HomeDiscoveryNatural Capital ProjectNew ecosystem services tool encourages smarter investments in forest restoration

New ecosystem services tool encourages smarter investments in forest restoration

Forests are a vital resource, contributing a variety of benefits essential to human well-being — protecting our freshwater supply, storing carbon, providing critical habitat to threatened species.

As the world prepares to celebrate the annual International Day of Forests on March 21, organizations like the International Union for Conservation of Nature continue to raise awareness of the many benefits forests provide and the importance of making continued investments in restoring these precious ecosystems.

Over the past year, members of IonE’s Natural Capital Project team have collaborated with IUCN to inform and support the organization’s mission to restore millions of hectares of degraded landscapes and forests globally. A key component of these efforts is using innovative decision-support tools that make knowledge about restoring specific forests accessible and useful to a wider audience.

As part of these efforts, NatCap scientist Peter Hawthorne has led the development of the Restoration Opportunity Optimization Tool, a new open-source ecosystem services software program well-suited for forest landscape restoration planning. Hawthorne developed the tool with staff from IUCN’s Global Forest and Climate Change Programme, with additional support provided by NatCap ecosystem services analyst Jesse Gourevitch, lead scientist Bonnie Keeler and Minnesota-based Software for Good.

This tool, Hawthorne explains, will allow regional planners to weigh the pros and cons of various land management scenarios in terms of keeping water clean, sequestering carbon and other goals. More broadly, ROOT will help inform smarter, targeted investments in forest landscape restoration decisions by illustrating which restored areas may provide the greatest benefit at lowest cost.

“ROOT is useful in that it helps do these analyses and comparisons more quickly, in real time and in exploratory and interactive ways,” says Hawthorne. The new software streamlines what used to be a labor-intensive process.

In a preliminary application, NatCap and IUCN used ROOT in a national level forest landscape restoration planning project in Uganda, one of the countries currently participating in the Bonn Challenge — an effort to restore 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded lands by 2020. The project team used ROOT to explore where to prioritize forest landscape restoration opportunities in the country that not only reduce soil erosion to improve water quality, sequester carbon to mitigate climate change and improve critical species’ habitat to protect biodiversity, but also minimize losses to agricultural production.

“ROOT can be useful in showing options that were not previously thought possible, revealing additional opportunities that planners could invest in — widening the potential decision space,” notes Hawthorne. Spatial optimization tools like ROOT help these decision-makers explore where to invest limited resources that meet multiple and sometimes competing objectives.

This screenshot of the user interface of ROOT, a new NatCap software tool, displays a map and sample data from forest landscape planning efforts in Uganda. Courtesy of P. Hawthorne.

Coinciding with the International Day of Forests, a beta version of ROOT is set to be publicly released during an experimental ecosystem services tool and scenario planning session at this year’s Natural Capital Symposium March 21–23. Symposium attendees will be able to explore ROOT with sample data and model runs used in the project’s Uganda application. Following the conference, the tool and user guide will be made available online.

With this upcoming software launch and continued discussions about the important benefits forests provide to people, Hawthorne would like to support increased capacity of end-users like IUCN staff and country partners to apply ecosystem service tools in their decisions.

“We have plans to apply and test ROOT with partners in some additional contexts and forest landscape restoration decisions while continuing to refine its user interface and analytical capacity so it is more broadly applicable,” he says. “Ultimately, we want to continue improving and building tools that help answer the questions people care about.”

The Natural Capital Project is a collaboration between the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, Stanford, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund.

Photo by Plus45 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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