It's a fresh approach to conservation that is drawing international attention to this unpretentious Stanford biologist who has garnered some of the world's most prestigious scientific honors. At its most basic, Daily is figuring out how to put a price tag on the natural world. And colleagues say she has done what many scientists have not: connected theory to practice.
In Tanzania, Daily is helping her associates develop programs where the government pays residents to maintain the forests that regulate water supply instead of logging for fast cash - a move that will save the country money by easing health problems from bad water or by paying for a filtration plant.
She is working with Hawaii to create a system similar to Costa Rica's. There the government pays landowners $20 an acre to protect existing forest, which helps stabilize the climate and strengthen the country's eco-tourism industry. International investment helps fund it: Under the Kyoto Protocol, European countries have created carbon markets that allow them to offset their carbon emissions by investing in Costa Rican forests.
"We're in the biggest mass extinction since the dinosaurs," she said in her Stanford office, which is covered with photos of her husband and two children. "People estimate we'll lose half of the Earth's life forms in our lifetime."
Daily co-founded the Stanford-based Natural Capital Project in 2006 and now chairs it. Under her leadership, a team of scientists has created software called InVEST, which can estimate the worth of, say, a forest full of pollinating insects vital to nearby crop production. In November, it will be distributed free. Already the Colombian government plans to use it to relicense water and land access. Where does it make sense to convert forests to agricultural production? Where should they be left alone?
Financially strapped countries could find the tool crucial, advocates say. A poor nation might be tempted to let a rich corporation develop land because it doesn't know the dollar value of the natural resources that will be destroyed.
"If you put yourself in the shoes of a poor government, it's hard to turn down the cash deal," said Mark Tercek, a former official at investment giant Goldman Sachs who recently left to head the Nature Conservancy. "It's hard to put a value on these services. That's what (Daily) is trying to map out."
This is a new way of saving nature. Until now, the conservation movement has said people should care about nature for nature's sake - with charity as the driving economic force to preserve land. And that, Daily said, has failed. She sees a renaissance in the conservation movement hinging on investment.
Daily is the first biologist to attend a brainstorming session at Goldman Sachs, where she picked some of Wall Street's brightest minds about how to create a financial model for pricing out nature. She has bridged the chasms among academic disciplines to engage economists, lawyers and businesspeople to try to forge a new paradigm for the conservation movement. She is only 43, but has achieved more recognition for her "ecosystem services" work than many scientists achieve in a lifetime. Most recently she won the Sophie Prize, one of the environmental world's most esteemed honors.
"She's driven," said Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, author of "The Population Bomb." "She wants to save the world."
Born in Washington, D.C., to an ophthalmologist and registered nurse, Daily grew up in San Rafael on a wooded lot with deer, raccoons and quail and still loves to "run around in the dirt," except now it's often in far-off rain forests.
She is, her colleagues and friends say, brilliant but humble.
She makes clear that some of her ideas aren't new. Take the notion that nature provides invaluable services - that can be traced to Plato. And the concept of placing a dollar value on the natural world? That's been around too: The U.S. government has paid farmers not to plow fragile land to stabilize the soil and protect watersheds.
But no one gets paid for water purification or climate stabilization or protecting biodiversity on a large scale. That's what Daily envisions. She has taken the idea, expanded and popularized it, kicking off the movement with her 1997 book, "Nature's Services" - a catalyst for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. That effort involved more than 1,300 ecological experts studying how environmental change - from the melting polar ice caps to land development - affect humans.
"That revolutionized the way we look at biodiversity and the consequences of the losses of biodiversity," said Stanford biology Professor Harold Mooney.
She has critics. Douglas McCauley, a Stanford graduate student in biology, argues that protecting nature is costly, not profitable, in most cases. All too often, he said, nature is worth more dead than alive.
"The best way to overcome this problem is to drive up the worth of nature by increasing our appreciation for its greatest values: its beauty, its history, its relationship to our biological and cultural histories," McCauley said.
But Daily insists the potential for real large-scale profit and savings exists. A successful example she highlights is New York's decision a decade ago to invest a relatively small amount in protecting the Catskill/Delaware watershed, which produces clean drinking water for New York City, instead of building a multibillion-dollar artificial filtration plant.
"Here's how I often think about it: If you look at nature today, it's almost like an all-you-can-eat buffet: Unless you set a price tag on the different things on the table ... people are going to go whole hog like we are now and eat all they can as fast as they can."
As for the momentum building around ecosystem services, Daily said she is just one of many who see how dire the Earth's situation is. "We're trying to come together and create something that none of us could create on our own."
Profession: Stanford University biology professor, senior fellow at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment, director of the Tropical Research Program at Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology.
Education: Stanford bachelor's degree, master's degree and doctorate in biological sciences.
Books: "The New Economy of Nature," "The Stork and the Plow" (co-written with Paul and Anne Ehrlich), "Nature's Services"
Honors: fellow of the American Philosophical Society (2008), fellow of the National Academy of Sciences (2005), fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2003)
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