Affecting change on the ground: an interview with Anne Guerry of the Natural Capital Project

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To help catalyze change, scientists have to listen carefully to stakeholders and be prepared to change their approach and vision of the outcomes.

Moving science out of the ivory tower, off the pages of journals, and into the hands of conservation practitioners, regional planners, and corporate decision makers is not something most environmental scientists learned how to do in grad school. However, it is exactly what the scientists at the Natural Capital Project do day in and day out. The Natural Capital Project—NatCap for short—is a partnership among The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Stanford University, and the University of Minnesota. NatCap aims to integrate the values of nature into all major decisions affecting the environment and human well-being—with the ultimate objective of improving the state of biodiversity and human well-being by motivating greater and more cost-effective investments in both.

In a recent paper in Ecological Economics, Mary Ruckelshaus and coauthors describe NatCap’s experience using ecosystem services to inform decisions. The paper outlines over 20 decision-contexts in which NatCap and partners have worked to quantify ecosystem services, change decision-making dialogues, inform plans and policies, and affect real-world outcomes. Anne Guerry is Chief Strategy Officer and Lead Scientist for NatCap—and, in the interest of full disclosure, she is also my wife. I recently spoke with Anne (at our dinner table) about what it takes to successfully bridge the divide between science and practice.

1. What lessons did you learn about bridging the gap between science and action/policy?

We’ve found that information co-produced with decision-makers and stakeholders is much more likely to affect decisions than information just chucked over the wall. Science is never central to decision-making; you have to work hard to make it resonate. I have a slide that I use that shows our heliocentric understanding of the universe pre-Gallileo—I use the image to remind people that scientific information, though we scientists like to think otherwise—is at least a few rings out from the sun. Decisions are often made based on innumerable factors and for our science to have a prayer of being used, it needs to be salient, credible, and legitimate (see David Cash’s work on this theme).

You have to be a good listener. Real decision contexts provide really interesting scientific questions: you just have to listen and be willing to let your work be shaped by those grappling with hard questions. If you’ve been a good listener at the beginning and throughout the process, you’ll be much more likely to find good listeners in your audience at the end of the process—because you’ll be talking about things that matter to them.

Real personal relationships and real time together makes things happen. In a lot of NatCap’s work, we’ve gotten deeply engaged with our partners on the ground. For example, in our work on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, our team logged many, many hours in stakeholder meetings, in trainings, in board meetings, on Skype, in conference calls, and simply working together in the same physical space. This allowed our team to have a real understanding of the decision context we were working to inform—and for our partners to have a real understanding of what we could bring to the table. The same has been true for our work on water funds in Latin America, our coastal planning work in Belize, and for many of our other projects. However, we can’t scale up this intensive work. A better, more sustainable model involves putting our tools and approaches in the hands of others who can take real ownership of the work and not need significant outside help. Then those real personal relationships and real time together still matter—but the science is done internally, enabled by credible science and accessible tools.

2. What kind of person does it take to bridge the gap?

You need an open mind. One size doesn’t fit all, so you have to be ready to adapt your science and tools to be relevant to the questions at hand. This means that we need creative people who can come up with new solutions and different approaches. Also, for those who will work with stakeholders and decision-makers, it is critical to have people who are personable. You are going to need to build trust and that’s unlikely, if not impossible, if you can’t connect with people.

Also, we’ve seen that you either need jacks-of-all-trades (people who are capable scientists, good modelers, decent GIS analysts, creative data hounds, clever big-picture thinkers, and likeable) or you need a diverse team that ranges from the technical experts to the big-picture people. Of course, it also helps to have people with some experience in the wild and wooly world of using science to inform decisions.

What you do NOT need are big egos – Trying to inject some science into decision-making is about politics, stakeholders, and decision-makers. It is so not about you or your science. It is about their process, their decisions. You are there to help them. You may get no credit, your work may be very much behind the scenes, and you need to be comfortable with that.

