September 2nd, 2021
A conversation with Dr. Mathew D. Potts, Professor of Forest Economics in the department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley.
Source: Econ Classroom
Elena Bouldin: As an environmental economist, you are at the crossroads of several different disciplines and stakeholders. Can you explain what the role of an environmental economist is and how you work, or what your goals are?
Dr. Matthew Potts: My job is about trying to help people make good decisions about environmental issues, or good decisions about managing the environment. It's about providing a framework for people to organize information and make decisions.
To do that, you need forest or land management, which touches lots of different disciplines, and which helps to understand how forests grow, or how to grow crops if you're thinking in an agricultural space. You have to think about economic value, whether they're connected to markets or used by people. You have to think about the social context in which these decisions are being made or how these decisions impact people. And then you need to have a framework to quantify, either qualitative or quantitatively, those trade offs. And so there's this natural need to bring together multiple disciplines when you deal with issues of management of environmental systems. Maybe, sometimes, you do that with human-built systems, but the environmental work part requires a little bit more of the biology or the environmental science.
Elena Bouldin: Right. So do you come from a biology / environmental science perspective, or a mathematical perspective?
Dr. Matthew Potts: I don't know. Maybe an all of the above perspectives. I mean, as an undergrad I was a math major, but I took a lot of biology, which probably could have been a dual major. Then, Ph.D. was really at the intersection of applied mathematics and ecology, or tropical biology. And then I did a postdoc in environmental economics. I am an environmental economist. So in some sense, I have formal training in all those things.
I try to approach problems from multiple perspectives: how do you organize that information, how do you convey it, and how do you help articulate the tradeoffs, or articulate people making decisions. And sometimes that requires talking to people, because some types of information you can't convey quantitatively, and other times it's about measuring things, and making maps, and looking at how things change over time.
Elena Bouldin: So your focus, or one of your main focuses, is ecosystem management. How exactly do you manage an ecosystem? Because an ecosystem is very complex.
Dr. Matthew Potts: We're building on theory, we're building on what others' understanding is, so you have to ask, what are the things that are important to measure? What are the things that change over time? That's something where you can continue to do fundamental research, and it's obviously things you don't understand, or things you do. I think the real question is how do you use sensors or remote sensing to do this?
Drones can be used as remote sensing devices Source: Change Started
Dr. Matthew Potts: A generation ago, pre-satellites, you really had to go out there. Let's take an example of measuring trees or managing a forest. You had people that actually went out there. You physically measured the trees. You determined how fast they're growing. You then made decisions on how often you could harvest them. Now, you could potentially use satellites, potentially have sensors to detect changes in temperature, and predict the likelihood of fire. So, I think there's this influx of data that helps you potentially make better decisions. But, in some sense, management requires data, or information, and so there is that prior step of deciding what information is relevant for the decision I'm making and how do I go out and collect it.
Elena Bouldin: Right. So how can we meet the increase in human demands from the land while protecting natural systems?
Dr. Matthew Potts: Well, I think you framed it. There's two things, one is what is the objective, and second, what are the constraints. You asked, how do I meet increasing needs while protecting nature? So, I can, in my own life, make decisions about what I want to do. But what I'd like to focus on is the process, or the understanding, of how you bring stakeholders, big or small, into the room. How do you plan the Berkeley campus? How do you manage community gardens? How are you going to manage climate change? There's lots of groups that have lots of perspectives. And those groups have to come in a room and decide how we want to achieve it.
How do I achieve that in the most efficient way possible? It's sort of saying, "I want to protect as many species as possible while producing at least this amount of timber." So there's potentially a lot of different ways to produce that same amount of timber, but you could have very different amounts of, say, biodiversity or species protected. So you need to figure things out, using information, using models, using scientific knowledge to understand how to recommend a set of actions that would achieve the goals while meeting the constraints of the group, whatever the group of decision makers has said. I'm not saying I don't individually have views and advocate, but I don't make the ultimate decision.
Elena Bouldin: So, you first do your research, then give advice to a specific organization, government, or other organizations, on how to better manage certain land?
