Theory meets reality on Vancouver Island

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Rain falls outside the Port Renfrew Hotel. Fishing season here is strong but short thanks to stormy weather on what the locals call the "Wild West Coast." (Photo: Julia James)

Videos by Julia James

Not long ago, Greg Guannel enlisted the Natural Capital Project’s staff for an unusual task: measuring the West Vancouver Island shoreline with sticks and string. Guannel is a coastal engineer with NatCap’s marine initiative. He was making a computer model that would tell communities how vulnerable their coasts are to erosion, and he’d encountered a problem that couldn’t be solved in the computer lab. Or over the phone. Or even by searching for files in a musty office.

He needed data.

“Data is gold,” Guannel told me at a recent training on Vancouver Island. “The more the better,” he added for emphasis. His eyes glimmered at the thought.

Greg says his low-tech data gathering speaks to the heart of what NatCap is trying to do — solid, reliable science that is not overly complicated. The data feeds a multi-faceted ocean planning tool, called Marine InVEST, that NatCappers hope will provide communities with easily digestible information about the value of the services their oceans provide — information communities will use as they decide how to manage them. So NatCap has to do good, accurate science. But people who are not scientists by trade have to be able to use and understand it, too.

For the last few weeks, the NatCappers raced to ready Marine InVEST for its first major test of both criteria.  They were preparing for last weekend’s International Marine Conservation Congress, a major gathering of marine scientists, nonprofits and policy makers. The Congress took place on Vancouver Island, a place NatCappers saw as fitting. After all, that was the island they’d spent the last two years visiting and modeling Marine InVEST for and on.

Last Friday, Guannel and six other marine initiative NatCappers turned on a computer, launched Marine InVEST and hoped the 13 ecologists and planners facing the screen would understand it.

Early on, while taking in the spreadsheets, with dots and squiggles marching across the screen, one trainee turned to her partner and voiced a problem NatCap tries to avoid: “Only GIS junkies know this stuff.” But numbers eventually morphed into colorful maps. That trainee and the others listened closely for the next three hours as the marine initiative staff took turns explaining the modules they’d developed: Wave energy. Coastal vulnerability to erosion and inundation. Habitat risk assessment.

Winnie Lau manages the Marine Ecosystem Services Program for Forest Trends, a Washington non-profit that takes a market-based approach to conserving forests. Friday was her first time working in person with NatCap, but she said she’s had her eye on Marine InVEST since she attended a webinar on the emerging project last year. “I knew they were developing it,” she said. “Now they’re starting to have exciting functionalities and really develop the tool.”

Lau is currently working with communities in Mexico to help manage fishing and tourism near the huge, diverse Mesoamerican Reef. NatCap is employing Marine InVEST on a similar project in Belize. Lau hopes the two groups can work together to learn lessons from each ongoing project. “If Marine InVEST were fully in place, we’d want to use it for our project,” she said. But because Marine InVEST is still developing, Lao hopes to apply it once its completed to the work they will have already done in Mexico, to test the choices they made without it and also to see if Marine InVEST works well on the reef.

For the last hour of the workshop, she and Guannel hunkered over a laptop to dig into his coastal vulnerability module.

The training and Congress took place in Victoria, Vancouver Island’s urban hub and British Columbia’s capitol. But a quick drive northwest from the island’s southern tip transports one into the region that NatCap is helping local government to manage. Bear and deer spot the road at dusk. Driving north, ancient hardwood forests border the right side of the road, where they haven’t been logged. Streams bearing salmon course under the road. To the left, the coast drops sharply to the ocean. In places, vacation homes speckle the view.

The view out the west side of the car as we headed toward Port Renfrew on Highway 14. (Photo: Jamie Hansen)

The island has long long been fueled by "extractive" activities like mining and logging. (Photo: Julia James)

After about two hours of driving through such scenery, one reaches Port Renfrew, an old logging town of about 250 people and a couple bars and restaurants. With great fishing and a rediscovered old-growth tree grove, Port Renfrew is undergoing a sudden makeover into a tourist destination. Like many towns on the west coast, it sees a better economic future in catering to fishermen, tourists and hikers than in traditional, “extractive” activities like logging and mining. But not everyone sees tourism as the best option. Some are concerned about communities losing their identity. Others see development as more irrevocably destructive than logging. These are some of the tradeoffs that NatCap wants Marine InVEST to help communities work through.

Last Thursday, the night before NatCap’s training, the area chamber of commerce met at the Port Renfrew Hotel to strategize about how the town can win a nationwide fishing competition, called Ultimate Fishing Town Canada. Right now, the small town is in the running to win — even if its a bit of a long shot. Rosie Bosworth and Tim Cash, respectively president and director of the chamber of commerce, hung around to explain what victory would mean for the town. First $25,000, which residents would like to reinvest in the local fish hatchery. Then, a trophy — they’d have a parade for it. Finally, it would put Port Renfrew on the fishing map, drawing in more visitors and even full-time residents.

Cash moved to Port Renfrew from Toronto after falling in love with its remote beauty on a vacation. Now he runs a lodge. He’d like to see a few more people move in, so his young boy can have more playmates. And Bosworth, who also relocated to the community, dreams of a grocery store and a doctor’s office — “the small necessities,” she said.

“We’ll take what development we can get,” she added. And then, the paradox that many communities are dealing with: “But we want to preserve our old growth. It’s imperative for tourism. ” Bosworth and Cash both lit up when describing the beauty of their surroundings. “We’re green here,” Cash said, gesturing to the rocky beach, the mossy cliff wall and the ocean. “It’s pristine,” Bosworth agreed, raising her nose to the air. “You can smell it.”

This paradox — using ecotourism as a conservation tool only to attract development and lose small-town character — is common to beautiful places around the world. People are attracted to places with natural beauty and solitude. But once they’ve arrived, they can’t help yearning for some of civilization’s comforts. So they bring them in at some cost to the beauty and solitude they came for. NatCap is trying to tackle this very human, subjective tradeoff through another form of data gathering — talking to people.

As NatCappers wrapped up their Friday training, they were already thinking ahead to their meetings with the island-based group West Coast Aquatic and communities similar to Port Renfrew. There, the newly-minted Marine InVEST would really have to perform, presenting logical and understandable tradeoffs to the issues Bosworth and Cash embodied.

A black bear looked at us curiously from the shoulder of the highway as we headed back from Port Renfrew to Victoria and eventually Palo Alto. (Photo: Julia James)

Guannel thinks NatCap’s data-gathering excursions to the island will help. “We gathered data for the program but also for our minds,” he said. In other words, the group made an effort to talk to community members, to see what they wanted. They also absorbed the look and feel of the place so they could have a better understanding as they modeled back in their office. After the training session, he had a good feeling about how the community meetings would go. “It was fun to realize we created something that can be useful,” he said, explaining that he’d been so focused on developing his part of the tool that he wasn’t sure how it would all come together.

“You know how it is when you’re working on a project,” he said.  ”It’s only at the end that you take a step back and think, that’s pretty cool.”

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