3. How did you link-up with different stakeholder groups?

There are a lot of different ways that we get connected with different decision-making processes. In many cases, we work through our NGO partners (TNC and WWF) in their priority projects and regions. Some examples include our work on setting up water funds in Latin America (with TNC) and our work on creating an integrated coastal zone management plan in Belize (with WWF). In other cases, we have received a grant to do research with an applied component and have included a scoping phase in the project during which we’ve found an on-the-ground partner interested in applying the new science and tools in local decisions. Also, people come to us and ask for help; in those cases we have an “applications team” that uses various criteria to decide whether or not such work might be a good fit.

4. What lessons have you learned about working with stakeholders and practitioners?

The science is critical, but it is a very small part of the decision-making process. We’ve learned to be more realistic about the ways in which science gets used in decisions. Sometimes we’ve seen different kinds of “success” than we initial envisioned. Although we may start out with the ultimate objective of improving outcomes for people and the environment on which they depend, we have learned to recognize interim successes along the way. These include producing and publishing results from our analyses, changing dialogues, and seeing an imprint of our work in plans and policies.

Also, as we talked about earlier, it is really important to co-produce information for maximum relevance. This means you’ve got to listen carefully and be ready to change your approach and vision of outcomes to match their needs.

5. Do you have any parting words of wisdom for those of us trying to more effectively use science to effect meaningful change?

This is where the real magic happens. It is hard work. And it takes practice. But it is extremely rewarding to see your work actually making a difference. If this sounds appealing to you, roll up your sleeves and find ways to get engaged with real decisions. The world needs you.

Josh Lawler, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an associate professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington. Follow him on the web and on Twitter @jjjlawler.

Beyond “More Data Are Needed”: How Scientists Can Participate in the Policy Process

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Karen Lips admiring a red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber). A new chytrid fungus of salamanders has recently been discovered in Europe; infected imports of pet salamanders could threaten US salamander diversity. (photo: Carly Muletz)

How exactly do you do policy? That was my question when I applied for the Leopold Advanced Training session on Hitting the Policy Mark last August. I signed up because I wanted to learn more about the policy process and how it might offer practical tools to reduce the loss of amphibians from invasive pathogens. While a graduate student and later as an assistant professor I had observed disease epidemics pass through several of my research sites and wipe out the amphibians. We had no idea of how to stop this disease, where it came from, or much about its biology. What we did know is that this microscopic fungus was devastating amphibian populations around the world, and the loss of all those amphibians was causing problems for the animals and ecosystems that depend on them. Worst of all, we saw little evidence that this disease could be eradicated once it was established at a site.

Clearly something needed to be done to stop the spread across the globe. For example, in the U.S. a federal regulation or other policy could be designed to allow us to test live animals in trade for disease, and then prevent them from escaping into the wild to infect other populations of amphibians. After some research I was surprised to learn that while polices exist to prevent the import of diseased livestock and agricultural pests (overseen by the US Department of Agriculture) and similar policies give the Center for Disease Control authority to control the arrival of human pathogens (like Ebola); no regulations exist that allow for disease surveillance of wildlife imports or that give US Fish and Wildlife Service the power to prevent the import of diseased wildlife. That’s right – any kind of wildlife, not just amphibians. This is a problem, and one that is likely to get worse with huge numbers of wildlife species traded globally and new infectious diseases being discovered every year.

What wasn’t clear was what was needed to develop a policy to tackle this growing problem. Who was in charge of writing such a bill, or implementing such a regulation? What kind of information did they need? Where did I, a field ecologist, fit into the process? So I went to the internet. But I could find no textbooks on “Policy 101” (I looked), useful online guides (I googled that), or academic papers describing how to get involved in the policy process. I wasn’t even sure what it meant “to do policy.” What kinds of activities does that entail? How does one get involved? And what exactly do we, as scientists, have to offer that would be of any help?

With the guidance of the Leopold trainers I started digging into the issue of wildlife disease policy, talked with colleagues who worked in agencies and NGOs on policy-related wildlife issues, and met with policymakers to hear their opinions. I requested meetings with the natural resource committees in both the House and the Senate, and I participated in the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species Legislative Fly-in. NECIS arranged meetings between a group of us scientists with legislative assistants from several Congressional offices, and organized a Congressional briefing on Invasive Species, where three of us presented research related to H.R.996.

