In 1998, then-Corvallisite Thomas O’Neill formed a charity to revolutionize the world of ecology. Called The Habitat Institute, this organization changed the way scientists address habitat quality and biodiversity through state-of-the-art technology which transforms how people scientifically evaluate and personally value nature.
Now, 22 years later, despite its success, THI technologies are still not in use, and according to the organization, are essentially being ignored by state and national departments who continue to employ old, inaccurate science. THI argues that current systems in use like the California Rapid Assessment Method (CRAM), Habitat Evaluation Procedures (HEP), and Habitat Equivalency Analysis (HEA) do not account for habitat quality.
By using a more thorough nature accounting system that can evaluate hundreds of species and habitat components at the same time, their technology, according to THI, is not only revolutionary, but necessary for saving beloved habitats and wildlife.
The Institute’s Inception
Mr. O’Neill’s journey to THI began in 1989 when he met with former President Jimmy Carter. Meeting with Carter, who was a spokesperson for the charity group Habitat for Humanity, prompted the idea to build a nonprofit institute based on ecological science and education.
Kathleen O’Neill, strategist of environmental communications at THI, explained further. “The concept was born through the understanding that fish and wildlife habitat relationships required the inclusion of accounting for biodiversity and species functions. By not including functions and biodiversity, you cannot have the transparency necessary for determining economic benefits and will continue to under-report the real value [of a habitat].”
With locations in Oregon and California, THI has been involved in multiple ecosystem restoration projects – its technology was even used to select the sites of recovery for the Oregon Chub, which was endangered from 1993, was re-listed as threatened in 2010, and was then removed from the endangered species list in 2015. Their methodology was also used successfully in restoration projects for the Los Angeles River and San Francisco South Bay.
THI employs a number of technological methods to improve habitats, but perhaps the most innovative is Combined Habitat Assessment Protocols – which, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is “an accounting tool that uses spatially explicit methodology to measure habitat quality (including aquatic habitats) by evaluating biodiversity and their functions within a habitat type and/or structural condition.”
Ms. O’Neill described CHAP as, “a spatially explicit accounting system that assesses hundreds of species, habitat components, and functions concurrently.”
She explained that other current methodologies are normalized from zero to 100, which prevents accuracy as it does not account for negative values. Accounting for negative values in ecology is like accounting for them in your checkbook – every bit going out must be included.
Ms. O’Neill said that CHAP is essentially like looking through the eyes and lives of native fish and wildlife. Different species perform various activities to support a sustainable ecosystem – for example, some break down wood or filter water, and they also have specific requirements for their habitats in order to survive – for example, some need down wood, some need grassland. The activities wildlife perform are called Key Ecological Functions (KEFs), and the habitat characteristics they need are called Key Environmental Correlates (KECs).
CHAP, as an accounting and information system, is driven by a database system called Integrated Biodiversity Information System (IBIS). The value of habitats produced by CHAP and IBIS, according to Ms. O’Neill, “is the real intrinsic value of the site or area.”
For people to better understand this concept, Ms. O’Neill used the example of a house appraisal. When a house appraisal occurs, the amount of acreage, square feet of the house, bedrooms, bathrooms, and where the home is located are all factors that are considered. While other fish and wildlife valuations, Ms. O’Neill explained, only look at one or a few species and a simple assessment of the quality of habitat usually on a zero to one or one to 100 scale, THI works more like a thorough house appraisal.
“We look at the land and account for all the different habitat types on a site, the total number of species that can use the habitat so we can assess who is in the neighborhood, the ecological functions that can be performed by species and habitat at the site, and the effects of management activities,” O’Neill said. “Our system can produce negative values and track management actions over time. It quite simply produces a more complete assessment of the value of the habitat and how it fits into our natural world.”
CHAP and IBIS are complex systems, and the process of CHAP can evaluate hundreds of species and habitat components concurrently. Ms. O’Neill said that they are not aware of other methods that can do so.
