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Could healthier, happier humans lead to a healthier Puget Sound?

Walking on the rocks along the Sound. Myrtle Edwards Park, Seattle, WA. Photo: cleverdame107 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Walking on the rocks along the Sound. Myrtle Edwards Park, Seattle, WA. Photo: cleverdame107 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For the past two years, Puget Sound Institute Lead Social Scientist Kelly Biedenweg has been working with the Puget Sound Partnership to identify and recommend what are termed “human wellbeing indicators.” These indicators will be adopted by the agency as part of its Human Quality of Life Vital Sign. Biedenweg, along with Kari Stiles of the Puget Sound Partnership, and Katharine Wellman of Northern Economics presented a final report to the Leadership Council last month.

Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council Chair Martha Kongsgaard calls it “the Holy Grail” of ecosystem-based management. It is the grand question. The ‘why.’

Why preserve Puget Sound in the first place?

Citizens and policymakers ask and answer that question every day, at least indirectly. “Any of the schemes we use to recover and restore Puget Sound are value-laden,” says Kongsgaard. “Every law that we have on the books is a reflection of community values.” But social scientists say our understanding of those values is often reflected more in politics than in science. They argue that by studying our relationship to Puget Sound, we can make better decisions about how to protect it.

A "medicine wheel" graphic that will be used to showcase HWB indicators; copyright Biedenweg et al.
A “medicine wheel” graphic that will be used to showcase HWB indicators; copyright Biedenweg et al.

That’s the concept behind the report’s 23 wellbeing indicators. After conducting stakeholder interviews and workshops in three Puget Sound regions—the Puyallup and Hood Canal watersheds, as well as Whatcom County—Biedenweg’s team determined a list of actions or experiences that marked positive relationships with the environment. These ranged from “frequency of outdoor activities with friends/family” to commercial activities like fishing and agriculture. Ultimately, the new report divides wellbeing indicators into five domains: physical, psychological, governance, cultural and economic.

The power of indicators, say social scientists, is that you can measure them. Although it is a new concept in the United States, the project takes inspiration from other efforts such as the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, which monitors wellbeing as an analogue to that country’s Gross National Product.

While quantifying things like happiness and beauty may seem unusual, Biedenweg says that understanding how we are affected by the environment is one of the keys to ecosystem recovery. People tend to engage more in positive, less destructive behaviors when they feel that they are receiving a benefit, she says. In turn, studies show that a healthy environment also leads to healthier—and happier—citizens.

Kongasgaard agrees. “It’s the quantifiable,” she says, “but it’s also the ineffable. What is the value of sharing these waters with orca and Chinook? What is the value of softening a bulkhead for the sake of a forage fish? What’s the value of a sunrise over Mount Baker?”

Indicators may never answer questions like those directly, but Biedenweg, Wellman and Stiles hope that they may give policymakers and managers better tools for understanding the role of humans in the ecosystem. No small consideration, as Puget Sound’s population edges past 4 million people.

The Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council is scheduled to make its final decision regarding adoption of the indicators in May.

Funding for the project was provided by grants from the NSF, the EPA, the Russell Family Foundation, a USEPA Local Integrating Organization grant, the Puget Sound Institute and the Puget Sound Partnership.

Read the full report on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.