Recently, Chad English, the Director of Science Policy Outreach for COMPASS who facilitated the training, told me I’d done it! I’ve “done” policy! I talked to colleagues, got meetings with legislative staff, and have been closely connected to the ongoing policy discussions now trying to address this issue. I know lots of scientists who’d like to get more involved, but aren’t sure where to start. Here’s what I learned from this experience:

1) Leverage your networks. If you want to get more involved in policy, use your existing networks to provide openings, introductions and opportunities. In my case the Leopold Network provided the guidance and suggestions for how to start, and then I contacted my friends and colleagues who work on wildlife policy issues. Living in the DC area, and working with various agencies and conservation organizations as part of my academic position, I already knew some key people who worked on this issue. One colleague became my navigator – somebody who explained the ins and outs of the issue, identified the concerns of opposition groups, and was willing to work with me and others as part of his job. I was lucky that some of the outreach activities and academic projects I had worked on in the past reappeared in this policy context and served as important links to ongoing policy activities. Those past efforts showed my new contacts that I had established connections and previous policy experiences, and that I was serious. My scientific network was especially critical when it came time to write a 10-minute briefing; I contacted several of my old friends for the most up-to-date info, insights and opinions on the topics I didn’t know as well.

2) Clear, concise communication is important. This was true at every step of the way. When I met with committee members or when the NECIS group met with Congressional staff, it was critical that speakers provided concise but relevant comments that explained the concern, why it matters, and what, if anything could be done. These meetings were short – all were less than an hour, most were 30 minutes or less – and there was no time for rambling, tangential, or sloppy explanations. Crafting a thorough, engaging, and accessible 10-minute talk for the briefing was a great test of the communication skills I’d learned in the Leopold Leadership Program. I totally rethought how I was going to present this talk and led with a more dramatic and personal story than I would normally use in a scientific talk, because I wanted to get the audience’s attention and communicate concern about this issue. I created a storyline that related my research to the loss of our native biodiversity and highlighted the gaps in our existing policies, which allow imports of wildlife without testing for infectious diseases or pathogens. I ended with a reference to existing legislation awaiting action in both houses.

Effective communication was especially apparent at the July hearing held by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The subcommittee convened two panels of experts (one of federal scientists and one of scientists from private conservation organizations) who presented testimony on S.1153 and seven other bills. I was impressed at the brevity of the testimony – we heard introductions from several senators, testimony from four different experts, and a Q&A between the senators and experts on all eight bills and they still finished within 75 minutes! That’s because the full written testimony is entered into the congressional record, but all presentations were less than five minutes. If only faculty meetings were so efficient!

3) Know your audience. As when giving a good talk or media interview, it was important to know something about each legislator’s district and its issues, and the legislator’s background and interests to prepare for the group meetings. I used this iPhone app to read up on bill sponsorship, committee actions, committee membership, and voting records of all the legislators we visited. It was relatively easy to identify one or more invasive species that were a financial or health risk for every district or legislator. And while we scientists like to promote the ecological benefits of taking action, and the moral and ethical aspects of conserving biodiversity, the most powerful arguments were those that showed the financial burden of invasive species introductions. Every expert and senator, regardless of their position on the bills they were considering, mentioned the expected financial burdens to taxpayers and to agencies of every proposed bill, or the costs that would result from not passing such a bill. Requests for more research funding or claims that “more data are needed” won’t cut it here.

4) Work with what you’ve (already) got. At every stage in the process, it was especially helpful to be able to discuss specific legislation – in this case the companion bills H.R.996 and S.1153. Even though both bills had a low probability of becoming a law, they provided a starting point for a conversation that I tailored to fit that person’s interests. For example, in some of my meetings I discussed general issues of invasive species; in others, the usefulness of these bills in filling a regulatory gap; in still others I asked about the reasons for the lack of cosponsors or what an improved version of the bill would include.

I saw another example of this during the NECIS Fly-In, where I got to see how consultants and lobbyists worked with conservation organizations to advocate for particular legislation. I heard them discuss the political realities of invasive species legislation, which items were noncontroversial and likely to gain bipartisan support, and how new political, social or scientific developments would affect reception of the bill. It was obvious that these were ongoing discussions between colleagues that were important in sharing knowledge and finding areas of agreement where the various stakeholders might find a mutually beneficial outcome.

