People in Ecosystems/Watershed Integration: Visualizing ecosystem services tradeoffs in agricultural landscapes

Chennault, Carrie
Major Professor
Lisa A. Schulte
John C. Tyndall
Committee Member
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Natural Resource Ecology and Management

Educational modeling in agricultural and environmental sciences provides access to the scientific knowledge needed to address local and global challenges that affect human wellbeing. Ecosystem services tradeoffs frameworks can enhance wellbeing by facilitating agricultural landscape design to produce multiple ecosystem services while maintaining farmer profitability and mitigating risk to farmers. At present, few broadly accessible tools evaluate how changes to land management affect the types and levels of ecosystem services delivered to humans. I developed a tool, People in Ecosystems/Watershed Integration version 2 (PE/WI or PE/WI v2), to fill this gap and foster multidimensional and integrative land–management decisions.

PE/WI is an online educational watershed simulation that allows users to design land–use configurations and evaluate ecosystem services tradeoffs. PE/WI creates a novel learning environment with visualizations that simplify complex land–use and ecosystem services relationships. Its ecological modeling framework aims to teach concepts of minimized tradeoffs and maximized co–benefits across spatial and temporal watershed dimensions. This approach allows users to simultaneously consider agricultural land use, climate conditions, production outcomes, and environmental outcomes such as nutrient levels in water, habitat provision for biodiversity, soil erosion, and carbon management.

As an educational tool, PE/WI has enormous flexibility. Initial use with students in age groups from middle through graduate school covered multiple, diverse learning objectives. PE/WI enhances lessons involving discussion of ecological principles; economic valuation of ecosystem services outputs and discussion of payments for ecosystem services; consideration of tradeoffs and societal constraints to land–use change; and design of landscape scenarios to meet assigned goals. In initial uses, I have seen PE/WI’s ability to fundamentally alter people’s frameworks for land use and management.

Beyond classrooms, I see an enormous future potential for PE/WI to help people understand how commodities might be co–produced with other ecosystem services; develop shared understanding of watershed processes; foster multi–stakeholder, watershed–scale decisions; and develop strategies to mitigate economic and social risks associated with climate change, biodiversity loss, and natural resource impairment. PE/WI combines the best available science with an appealing, interactive platform that I hope will engage groups such as students, farmers, and policy makers in the US Corn Belt and beyond.