Evaluating human and environmental well-being in Alaskan watersheds through ecosystem services modeling and monitoring

Client Organization: 
Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
Client is confirmed: 
Project Location : 
Homer, AK, USA
Secondary Client Organization: 
NOAA National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS)
Summary of Project Idea: 

The Kenai Peninsula watersheds surrounding Kachemak Bay in Southcentral Alaska provide myriad ecosystem services ranging from world class sport fishing, to water filtration, flood mitigation and carbon sequestration. Concerns over increasing stress to the ecosystem, rooted in climate impacts and development pressures, have prompted the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (KBNERR) to investigate ways of conceptualizing and communicating ecosystem services to link the biophysical and socio-economic health of the region. In 1999 a baseline socioeconomic profile was developed for the area, but indicators and metrics of change are not well defined. The proposed masters project would identify benefit-relevant socioeconomic indicators for ecosystem services based on the existing Kachemak Bay socio-economic profile and well-studied watershed functions (blue carbon sequestration, water filtration, salmon habitat support, etc.) in order to track human and environmental health into the future.

Goals & Objectives:

  • Compare current socio-economic metrics to the 1999 Kachemak Bay Ecological Characterization Socio-Economic Profile. Identify and characterize the socio-economic indicators and metrics of the Kachemak Bay area with a focus on watershed functions and human benefit-relevant indicators.
  • Apply an ecosystem services framework to illustrate linkages between biophysical and socio-economic health of the region. Identify interventions or preventative decision-making steps that would impact the ecosystem services of the landscape.
  • Determine the perspectives of the diverse array of stakeholders and decision makers who influence the landscape to better understand and address the needs for ecosystem service information and decision support.
  • Develop recommendations for use by the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and NOAA NERR system to guide future monitoring of human and environmental well-being.

Theoretical Justification, Social Benefit, or Significance:

Benefit to Alaskan Coastal Communities:

By utilizing a research platform (KBNERR) where linkages between human and environmental well-being can be evaluated and products and processes can be developed, this project supports coastal decision making, and holistic management and monitoring of natural resources on the relatively pristine Kenai Peninsula. Local decision-makers can use the outputs to understand current landscape value and inform policy and planning for climate mitigation and development pressure.  This project is timely for leveraging ongoing NOAA NERR Science Collaborative “Groundwater Resilience” Research or “Blue Carbon” Science Transfer projects as topical focus areas to explore and communicate ecosystem services project components.

Benefit to NOAA NERR System:

The National Estuarine Research Reserve System is a network of 29 coastal sites established through the Coastal Zone Management Act to protect and study estuarine systems. Reserves represent a partnership program between NOAA and the coastal states focused on the following:

  • Stewardship. Each site undertakes the initiatives needed to keep the estuary healthy.
  • Research. Place-based research and monitoring are used to aid management efforts on local and national levels.
  • Training. Decision makers are better equipped to introduce data into their management processes.
  • Education. K-to-Gray audiences are served through hands-on laboratory and field-based experiences.

This project would link these reserve sectors strongly by integrating components of science, management and outreach, and inform NERR priorities in a system-wide socio-economic monitoring program to complement the biophysical system-wide monitoring program.

Broader impacts:

This research would facilitate communication of socio-ecological systems thinking to scientists and decision makers and provide decision support tools to examine tradeoffs from interventions and track changes in benefit-relevant indicators.

Specific Activities & Duration:

The proposed project would leverage existing data sets, biophysical modeling frameworks and local place-based networks, with new social science aimed at developing an ecosystem services conceptual model, and a socio-economic monitoring framework for use by coastal decision makers and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System.