Final Thoughts

In the end it was clear that the legislative process, much like other forms of outreach and engagement, requires a lot of patience and persistence to build support and maintain momentum. As of July 2014 S.1153 was still in the Environment and Public Works committee awaiting mark-up for the reconvening of Congress after August Recess. Meanwhile, in July another bill was introduced in the House, H.R. 5156 that would authorize the Secretary of the Interior to identify and declare wildlife disease emergencies and to coordinate rapid response to these emergencies.” It has been referred to several subcommittees for consideration, so perhaps we will see future discussion of this issue before the end of this session. I’m not sure what the future holds for any of these bills, but I am hopeful that all this legislative activity reflects the real concern I heard regarding the risk of new wildlife diseases being imported into the US.

This was an incredibly valuable opportunity to see how the legislative process works, and also how the legislative process interacts with regulatory agencies. I learned a lot about the policy process and was encouraged that many of the skills and approaches also apply to the general issues of communication, outreach, and engagement (see also this article on what scientists need to know about policy). It took some time to meet the right people, but nothing I did required any special skills or connections. The hundreds of people I saw visiting their representatives this summer reminded me that government decisions rely on both public opinion and on science.

So how about it? Are you ready to “do policy?” It’s a good time to let your voice be heard.

Karen Lips, a 2005 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an associate professor and directs the graduate program in Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology at the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter (@kwren88).

Fostering Creative Climate Communications “Inside the Greenhouse”

A visit by Andy Revkin, who shared his perspectives on climate challenges and played music from his new album “A Very Fine Line,” inspired our students to create “climate karaoke” to communicate about climate change.

A visit by New York Times journalist Andy Revkin, who shared his perspectives on climate challenges and performed music from his new album “A Very Fine Line,” inspired our students to create “climate karaoke” to communicate about climate change.

Last June, we 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellows were asked to sketch out a “destination postcard” envisioning ways we’d work to advance a project during our practice year. I decided that I really wanted to move forward on a collective project that my two co-conspirators at the University of Colorado-Boulder – Rebecca Safran (Associate Professor in the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology), and Beth Osnes (Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Theater and Dance) – and I have called “Inside the Greenhouse.”

Recently, journalist Alex Sobel Fitts wrote in Columbia Journalism Review that “‘just the facts’ haven’t been a good enough story…facts also have to be told compellingly. There are other ways of creating a narrative surrounding the facts of climate change that doesn’t distort, but is compelling.”

Welcome “Inside the Greenhouse.” Along with many collaborators and contributors, Beth, Rebecca, and I have constructed an experimental space where students can grab hold of the means of (creative) production to engage a range of audiences on climate-related topics. We work collectively to create constructive conditions where participants can analyze climate communication research, appraise effective methods for multimodal climate communication, and assemble artifacts through interactive theatre, film, fine art, performance, and television as well as new/social/digital media programming.

During the 2013-14 academic year, we held two sets of public and community events, hosting Constance Okollet and Ngozi Onuzo from “Climate Wise Women” in fall and Andy Revkin from New York Times Dot Earth and Pace University in spring. We also taught a two-course sequence: Rebecca taught “climate and film” focusing on personal narratives in the fall, and Beth and I co-taught a multi-modal creative climate communications course in the spring.

In our spring course, as our classroom erupted in applause after a set of impromptu “climate karaoke” performances, we gained further confirmation that we were tapping into powerful and productive energy for creative climate communication. There were forty juniors and seniors majoring in Environmental Studies, Geography, International Affairs and a few other disciplines. In 20 minutes from song assignment, each group composed climate-related lyrics for popular contemporary songs and classic hits and then performed them in front of the class.

As had been transpiring throughout the semester, habitually quiet and shy personalities mixed with the more outgoing ones, science-focused students mixed with those in the humanities, and groups happily harmonized and enthusiastically sang climate-themed karaoke ranging from versions of Katy Perry’s “California Girls” to the Isley Brothers’s classic “Shout.” Everyone stepped up and committed to the creative climate communications process.

