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Living As the World

Jun 23, 2022

Heʻeia and Kachemak Bay Reserve staff joined community partners from Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi in clearing non-native wetland species. Meaningful engagement of community partners can generate cultural ecosystem services and insights into the multifaceted connections between people and place.

Can you put a price tag on the feeling you get when you spot a rare bird at the water’s edge? Or the weightlessness you experience when launching a canoe? How about the glow of feeding your community with fish you’ve caught with your family? Much of what we value about coastal environments can’t be quantified as an economic metric, yet these benefits are essential to our wellbeing and important considerations in the decisions we make to sustainably manage coastal lands and waters.

An interdisciplinary team is working to build the capacity of the Reserve System to identify cultural ecosystem services (CES)—those non-material benefits that arise from our interactions with nature— by working closely with local communities. 

“There is a growing need at Reserves and in coastal environments around the country to be able to articulate how and why nature is important to people,” says Puaʻala Pascua, project lead and program coordinator at the Hawaiʻi Conservation Alliance Foundation. “Although many of the methods to do this are inherently embedded in how Reserves work, many staff members don’t know how to use them for this purpose.”

Together with collaborators from the Heʻeia and Kachemak Bay Reserves and the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, Pascua set out to explore CES work already underway in the NERRS. The team summarized relevant methods and metrics for assessing these values and facilitated workshops to bring Reserve staff from Hawaiʻi and Alaska together to pilot different methods of characterizing them.

“The creation and support of relationships between, and across, people and place is an important precursor to understanding cultural ecosystem services,” says Pascua. “The workshops offered a controlled setting where people familiar to each other could immerse themselves in nature, ask questions, and speak from their own experience. Understanding these values is about more than outcomes—it’s also the journey. That time of mutual discovery and meaningful engagement is when you identify the interactions between people and the environment that are not usually documented.”

During the Hawaiʻi workshop, participants described how they experienced Kawahaokamanō (Kāneʻohe Bay) with all their senses—being able to observe the depth and smell of water, feeling the sense of floating, perceiving changing weather patterns on the skin. For every individual and social group, such an experience and how it is articulated can be different, underscoring the importance of working with local partners in addition to Reserve staff to identify CES. Ultimately, the team’s goal is to catalyze future collaborative research to help the Reserve System develop and share a common lexicon and assessment framework for CES and use that to develop long-term, locally and culturally responsive datasets to inform estuary stewardship and management. 

“Our research questions relate directly to the interaction between biocultural restoration and ecosystem services,” says Kawika Winter, the Director of Hawaiʻi’s Heʻeia Reserve. “Traditionally, these services have been defined as a unidirectional flow from nature to us, but we don’t think about it in this way. It’s not just about economics, it’s about identity, culture, and language—what aspects of our culture exist because of our relationship to our environment, and how do we talk about and measure that? That’s our focus.”

The journey at Heʻeia reflects a larger trend in the field of cultural ecosystem services, which has been evolving toward a more holistic view of the interaction of people and nature.

“Through our efforts we continue to gravitate to a 2019 publication by O’Conner and Kenter that describes various ways we interact with nature,” says Pascua. “CES and other ecosystem services historically described how we live from the world, with an emphasis on resource extraction. Yet there is much more to be said when we think about living in the world, or with the world. We’d like to see CES go even further by helping us to articulate how we live as the world—characterizing and realizing a state where together both humans and the environment thrive.”

This project was sponsored by the National Estuarine Research Reserve System Science Collaborative, a national program that sponsors Reserve-based research and science transfer projects focused on urgent challenges facing coastal communities. More information about this project can be found on the Collaborative’s website.

NERRA is proud to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Coastal Zone Management Act—the legislation that led to the creation of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Want more Reserve stories delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter.

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ReservesHe‘eia, Hawai'iLiving As the World