Heather Tallis Becomes Lead Scientist at The Nature Conservancy

February 4, 2013

Heather Tallis, lead scientist, The Nature Conservancy. Image courtesy Heather Tallis/TNC.

Heather Tallis, one of the world’s foremost analysts of the connections between nature and human well-being, has agreed to join The Nature Conservancy as lead scientist.

Tallis, 36, will become the first woman to serve as lead scientist in the Conservancy’s history.

“Heather brings incredible expertise in understanding and measuring how conservation impacts people,” says Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy. “She will be leading new efforts that conservation desperately needs — a scientific focus on how our work can both improve human well-being while also protecting biodiversity.”

Tallis comes to the Conservancy from her position as lead scientist for the Natural Capital Project, a path-breaking scientific collaboration based at Stanford University that seeks to understand and measure the economic values of nature. Measuring these ecosystem services — the benefits that nature provides people in the form of clean water, fertile soil, clean air and much more — has become increasingly important as human activity stresses natural resources and extreme weather events push communities to consider how healthy nature can buffer and protect us.

“My new position will focus on bringing science about people into the work of the Conservancy,” says Tallis. “There are many areas where the Conservancy is already doing this, but there are many more opportunities to bring economic and social science approaches to conservation.”

One such area in which Tallis has been a leading analyst is water funds. In a water fund, urban water users pay for rural watershed conservation in the pursuit of securing stable supplies of drinking water for millions of people — conservation that also protects forests and the livelihoods of the farmers and ranchers living in those forests.

“Water fund design now really takes into account three areas of scientific knowledge — ecological, social and economic. It’s a marriage of practicality, efficiency and biological effectiveness that’s working remarkably well,” says Tallis.

Tallis is leading efforts to develop a free software tool that will help guide the development of water funds in 40 new locations across Latin America.

She is also credited with developing the concept of “servicesheds” to analyze the link between conservation efforts and the people who benefit from them.

“With servicesheds, we can actually map the connections between nature and people,” explains Tallis. “It’s powerful to have a visualization of how and where conservation might benefit people, especially for policy makers and planners who are deciding where and how to invest in development.”

For instance, Tallis and a team of analysts tracked the proposed development of new coal mines in Colombia and a new road in the Peruvian Amazon, mapping the impacts of these activities to communities, including indigenous groups. The team modeled changes to water quality, access to wild harvested food and carbon sequestration. These analyses provided a picture of whom would be impacted by the changes and whether social equity could be maintained through mitigation.

“Ultimately, servicessheds are a basic concept that could underpin many types of projects and policies, and be applied in many social and ecological contexts,” says Tallis.

Among Tallis’ many scientific achievements:

She has helped identify metrics that reflect the contribution of nature to people’s nutrition, income and social equity.
– She currently co-chairs efforts to create a global monitoring system (GEO BON) for these kinds of social metrics.
– She is an expert member of the World Bank’s global effort to promote and standardize the inclusion of natural capital in national accounts, contributing scientific expertise as a member of the Policy and Technical Expert Committee.

In her new role with the Conservancy, Tallis will continue to collaborate with the Natural Capital Project.

Tallis holds an M.S. in chemical oceanography from the University of California, Santa Cruz, an M.S. in marine ecology from the University of Otago in New Zealand and a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Washington. She is co-editor of the book, Natural Capital: The Theory and Practice of Mapping Ecosystem Services (Oxford, 2011) and has been widely published in scientific journals. Tallis joins the Conservancy on March 18.

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