Students engaged enthusiastically with each other to create "climate karaoke" in 20 minutes during class one day.

Students engaged in improv acting, role play and other activities throughout the semester to inspire creative climate communications and storytelling.

The karaoke session was one of many gratifying experiences that we’ve had in teaching these courses. In addition to reading and discussing social science and humanities literature on climate communications (“left brain” action), students got moving through improvisational acting, role play and other activities (“right brain” action). In small groups, they contributed to multimodal climate communications, such as:

Public art:

The "climate change board" on Pearl Street in Boulder

The “Climate Change Board” on Pearl Street in Boulder

James Petrie, Patty Bruder, MacKenzie Pope, Mike Elges and Conor Meyer created the “Climate Change Board,” placed it at two locations on campus and in downtown Boulder, and created a video with their reflections about the conversations it generated.

Performances: Gracie Nichols, Dylan Podel, Eddie Marovich and Alexis Levin created a radio program called “Dear Grandpa” (modeled after “This American Life”) where they read hypothetical letters written to their grandparents about climate change, focusing on intergenerational dimensions of the issue.

Board games:

Planet to Planet

Planet to Planet

 

Summer Hazlewood, Maxwell Fleming and Taylor Gifford created a climate-themed board game “Planet to Planet” (modeled after the popular game “Apples to Apples”) and built a website to support it.

Breakthrough

Breakthrough

Braeden Miguel, Chris Greenwood, Kyle Hockstad, Daniel Higgins, and Cameron Nelson created a board game called “Breakthrough” to provide an engaging new avenue for environmental thinking.

And videos:

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“Eat More Pine” performers

Dylan Podel, Eddie Marovich, Gracie Nichols, Alexis Levin, & David Ushakow produced a heavy metal music video called “Eat More Pine,” performed by singing and tree-destroying pine beetles.

You’ll find nearly three dozen examples of our students’ work from the past few years here,  including additional examples from our spring 2014 course.

Reflections:  Through ITG, we’ve sought to capture, value, interrogate and creatively communicate complex, multi-scale 21st century climate challenges. We’ve seen journeys in the classroom spill out into the “real world,” and the notion of “meeting requirements for the class” give way to students making the most of the classroom opportunities. We hope this work inspires and fosters sustained, productive, interdisciplinary creative climate communication collaborations and engages students and the public alike to make climate change meaningful. Our project illustrates ways in which many people are confronting the challenges of meeting others “where they are” while encouraging them to consider climate issues in new ways.

In getting to know 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellows, as well as others in the Leopold network and beyond, I’ve learned about many fantastic projects underway around the country and the world. Do you have a project on creative climate communications that you’re involved in, or that you know about that you’d like to share? Please share a story about your work in these areas, and/or a link to a project you have found inspiring and useful.

Max Boykoff, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an associate professor in the Center for Science and Technology Policy, which is part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado-Boulder. For more about “Inside the Greenhouse” check here and follow @ITG_Boulder on Twitter. See Andy Revkin perform “Liberated Carbon” (from his new album “A Very Fine Line”) with the Shadow Puppet Theater during his visit to the University of Colorado-Boulder this spring.

How Can Research Better Inform Decision-making? Let’s Discuss….

As a Leopold Leadership fellow, one of my primary practice year goals is to do research that has impact on major sustainability challenges. Many of the resources available to help scientists inform decision-makers focus on communication – how to engage with non-scientists, speak in clear language, and distill your main messages. I’ve learned a lot about these techniques through the Leopold program, which has encouraged me to make a “message box,” engage on twitter, and interview for information.

But if what we do as scientists is truly going to help solve complex global problems involving humans and the environment, we need to embed this kind of thinking not just into our outreach and engagement, but into how we do our science itself.  That is, the goal of having impact should inform the design, methods, and process of our research as well as its communication. At MIT, I’ve been working with a group of other faculty and researchers who are interested in how we can do better research when our goal is to inform policy-making.  The MIT Leading Technology and Policy (LTP) Initiative, made possible by a generous donation, has sponsored a variety of events around science and technology policy, and supports ongoing research in this area by awarding postdoctoral fellowships.