“CHAP and IBIS is the first accounting system to include biodiversity and functions [to] connect the world of fish and wildlife habitat relationships,” Ms. O’Neil said. “This extremely sophisticated ecology makes all other methodologies used to account for habitat value obsolete.”
Valuing Natural Resources
Ms. O’Neill says CHAP is currently the best available science for addressing habitat quality because it stops the under-valuing and under-selling of nature and works to accurately, transparently, and objectively value the world’s natural resources.
When asked why it’s so important to value the world’s natural resources, she quoted THI founder Thomas O’Neill. “You save what you know, love, and value.”
She also referenced a statement from late Rep. John Lewis: “If you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do sometimes.”
She believes that CHAP helps save these valuable resources.
“CHAP Science creates a binding precedent that must be followed in subsequent valuing of nature. Anything less would now be considered negligent and irresponsible by our regulatory managers, agencies, and environmental industries,” Ms. O’Neill said. “Especially due to the rapid loss of biodiversity we are experiencing in the world occurring at an alarming rate.”
CHAP allows for valuing nature through the eyes and lives of fish and wildlife, rather than from a human’s perspective, creating an improved view and execution of ecological science and technology.
However, despite THI’s successes and contributions to ecological science, the organization’s services are not being used as they could be.
Frozen in Review
Ms. O’Neill stated, “The state and federal regulatory agencies in the United States that are responsible for protecting fish and wildlife and their habitats are intentionally and recklessly breaching their duty owed to the public by knowingly not using the best available science to value nature.”
She claims that the National Ecosystem Planning Center of Expertise (ECO-PCX) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who specialize in ecosystem restoration mitigation planning, started their review process with THI 13 years ago, and have not taken it further than the Regional Approval process.
This means that THI and its services cannot be implemented throughout the Western United States. Normally, the ECO-PCX review process of scientific methods takes no longer than three years, and O’Neill said that no science in U.S. history has been held in scientific review as long as CHAP Science has.
“The USACE and ECO-PCX have formally stated to the Institute the only reason CHAP Science is not being used is that they cannot find funding to develop an access system to use it,” Ms. O’Neill said. “Currently, they are detaining the best available science in this nation in a holding cell disguised as a regional review process for 13 years and are continuing to deny the public their rights to benefit from its use.”
According to Ms. O’Neill, Fish and Wildlife Departments, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USACE, the United States Fish and Wildlife Services, Bureau of Land Management, and Departments of Transportation are all aware of the CHAP system, yet no one is supporting using the technology. They are instead employing a less scientific, 30 to 40-year-old, outdated science that THI said does not meet today’s standards.
The Army’s Response
Joseph Redican, the Deputy Chief of the Planning and Policy Division at USACE, said, “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), through the Ecosystem Planning Center of Expertise (ECO-PCX) has approved the use of the Combined Habitat Assessment Protocols for the Los Angeles River (2013), South San Francisco Bay Shoreline (2014), Espanola Valley (2014), and Prado Basin (2018) feasibility studies. The Corps is not using it for any ongoing feasibility studies.”
When asked why the Corps is not using the science for ongoing feasibility studies, Redican replied, “A number of planning models are available for use by USACE study teams. Selection of a model is informed by many factors (for example: project type, location, problem, study budget, and data needs to name some). USACE has two ongoing ecosystem restoration studies in the South Pacific Division’s Los Angeles District – East San Pedro Bay and Malibu Creek. These unique settings employed models developed through collaboration with interagency teams from local, state and federal agencies and other stakeholders.”
Ms. O’Neill and THI feel that USACE has been stringing them along and is holding CHAP in review because they believe it would require them to do things differently and be too costly. According to Ms. O’Neill, ECO-PCX is wasting time and resources to develop their own science, infringing on CHAP’s patent.
“Since the industrial revolution began 260 years ago, in the course of human actions we have destroyed half of our world’s forests. What humans are doing to our natural world is not sustainable,” Ms. O’Neill said. “If this system change that CHAP Science creates does not come quickly, we will continue to watch this unprecedented loss of our natural world.”
By Cara Nixon