New guidelines, free online tool advance global conservation with economics

Published: March 14 2012

Category:Environment, Research

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Think of it as a Rosetta Stone for tree huggers and policy wonks.

InVEST is a family of free software-based tools that streamlines environmental data in terms of economics, helping communities save delicate ecosystems without fettering economic development.

“There’s a paradigm expansion in conservation science right now,” said University of Florida biologist Brian Silliman, who studies marine ecosystems and how people benefit from ocean services, whether it’s from the seafood industry or leisure activities. “It’s not just nature for nature but also nature for people.”

The parameters to create InVEST were in part based on the five-year work of an international team of ecologists, economists and biologists, including Silliman. The researchers published their findings in January in the journal Marine Policy, outlining a three-step approach to help local communities, governments or the private sector determine what tradeoffs are needed to accommodate environmental protection and economic gains. This is determined, they say, by assessing the condition of the ecosystem, the amount of resources used or enjoyed by the people, and the society’s preference for that service. This approach is already being incorporated by parts of the U.S. government and is being considered by multi-national companies.

Engineers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used InVEST to design restoration projects funded by BP after the 2010 Gulf oil spill. Coca-Cola FEMSA, the soft-drink company’s largest bottler, improves water quality in its South American operations with watershed management investments calculated by the software.

“InVEST helps scientists to clarify the language they use when speaking with policy makers. Now you can compare apples to apples,” said Heather Tallis, the paper’s lead author and investigator at the Nature Capital Project at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.

Anyone can download InVEST, found at the website for the Nature Capital Project, an initiative that helps organizations integrate conservation and human development. The project partners with the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Stanford University, and the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. Later this year, the Natural Capital Project will launch InVEST 3.0, giving users the option of using the program as a toolbox in ArcGIS or as a stand-alone, open-source platform on their desktop or online.

For Aurelio Ramos, an economist for the Nature Conservancy, persuading farmers to use the current software wasn’t easy. Ramos worked with a cooperative of sugarcane growers in Colombia who were initially hesitant to spend $3 million annually to make certain improvements to their watershed in order to conserve limited water resources for irrigation, he said. InVEST gave the farmers the instruments to pinpoint not only where they needed to make changes, but also how many millions of dollars more they would garner in profit in a decade if the alterations were made.

“It’s very important that you have the right stakeholders and clarity on how and why you are going to be using these tools,” he said. “How you use it, and when you use it, can get important outcomes and real pragmatic results.”

To access InVEST, visit


Claudia Adrien,
Brian Silliman,
Heather Tallis,

Category:Environment, Research