Dr. Matthew Potts: Sometimes. Let me think about some recent work. The Lake Tahoe West Restoration Consortium, I think that area may be burning right now, but the whole objective was to figure out how to build forest resilience and forest health to make it less persistent to fire. And so this project involves looking at four kind of broad scenarios: do nothing, that is, completely stop managing it; manage the way it's been managed today; and then two additive things: one, the physical thinning of the forest – you go in and physically take out biomass – and two, a combination of increased use of controlled burns, or prescribed fire, and mechanical thinning.
Lake Tahoe's West Bank Fuente: West Shore Lake Tahoe
Dr. Matthew Potts: So those were constructed broad scenarios. We then took input from forest modelers who had modeled out these scenarios. And then my colleagues and myself quantified what the impact of different management regimes was, what the risk of fire was, what the likelihood of that change was, what the risk of structures burning down was, what the impact on smoke was, what the impact on the amount of carbon stored in the forest was, what the impact on the economic, in terms of jobs or timber output from there, was. So, in some sense, it was quantifying the impacts of those different management regimes that then could be reported back to the stakeholders, so that they could decide which of the avenues they wanted to go down to actually operationalize and say "this is the type of approach that I want to do to manage the forest."
Elena Bouldin: And yet it may all be burning!
Dr. Matthew Potts: Yeah. Forest management in California's complicated. It involves many stakeholders and a lot of different perspectives. And, actually, a lot of it comes down to federal land. The state has the ability to influence what the federal government does, but ultimately they can't decide to go out, and manage the land themselves. They're dependent on cooperative agreements, or working in partnership with the federal government to manage the forests. We haven't really managed the forests for a hundred years. There's an example: we managed them to suppress fire for a hundred years, and we had a lot more people moving into the WUI, the wildland-urban interface. So you have summer, and you add on a changing climate, and you have this perfect storm where you can get a lot of fire.
Elena Bouldin: Yes. Well, forests obviously provide many ecosystem services. The main one I want to focus on right now is carbon sequestration, since you also deal with natural pathways for carbon sequestration. Could you speak about the different natural pathways for carbon sequestration that you've dealt with? Which ones do you think are most important to focus on right now in our goal to lower our global carbon emissions?
Dr. Matthew Potts: The areas that I tend to focus on are the ones that lead to more carbon dioxide coming out of the atmosphere. So I'd say the removal of existing stuff rather than preventing the emissions of additional ones. There's two areas. One, in which I work a little bit less on, is soils,. How do you change the management of soil or agricultural land to increase the amount of carbon stored in soils? We've really spent a century or so mining soils in some sense, losing them, and soils are not renewable. Or they're renewable over ten thousand years, they're not renewable over hundreds of years.
The other thing is understanding how the dynamic is shifting. We spent the past 40 or 50 years clearing a large portion of the Earth's surface, and now there may be areas with demographic transitions, people moving into more urban areas, more efficiency or automation of production, changes in labor and migration, land that's been overused. There may be opportunities to restore that land, or put tree cover back on there.
You have to ask: what is the type of trees you want to plant there and for what purpose? Do you want to try to restore nature? Is it because you connect to nature reserves? Or is it an area that's at critical risk and has a lot of biodiversity? Do you want to do agroforestry, which is integrating trees into agricultural landscapes? Or do you want to do some sort of more economic forestry? Are you trying to produce timber or biomass?
Agroforestry integrates trees and bushes into agricultural fields Source: EcoMatcher
Dr. Matthew Potts: A lot of what I'm working on now is understanding what the potential of those different pathways is. What are the trade offs? Or what are the impacts of doing those different pathways in different places around the world? I think it's a good question. This morning, in a conversation with others, we were saying, what are the other areas you could do things right now that have minimal impact on others? What does it mean to be a trade-off? So you have to define what minimal impact is. Well, nobody's done anything with that land for 10 years. No trees have grown on that land for 10 years. There doesn't seem to be a lot of people in that area actively using that area. Then you say, well, that's truly abandoned, but you have to be very careful about how you define those things. And that's the importance of engaging local stakeholders in conversations.
Elena Bouldin: That makes sense. I read that your goal is to achieve ecosystem service protection and biodiversity conservation in multiuse landscapes. How exactly are you going about doing that?
