Optimizing the provision of ecosystem services with natural infrastructure investments is a complex challenge which has significant implications for human well-being. This project seeks to support cost-effective approaches to natural infrastructure investment in order to maximize ecological and economic benefits.

This project advances the science of coastal ecosystem services by combining research expertise in environmental and resource economics, ecology, geomorphology, geomatics, and engineering in an integrative framework. Our focus is on natural infrastructure, which we define broadly as a physical stock that constitutes restoration of, or extension to natural ecosystem components. We aim to understand the nature and determinants of socially-optimal investment in natural infrastructure in coasts and estuaries through a transdisciplinary lens.

The economic theory of investment provides the conceptual foundation for our research. Socially-optimal investment maximizes total economic value (TEV): uncertain benefits of an investment net of costs over time. Focusing on a selection of natural infrastructure types, including estuaries and dunes, we are measuring the expected benefits of an investment to society, expected direct costs, and expected co-benefits from provision of ancillary ecosystem services using a portfolio of empirical and mathematical modeling techniques. Our areas of interest are the coastline and estuaries of the Pacific Northwest.

In order to analyze approaches that maximize the TEV of a natural infrastructure investment, required information includes how the investment is expected to impact the target ecosystem, how the modified ecosystem is expected to provide services, and how society values those changes (expected benefits and costs). As with ecosystem service research in other domains, two major methodological challenges we will encounter in the course of this research are: a) the problem of quantifying the benefit of an ecosystem service that lacks a market price; and b) understanding the “production” relationship between an investment and expected service provision (plus expected ancillary effects on other service flows). Our research is addressing these two challenges by joining state-of-the-art non-market valuation methods with empirical ecological and engineering-economic models of natural infrastructure investment. We anticipate that our resulting models will yield generalizable methodological insights that will extend the frontier of ecosystem service science.

We divide our research into three methodological tracks. Track I is focused on estimating willingness-to-pay (WTP) for protection services related to any type of coastal infrastructure (green or grey) improvement by analyzing coastal housing market data. In Track II we are developing and implementing choice experiment surveys for the purpose of estimating WTP for ecosystem service benefits that accrue to households. In Track III we are developing a combination of empirical and numerical optimization models to analyze how investment in natural infrastructure may be planned to maximize the value of ecosystem services to the public.

We are investigating four distinct systems on the Pacific Northwest coast that serve as applied pathways for our work. The project pathways focus on: 1) quantifying protection from different land features and types of risk in the coastal system subject to wave action (Coastal Protection Pathway); 2) coastal dune and beach management options optimized for ecosystem service provision (Dune Landscape Pathway); 3) restoring coastal wetlands and the resulting implications for anadromous fish, water quality, and blue carbon in estuarine systems (Estuary Pathway); and 4) how to allocate land use and build natural infrastructure to facilitate tsunami evacuation and provide other ecosystem services (Coastal Land Use Pathway).


 - photo of Oregon Dunes by Kirt Edblom