In September, we organized a small workshop at MIT to kickstart a conversation on this topic. To focus our discussions, we chose the topic of energy, environment and sustainability, but invited selected colleagues from across the U.S. and Europe whose focus was both within and outside this domain. We discussed specifically how methods of analysis can better capture the role of technical and natural constraints in research to inform policy. Participants discussed their latest work in watershed science, carbon management, climate variability, and globalization of clean energy technologies, among others. In focused, small-group discussions, we addressed selected broad issues faced by the technology and policy community.

One of these focused discussions addressed how educational programs can better train future scientists and engineers to address policy-relevant issues, which often involve social, natural and technological dimensions. MIT’s Technology and Policy Program has, through its nearly 40-year history, trained both academics and practitioners in this area. Much research has also been done, largely in the social sciences, to better understand why and how scientific information is influential in decision-making contexts. However, we found during the workshop that while many of us were broadly familiar with relevant literature, we did not have a shared body of knowledge to ground our discussions. To follow up on this issue, I’ll be working with interested faculty from other institutions to collect relevant syllabi, resources and case studies to help inform future education, including full-length courses, modules, and short courses.

Ultimately, we hope to catalyze a larger community of research and practice interested in technology, policy and related issues. If you are interested in participating, we have started a collaborative web site to share materials and coordinate future activities. We also anticipate having further discussions at the next CESUN conference in June 2014. We look forward to intellectual exchange and input from colleagues around the world in this endeavor.

A Network of Conservation Networks: ConservationCorridor.org

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What is the best way to get the latest science into the hands of those who might actually use it for biodiversity conservation? In the past, I’d adopted a “trickle-down” approach – publish papers, and then wait, wait, wait for those ideas to hopefully make it to conservation and resource managers, after many intermediaries and over a long time. My collaborators and I grew frustrated at how long it took new ideas – not just our own, but more generally from the literature we knew to be advancing – to improve biodiversity conservation in landscapes where habitat had been lost or fragmented. Specifically in our studies of landscape corridors, new innovations in studies of dispersal, population genetics, mapping, and modeling are improving understanding of how, when, and where corridors are most effective in conservation. At the same time, even as corridors have become increasingly popular in conservation to combat habitat loss and climate change, it was difficult to track down new ideas coming from conservation management that could inform next steps in science to best inform conservation.

We created ConservationCorridor.org to provide a space to bring together the latest science for managers, and the latest conservation innovations for scientists. The idea has been relatively simple – provide regular updates on the latest science and on the latest conservation. These updates are published in short “Digests”, which fit into three categories – Corridor Science, Corridors and Climate Change, and Corridors in Management. We adopted the term Digest to distinguish from a Blog – something we may add later. For now, we developed a plan that we could sustain with regular (~monthly) updates. We also recognized that there was no need to repeat aspects of corridor science and conservation that others are already doing better than we ever could. We advertise “Tools” that are found on many helpful and well-designed websites that provide tools for planning, mapping, and modeling corridors. Already, the benefits of creating the site, including its social media, have provided a platform for more rapid interaction among scientists and managers.

To develop our network, we first publicized ConservationCorridor.org through emails to contacts in academia and management who work on landscape conservation. We specifically asked our academic colleagues to reach out to conservation agencies and NGOs in their region. We started a listserv to publicize Digests monthly. Nearly immediately, we teamed with NatureServe, who launched their related website http://www.landscope.org/focus/connectivity/ at nearly the same time at ours. We recognized our complementary missions, as NatureServe is devoted specifically to training managers in how to implement corridors in real landscapes.

Increasingly, we learn of new topics for Digests, and have engaged our network in writing them. A next step, once we have the capacity to provide daily content and feedback will be to create a blog and allow an ability to comment. With these updates and improvements, we hope to maintain a useful and effective platform for the interaction of scientists and managers, as well as for anyone interested in corridors in general.

Nick Haddad is William Neal Reynolds Professor of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University and a Leopold Fellow (class of 2008).  He is currently a Visiting Professor in Biology at Stanford University, where he is studying the ecosystem services provided by corridors.

corridor@conservationcorridor.org

facebook.com/ConservationCorridor

@conscorridor