence from other disciplines (medicine, public health and road safety) that  bad news needs to be balanced by empowerment if political and social change is to be achieved. In a counterpoint, Arlettaz et al. (2011) argue that a focus on good news could be highly detrimental, engendering a lack of perspective and giving academics and politicians the illusion that the crisis could be solved without questioning business-as-usual practices.

An ongoing debate

This debate, played out in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, has not occurred in isolation. Similar exchanges have featured in related journals including Conservation Biology (Beever 2000; Orr 2004; Webb 2005; Knight 2007; Nugent 2007; Orr 2007), Bioscience (Swaisgood and Sheppard 2010; Patten and Smith-Patten 2011; Swaisgood and Sheppard 2011) and probably elsewhere. It appears, then, that there is a fine line to be negotiated when broadcasting conservation news. We may want to combat conservation despair (Swaisgood and Sheppard 2010) but at the same time avoid the perverse outcome of breeding self-deceitand naive optimism (Noss 1995; Webb 2005).

Arlettaz et al. say that focusing on "good news" through fear of the Cassandra syndrome may be just as detrimental

‘Good news’ conservation

Some practitioners have noticed that many good news stories have failed to attract wide attention and in response have begun the task of amassing and actively communicating examples of conservation successes. In a recent example, Sodhi et al. (in press) provide a global review of conservation interventions that have likely reduced extinction and endangerment of vertebrates and environmentally damaging practices of corporations. For instance, establishment of protected areas has reduced carbon emissions from deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and better enforcement of whaling regulations has prompted a population recovery of Pacific grey whales (Eschrichtius robustus).

Reframing the question

Much of the argument against the presentation of good news is based on the negative ramifications of cultivating blissful ignorance. However, it could well be argued that “the problem lies with ignorance, not with optimism, because ignorant pessimism is as problematic as ignorant optimism” (Beever 2000). Clearly, then, there is a role for evidence based conservation (Sutherland, Pullin et al. 2004). Moreover, there is a need to give heed to context when communicating evidence of success.

One way to do this is to  ask the question: how different would the world look in the absence of conservation action (Ferraro and Pattanayak 2006)? For example, Hoffmann et al. (2010) estimate that conservation actions have reduced the rate of deterioration in the status of the world’s animals by at least one-fifth (i.e. conservation impact). Nevertheless, almost one-fifth of all living species remain classified as threatened and on average 52 species will move one category closer to extinction each year (i.e. context) (Hoffmann, Hilton-Taylor et al. 2010).

The impacts of conservation efforts should be communicated within the correct context. Adapted from Rodrigues et al. 2006

Undoubtedly, the effects of some actions will be difficult to measure (Brooks, Wright et al. 2009). There may also be surprises that prompt us to rethink the merits of some conservation practices (Bottrill, Walsh et al. 2011). The point is that studies designed to properly evaluate the efficacy of conservation interventions can provide the raw material to report on conservation success in proper context with the ongoing reality of problem. Presenting a more complete picture may help readers resist any tendency to become environmental Pollyannas* whilst guard against conservation apathy that can stem from a mental diet composed exclusively of bad news.

*an excessively or blindly optimistic person as used by Noss (1995).

References Continue reading Depression and delusion in conservation

Tips and tricks for ArcGIS, Excel and R

Liz Law reports on the Wilson Conservation Ecology Lab meeting for Aug 5th 2011

Why? Because it’s a Bustard! (Photo of Australian Bustard near Morven, QLD, by Liz Law)

How many times have we spend a good few hours (even days) trying to do something in ArcGIS/Excel only to find out, after we finished, that we could have done it in a fraction of time another way?

For me, this has occurred quite a lot. So, I decided to run our weekly lab meeting on tips, tools and functions that can save us time. Here is a quick summary of what we talked about:

Model builder and other geoprocessing tools

Making data with interpolation

Editing shapefile layers

Getting help with ESRI stuff



Model builder and other tools: It took me ages to find out that you can add custom toolboxes, in which you can drag in copies of your favourite tools, and also create your own using model builder.

I think model builder is a really useful tool within ArcGIS toolbox. Essentially it is a space where you can build and visualise geoprocessing models (i.e. a series of tools, functions, scripts, etc.). I find it really useful to record, communicate, and repeat your model (analysis process). I also find it a little more intuitive to batch process, or to run several processes using the output of the prior one as the input of the next (without collecting masses of intermediate files). More information on model builder is available on the ESRI website, and they also provide a free online training seminar.