This project has 3 distinct activities:

  1. The project team will conduct an assessment of socio-economic indicators and metrics for the region. This assessment process will entail literature reviews, data discovery and synthesis. The team will compare and contrast current indicators and metrics with the baseline 1999 Kachemak Bay Socio-economic profile to assess changes in socio-economic monitoring and conditions.
  2. The team will apply the suite of identified indicators and metrics in an ecosystem services model focused on benefits of wetlands in the Kenai Lowlands. The team will use the bio-physical synthesis developed in the recent State of Alaska Salmon and People (SASAP) project, define ecosystems services and benefit-relevant indicators.
  3. The team will conduct in-person and phone interviews with representatives of the communities, state and federal agencies, NGOs, and businesses in the watershed to better understand their roles (interventions) on the landscape and values and perceptions concerning the benefits of intact watersheds. The team will generate specific recommendations for future monitoring of socio-economic indicators and creation of decision-support tools to preserve ecosystem services.

An advisory team of KBNERR staff and representative stakeholders from the Kachemak Bay area will be available for periodic check-ins by the project team to provide feedback on the research and guidance on the recommendations for the final report.

Integrative Approach:

An integrative approach is necessary for the success of this project. Knowledge of socio-economic research, policy and planning processes, ecology and ecosystem services, and communication and education are important dimensions of this project. The student team must be able to engage in a known manner with a variety of stakeholders including scientists, managers, local planners, elected officials, community members, landowners, policy-makers, NGOs, and businesses active in Kachemak Bay.  

Skills/Expertise Needed: 
Secondary Client Confirmed: 
SEAS Program Areas: 
Conservation Ecology (Aquatic Sciences, Terrestrial Ecosystems, and Conservation Biology)
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Sustainable Systems
Role for each program area: 

Conservation Ecology: This project context is a watershed with myriad ecological issues of concern that need to be knowledgeably discussed during interviews and captured in the project’s ecosystem services conceptual model.

Environmental Policy and Planning: The student team will need to understand the policy and planning framework in order identify the important interventions and specific policies that will affect the integrity of ecosystem services in the watersheds.

Behavior, Education, and Communication: The student team will need to be alert to the behaviors and motivations of individuals that affect their incentives or perceived barriers to use decision support tools and implement ecosystem-based management decisions.

Sustainable Systems: The student team will need to use systems thinking and system dynamics modeling, as well as a sound understanding of socio-ecological principles, and apply them to link environmental and social change in the ecosystem services conceptual model. 

Professional Career Development Benefits: 
  • This project will place the student team into the center of a real-world regional planning and management situation.
  • Students will gain knowledge of biophysical processes and evaluation methods for blue carbon, groundwater resources and salmon support systems.
  • Students will develop skills and familiarity with decision-making processes, conceptual frameworks, and stakeholder engagement, for future work in research, management, restoration, consulting, and education.
  • KBNERR has a very active research programs, and students will have the opportunity to engage with researchers and graduate students from several different institutions, as well as KBNERR staff.  This will provide valuable networking and learning opportunities. 
Funding Sources: 

The client organization does not have available funds for this project, however, the project team would benefit from information and opportunities developed through the NERR Science Collaborative Groundwater Resilience and Blue Carbon ongoing projects administered by University of Michigan. The client organization is able to accommodate the student team in the Kachemak Bay NERR dorm whenever the team is in the region to collect data and meet with the client.

Identify expected products/deliverables: 


  • Final Report with the following components:
    • Monitoring Parameters: Recommendations of socio-economic indicators and metrics for KBNERR to monitor into the future
    • Conceptual model: Linking ecology, ecosystem services, and benefit-relevant indicators to tie KBNERR research, education, stewardship and training sector work together
    • Decision Support Tools: to be determined through collaboration with end users
      • Tailored data sets, visualizations, presentations, best management practices, and other tools to deliver to end users and help communicate value of ecosystem-based management


The project outputs will be used to inform the KBNERR management plan, including research, monitoring and education priorities. The team’s recommendations will be shared with broader audiences through presentations to stakeholders at the KBNERR Community Council quarterly meetings, and to decision-makers at local and regional planning commission meetings.

Contact full name: 
Coowe Walker
Job title: 
Research Coordinator
State or Country: 
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Julia Wondolleck
Contact Phone: 
Advisor Confirmed: 
Contact e-mail: 
Additional Faculty Advisor(s) Confirmed: 
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Ellie Flaherty
  • Kathryn Kirkpatrick
  • James Snow
Project Status: 
In Progress