Major NSF grant to fund doctoral studies in ecosystem services at PSU
Author: David Santen, Office of University Communications
Posted: July 20, 2010

(Portland, Ore.) July 20, 2010 — The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a five-year, $3 million grant to Portland State University (PSU) in support of a cutting-edge graduate training program: Ecosystem Services for Urbanizing Regions (ESUR).

Natural ecosystems provide a wide range of economic, environmental and social benefits in support of rapidly growing urban areas, such as food production, drinking water purification and recreational opportunities. The ESUR program will teach future scientists and professionals how to assess the value of these services. Improving this understanding will enable better management and conservation of ecosystems.

The ESUR grant (Award #0966376) is part of NSF’s flagship Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program for interdisciplinary education of Ph.D. scientists and engineers. This is the first IGERT awarded to Portland State University, and the first nationwide to focus on issues that arise from the pressures placed on ecosystem services by rapidly urbanizing areas.

The IGERT program at Portland State will support 25–30 doctoral students, or IGERT Fellows, over the next five years.

“Portland and other fast-growing urban areas around the globe face two opposing pressures—rising resource demands and the declining capacity of natural ecosystems to support their populations,” says the grant’s principal investigator, David E. Ervin, professor of economics and environmental management and a Sustainability Fellow at Portland State University. “This IGERT program will train the next generation of leaders to create innovative solutions that protect and improve natural ecosystems vital to the resilience of our high-growth urban regions.”

Co-principal investigators on the grant include Elise F. Granek (Environmental Science and Management), Darrell Brown (Business), Heejun Chang (Geography), Veronica Dujon (Sociology), Vivek Shandas (Urban Studies and Planning), and J. Alan Yeakley (Environmental Science and Management). This diverse team of PSU faculty will build a problem-based curriculum and research program that integrates ecological, social and economic concepts and demonstrates the role of values in ecosystem planning and management. Ten other associate faculty members from across campus will help implement this ambitious program.

The program will also incorporate extensive community engagement, through collaborations and studies with Heritage University, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Portland General Electric, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service’s Mt. Hood National Forest and Pacific Northwest Research Station, U.S. Geological Survey, and Willamette Partnership.

About Ecosystem Services
Ecosystem services are the conditions and processes provided by natural ecosystems that sustain and fulfill human life. Those services include producing commercial goods such as food and timber, supplying oxygen, storing carbon dioxide, providing habitat for fish and wildlife, purifying drinking water, and other cultural, recreational, environmental and economic benefits. Recent scientific assessments show that a majority of the earth’s ecosystems are losing capacity to provide such services.

At the same time, urban areas now comprise 50 percent of the world’s population for the first time in history, and are projected to reach 70 percent by 2050. Burgeoning urban centers compromise these natural life support systems, increasing pressure on surrounding and more distant ecosystems, and often forcing more expensive man-made replacements.

“Addressing the interconnection between growing urban areas and the degradation of ecosystem services requires moving beyond any single disciplinary focus to an approach that integrates ecological, social and economic variables,” says lead co-principal investigator Elise Granek.

About the Ecosystem Services for Urbanizing Regions (ESUR) program

The Ecosystem Services for Urbanizing Regions program integrates economics, environmental science, engineering, geosciences, urban studies and planning, business administration and social sciences to understand the complex roles that ecosystem services play in supporting rapidly urbanizing areas of the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

IGERT Fellows will engage in a three-year study sequence, in research, and in field placements to develop an in-depth, interdisciplinary knowledge of ecosystem service issues. Research studies will address current ecosystem management issues, such as dam removal and land use at the fringes of urban areas.

Students’ doctoral dissertations will be required to include a co-authored chapter on an interdisciplinary topic, deepening student understanding of the relationships between the natural and social sciences, and providing training for collaborative projects. Fellows will have an opportunity to earn PSU’s Graduate Certificate in Sustainability while pursuing a Ph.D.

National recruitment will target high-caliber students, with an emphasis on underrepresented groups in science and engineering. To support this effort, PSU has formed a “pipeline” partnership with Heritage University (Toppenish, Wash.), where Hispanic and Native American students comprise two-thirds of the enrollment.

The program will be housed in PSU’s Center for Sustainable Processes and Practices, which also administers the Graduate Certificate in Sustainability.

Analyzing Ecosystem Services and Sustainability: Marmot Dam

As a test case for the ESUR IGERT proposal, a PSU faculty team developed and led a 2009 graduate course, “Ecosystem Services and Sustainability: Field Methods,” focused on the community and ecological impacts resulting from changes in ecosystem services caused by the removal of the Marmot Dam in Oregon.

Breaching of the Sandy River’s 50-foot-high Marmot Dam in 2007 restored one of the few free-flowing salmonid-bearing streams within the Columbia River basin. But while the environmental impact on nearby ecosystems was significant, the economic and social implications of the dam’s removal were less understood.

A team of professors and graduate students worked with key community partners involved in the dam removal, including Portland General Electric, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Results from the exercise have helped to not only develop more holistic approaches to issues of dam removal, but also laid the groundwork for interdisciplinary teaching and research of other ecosystem service issues. That work will continue through the Ecosystem Services for Urbanizing Regions IGERT program.

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Additional Resources
NSF IGERT Home Page:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife, “Valuing Ecosystem Services”:
United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005):
Sustainability at Portland State University:

David Santen, Office of University Communications
Portland State University | 503-725-8765

David Ervin, Departments of Economics and Environmental Management, and Center for Sustainable Processes and Practices, Portland State University

News Release
For Immediate Release (#10-043)