Luis Verde noted that large models can get a bit buggy and can give a generic error message. When this happens, he recommends using the “make feature layer” to make a temporary copy of your inputs prior to each tool. For some reason this works.

There are also lots of geoprocessing models that already exist for a number of different tasks. Some of these can be found and downloaded at the ESRI “geoprocessing model and script tool gallery”. Other packages of tools operate as plug-ins, for example ET Geowizards, and Hawths tools (aka GME). Ayesha Tulloch says some of these are great: for example, the ET Geowizards “Explode multipart polygon” tool is way less buggy than the one provided by ArcGIS (and actually does the job right the first time). However, Ayesha also cautions that while the old Hawths tools was pretty awesome, the newer version (GME) is not. It doesn’t even work with any ArcGIS prior to 10.0, which is funny, because a lot of the functions that we use to use it for are apparently available in 10.0 anyway…

Making data with interpolation:  Jane MacDonald has not been working much with ArcGIS, but her co-workers have. And she is worried about an emerging trend to use interpolation to make data layers from point observations. While it is really easy to get results using this technique, the basic principles of models apply: junk in = junk out. You really need to question whether you are getting accurate maps, for example by validating using reserved point data, and/or comparing with GLM outputs.

Editing shapefile layers: Karen Mustin has been going through the joys of editing shapefiles. There are about a billion ways to do editing things in ArcGIS. I recommend checking out the ESRI online training seminars of which there are about 4 ones on “editing tips and tricks”. In particular, if you don’t know what “snapping” and “sticky move tolerance” are, or how to modify them, I highly recommend you seek advice BEFORE editing your layers.

Getting help with ESRI stuff: If you have spent ages trying to understand ArcGIS, gone through all the normal help and forums, and you still have unanswered questions, you can always give ESRI a call. However, many large institutions have people that are designated ESRI gateways, says Jude Keyes. Our UQ people are Jürgen Overheu (GPEM), Gai Trewinnard-McNeill (ITS), and Steven Clark (ITS).

Vlookup: Excel is probably one of the most commonly used spreadsheet programs, but probably one of the most poorly utilised ones as well. Many people turn to proper database software (and for good reason) if they have large databases that they have to run many query variations on, but you can also create a database in Excel, or do pretty basic query-like tasks. For example, Angela Guerrero suggests if you have a lookup table that you want to use to append values to a list you can use functions like VLOOKUP. If you don’t know what this is, look it up!

SDMTools: Saving the best till last, Luke Shoo blew us out of the water with his “SDMTools”. This R-package, developed by Luke and his colleagues, provides a set of tools for post processing the outcomes of species distribution models: comparing models, tracking changes in distributions over time, visualising outcomes, selecting thresholds, calculating measures of accuracy and landscape fragmentation statistics, and more. Absolutely amazing, extremely useful, and supremely beautiful.

Thanks everyone for a fantastic and very useful meeting!

Resolving the ‘Environmentalist’s Paradox’, and the role of ecologists in advancing economic thinking

Megan Evans

Cross posted on

Aldo Leopold famously described the curse of an ecological education as “to be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise”.

© T. Toles

Ecologists do have a tendency for making dire warnings for the future, but for anyone concerned about the myriad of problems currently facing the Earth — climate change, an ongoing wave of species extinctions and impending peak oil, phosphate, water , (everything?) crises – the continued ignorance or ridicule of such warnings can be a frustrating experience. Environmental degradation and ecological overshoot isn’t just about losing cute plants and animals, given the widespread acceptance that long term human wellbeing ultimately rests on the ability for the Earth to supply us with ecosystem services.

In light of this doom and gloom, things were shaken up a bit late last year when an article1 published in Bioscience pointed out that in spite of declines in the majority of ecosystem services considered essential to human wellbeing by The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), aggregate human wellbeing (as measured by the Human Development Index) has risen continuously over the last 50 years. Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne and the co-authors of the study suggested that these conflicting trends presented an ‘environmentalist’s paradox’ of sorts – do we really depend on nature to the extent that ecologists have led everyone to believe?

Continue reading Resolving the ‘Environmentalist’s Paradox’, and the role of ecologists in advancing economic thinking