Sally Brown

August 14, 2012 | General

Connections: Hugging Trees

Sally Brown


Sally Brown
BioCycle August 2012, Vol. 53, No. 8, p. 61

For most of the country, tree huggers likely rate higher on the easy to ridicule scale than on the income scale. If you want to make a decent living, with benefits and paid vacation, you drive a bus, you don’t hug a tree. And if you want a problem solved, a problem that impacts trees and ecosystems, our paradigm has you calling an engineer, not an ecologist (tree hugger).
This paradigm needs to change. Our traditional attitude towards tree huggers has been to stereotype them as misguided hippies, attempting to protect trees and spotted owls from the forces of progress. However, as we come to understand and quantify the value of ecosystem services and to appreciate the benefits that we reap from these services, it becomes clear that tree hugging and tree huggers need a major upgrade. This upgrade needs to extend to both how we value them (the huggers) and how they or the services they try to protect are quantified and considered as part of a standard cost accounting system for a range of undertakings.
A recent trip I took to Joplin, Missouri — where I’ve been involved in soil restoration at Superfund sites in the city (smelter contamination) and surrounding area (mine tailings) for many years — can be used as an example of both the valuable services that ecosystems provide and our failure to consider these services in how we do business. Let’s start by talking a little bit about Joplin.
First, Joplin is on the map because it reaped huge benefits, as did we all, by exploiting the mineral deposits directly underneath it. Joplin is situated in what is referred to as the Tri State Mining district and was a significant source of lead and zinc for the early half of the last century. Provision of raw materials such as mineral ores is a key ecosystem service.
Second, Joplin made the news last year because of the horrible tornado that destroyed much of the community. The tornado can be viewed as the flip side of ecosystem services. The severity of the tornado may be linked to the climate fluctuations that have resulted from high CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere ( In other words, an ecosystem service, regulation of greenhouse gases, has gone wrong as a result of human activities.
Third are mine wastes. As a result of that first ecosystem service, provision of raw materials, much of the area around Joplin is covered by mining wastes and devoid of plant life. This moonscape has wrecked havoc on a range of ecosystem services including provision of habitat, water storage and purification. All of the services associated with soil are gone, as are those provided by plants. These include nutrient cycling, erosion control, soil formation, pollination, and gas and climate regulation. For many in Joplin, the thing that stands out the most is loss of places to go hunting — which would fit into the description of an ecosystem service.
Fourth are the Monarch butterflies. One year, when we were actually doing the restoration work in Joplin, I happened to be in Joplin at the same time as the Monarch butterflies that stop near Joplin on their annual migration to Mexico. If you can, imagine standing in the mine tailings surrounded by thousands and thousands of Monarch butterflies. Before you start categorizing these butterflies with the spotted owl, please note that because they are so beautiful to look at, areas that have been set up as refuges on the monarch migratory path have provided a significant source of tourist revenue.

Ecosystems Accounting

Right now with our current system, the only revenue source for Joplin was exploited and used up many decades ago when the ore ran out and the last smelter closed. Engineers have been called in by the EPA project manager and have come up with a solution that will effectively reduce the hazards posed by the elevated metals remaining in the mine waste. The waste materials will be pushed into existing mine shafts as is feasible and the site covered with topsoil or uncontaminated overburden as is available and as budget allows. Fertilizer will be sprayed and the project managers will go home. This will be very costly from both the traditional engineering perspective and from the tree hugger vantage. This “remedy” will cost a lot of money and it won’t bring back (for many decades at least) the range of ecosystem services that were destroyed as the ores were being extracted.
I was in Joplin with Mark Sprenger, a toxicologist with the EPA Environmental Response Team. He and I have worked on a number of metal-contaminated sites demonstrating that they can be effectively (from both the engineer and the tree hugger perspective) restored with different residuals. This practice has been documented in BioCycle articles many times. In this case we showed how biosolids and lime, surface applied to the mine tailings, could restore vegetation and habitat to the site while simultaneously protecting the ecosystem from elevated metal concentrations. For this particular trip, even with the 90° plus heat and the ticks, sampling was a joy. Wild turkey, deer, any number of birds and scat were all proof that we had done our job. Sampling was a joy but talking about it afterwards was pretty depressing.
We have shown on a range of these sites that use of residuals is a cost- effective, sustainable way to bring the damaged ecosystems back to life. And while there are people accepting this and copying our model, the project manager for this site and most of the project managers in the regional EPA office are not buying in. And the engineered approach, while reducing metal hazards, will not do much else. The ticks may come back but likely the only wild turkeys will be in the form of some empty bottles.
In our current system, the engineered remedial approach is great — strictly by the book. There is no penalty associated with harvesting topsoil from other areas, no consideration of the time and effort required to build that topsoil, and no recognition of the damage to the lands including reduced productivity, as a result of taking away topsoil. There is also no explicit value for creating habitat. The project manager is required to remove the hazards associated with the metal contaminants in the mine tailings. Restoring the land to the level of ecological function it had before we started digging it up is not part of the mandate. The engineers that worked on the site have no incentive to include consideration of ecosystem services when coming up with a remedy. As one contractor told me, their mandate is driven by billable hours and not bugs and bunnies. Same deal with the biosolids program managers. Their spreadsheets do not include any columns for ecosystem services — only haul costs and tip fees.
What I’m getting at is that we need to expand our mandates across a very broad range of activities to include preservation and enhancement of ecological services. We rely so heavily on ecosystem services, such as provision of food, fuel and water, that we are destroying ecosystems in the process of meeting our needs. We have to figure out how to integrate valuing these services into our day-to-day practices so we have a chance of preserving them.
This is not easy. While there has been great progress on developing an economic framework to quantify the benefits of ecosystem services in the scientific literature, we are still very far off from policies and mandates to integrate these valuations into business as usual. But there are some hopeful signs. At the BioCycle Conference in Portland, I heard David Batker from Earth Economics talk about the value of the Cedar River Watershed for providing drinking water to Seattle. But for this approach to gain hold, it seems to me that we have to figure out how to compensate the engineering firm that goes this route, and get them to hire and pay some tree huggers.
Sally Brown — Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle — authors this regular column. Email Dr. Brown at

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