Dr. Matthew Potts: You think about a landscape and say, there's a bundle of goods and services that come from that landscape. There's a number of species on the landscape, there's the amount of food produced, there's something about water quality and quantity. There may be something about esthetics or maybe something about the cultural connection to that landscape. And so the questions are: What do I do and how do I do it? Where do I do it, and when do I do it?
What I'm thinking about is how do I set an objective, set some constraints or goals, and then say: what, where, when, how. How do you best allocate those practices that get into this concept of multiuse?
Elena Bouldin: That's very interesting. I have heard you speak before about specific indirect effects from agriculture, for example, that may be larger than people originally thought. Could you give some examples of changes we bring to ecosystems that affect them in a greater way than we might have originally foreseen?
Dr. Matthew Potts: I think you're alluding to some of the work by my former student at Luskin's, looking at indirect impacts of converting tropical forests into oil palm plantations.... An important body of his work, and also what Justin Brashares at UC Berkeley focuses on, is trophic cascades. So, how do you change ecosystems by removing top predators? Or in the case that we found in Malaysia looking at oil palm, how do you create resource subsidies?
You also see this in the Midwest when you look at cornfields, and deer come into the corn fields, and eat the corn and they go back to the forest and eat the seedlings. So what we were able to find in Malaysia is this impact of having a lot of food available or oil palm through the very productive agricultural crop in terms of oil, really increased pig populations to the point where they were really changing the structure and composition of a relatively intact forest in Malaysia that is set aside as a forest reserve.
Oil Palm Plantations Source: Plantations International
Dr. Matthew Potts: The other aspect is these broader questions, also the work by my former student, Lisa Kelley at the University of Colorado, Denver. She is looking at cacao production in Southeast Sulawesi, where Sulawesians are looking at sustainable intensification. This approach, or method, is posited as a win win win for nature, people, and commodity production. How do you intensify or increase the amount of yield per unit area, and in some sense, hopefully then spare other areas to be converted? Her thesis really goes into detail, sort of interrogating how well these programs have worked in terms of cacao production in Southeast Asia. I think these are good examples.
Other examples would certainly be the work that I did. Looking at biofuels or thinking about areas like how do you designate land for the production of biofuels so at least we would have energy-intensive grasses for the production of those biofuels? What might be the impacts on species, biodiversities, in some data sets? And certainly other things, like when should I restore a marginal, unused land, from the standpoint of the carbon off that land? Am I better off actively putting a forest out, passively letting a forest come back, or thinking about it for the production of biofuels in the sense of growing some dedicated crop that then could substitute for fossil fuels? Obviously, we're kind of moving beyond that now, in the sense of trying to really transition as far away as we can from fossil fuels. Although there probably always will be some residual use for the next 40 or 50 years.
Elena Bouldin: Yeah, energy is a difficult topic to address, because even green energies have their own footprint.
Dr. Matthew Potts: Yeah. That's a good point. As you know, the electric transition only gets you so far, you have to still ask where your electricity is coming from.
Elena Bouldin: One last question. Since I am trying to reach young people who are now thinking about what to do in life, what is a work day like for someone like you, in forest management?
Dr. Matthew Potts: I talk to many people! You know, one way to think about it as an academic is "where do you touch the most people in terms of your teaching?" So it's the lectures where you're conveying the basic or slightly more advanced knowledge to undergraduates in a group setting, or it's really mentoring graduate students, teaching them how to think, thinking through where are the boundaries of science? Where can you contribute? All that is knowledge generation. That's one half of it.
The other half may very well be, if you're in applied science, to communicate that science in a way that has impact. I try to create information that's actionable for decision makers, but there's still a precursor part that could be "where do I go to get that information, or how do I generate that information".
My advice for young students would be to get technical skills, for the quantitative level of everything has gone up through time and every science has become much more data rich. Being able to access and manipulate that data is much more important than it was a couple of decades ago. I would also encourage them to pursue their passion and figure out what particular part of the puzzle excites them or drives what they're doing.
Elena Bouldin: That's a good place to end. Thank you so much again for your time.
Dr. Matthew Potts: Of course! Great talking to you. Thanks.