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Duke-Led Team Receives Funding to Assess Progress on Gulf Ecosystem Restoration

DURHAM, N.C. – A team of researchers led by Lydia Olander of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions has received $1,335,798 to conduct research on Gulf of Mexico ecosystem restoration. The grant is funded by the Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Lydia Olander is director of the Ecosystem Services Program at the Nicholas Institute and an adjunct associate professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment. She will collaborate on the project with Heather Tallis, lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy; Christine Shepard, director of science for the Nature Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico Program; David Yoskowitz, associate director and endowed chair for socioeconomics at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies; and Katya Wowk, senior associate for strategic planning and policy at the Harte Research Institute.

In the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, five U.S. federal agencies are directing an unprecedented amount of funds to ecosystem restoration in the Gulf of Mexico. Tracking the benefits these funds provide to fisheries, tourism, employment, recreation and ecosystems presents a major challenge.

“This project looks to advance standardized measures for assessing Gulf of Mexico restoration work through the development of ecosystem service logic models that detail the causal connections between restoration actions and multiple ecological, economic, and social outcomes,” said Olander. “In partnership with experts and practitioners across the Gulf region we intend to produce a transferable and scalable approach for measuring success and comparing restoration alternatives and outcomes across disparate Gulf projects. This effort will provide a platform to ensure investment is focused on restoration projects capable of delivering the greatest impact.”

Over the course of the 2.5-year grant, the researchers will use the funds to develop a common framework and set of indicators that unifies comprehensive reporting on the progress and effectiveness of Gulf ecosystem restoration. Designed for funders and decision makers grappling with how to distribute restoration resources, the framework could be used for coordination and comparison of multiple restoration approaches. Through a new set of measures, it will improve the ability of states to communicate the economic and social benefits of their work.

“Being able to connect environmental well-being with human well-being is critical at a time when we will be investing billions of dollars in restoration and conservation,” said Yoskowitz. “To that end this project will help to continue building out a socio-economic observing system for the Gulf.”

Regional stakeholders and experts will be partners on projects to assess restoration impacts, and the work will be shared broadly with the Gulf of Mexico restoration community. Research partner, the Nature Conservancy, Shepard said, has been active in the Gulf for nearly 40 years and we will engage our restoration partners and practitioners throughout this project to ensure that the science and models we develop are practical and meaningful for Gulf restoration.

Olander and Tallis will use their connection to the Bridge Collaborative as secretariat members to unite experts from a broad set of disciplines and diverse areas of practice with consistent evidence and tools to make a greater impact.

“Will the billions being spent to restore the Gulf of Mexico have a lasting impact for Gulf state economies, and the ecosystem? Right now, there’s no easy way to know because there is no clear way to assess these projects,” said Tallis. “It is tough problems like this that the Bridge Collaborative aims to solve by connecting people and evidence that don’t usually meet.”

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Members of the media interested in speaking to Lydia Olander should contact Erin McKenzie, erin.mckenzie@duke.edu or 919.613.3652.