Sasha Nelson: Baking a bigger cake
Over the past six months, our community has been wrestling with some hard questions related to the economic uncertainty caused by threats to our mining industry. If we are brutally honest, as a community, we must acknowledge that we have been struggling to improve our economy ever since the economic downturn or great recession gripped our area. In times like these, it is far too easy to believe that people concerned about the environment are the enemy of our economic prosperity. The reality is that new economic opportunities are being offered to our community through market-based conservation.
New market-based conservation measures offer an exciting way to incentivize conservation. In these systems, public and private entities are rewarded for improvements to air, soil and water quality. These solutions offer additional benefits to communities such as open space/working lands preservation, wildlife habitat enhancement, wise land use, and recreational opportunities.
Market-based strategies work by assigning an economic value to the ecological services which society derives from wise stewardship of natural resources. Ecological services include the benefits we accrue from bees that pollinate flowers, wetlands that filter water, trees that capture carbon, and sagebrush that sustains wildlife — critical processes that go virtually unvalued on most balance sheets. Some economists estimate that worldwide ecosystem services are worth over $125 trillion a year.
Here in Moffat County, we have been wise stewards of our natural resources. We have some of the cleanest water, most intact habitat and abundant wildlife found anywhere in the United States. Our hunting and tourism industries have long been a mainstay for our economy. Because of this legacy of care, we are poised to take advantage of new market-based approaches to conservation. One such program, a habitat exchange program, was initiated in May by Governor Hickenlooper’s Executive Order for “Conserving Greater Sage-Grouse Habitat.”
Vermillion Ranch in far northwest Moffat County is owned and operated by the Dickinson family. They are the first to participate in the voluntary, market-based conservation program known as the Colorado Habitat Exchange. Based on the idea that incentives are an important tool to encourage on the ground improvements, the Hickenlooper administration has helped to create this program. It helps conserve sagebrush for sage grouse, mule deer and over 350 other species of plants and animals. It allows energy companies and developers that fragment or degrade grouse habitat to purchase “credits” from landowners, such as the Dickinsons, to mitigate, or offset, their impacts. In return, the landowners agree to protect and restore critical wintering, breeding, and nesting grounds for the bird.
Restoration projects could include removing juniper trees that overtake sagebrush, fencing areas to reduce deer browsing on new sage, thinning out vegetation where it’s drying up meadows, and using prescribed fires to create habitat. According to ecologist Holly Copeland, a staff scientist with The Nature Conservancy, the Dickinsons’ ranchlands have been serving as testing grounds for the market this summer, so the program’s science team can refine and calibrate its measurements of habitat impacts and benefits — “debits” and “credits.” While Colorado’s program is in its infancy, from North Carolina to California there are six other similar exchange programs in the United States. Many of these programs are backed by environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund as well as by governments, private landowners, and industry.
At Conservation Colorado, we have a 50 years legacy in the state and well over a decade here in Northwestern Colorado of supporting efforts like the Colorado Habitat Exchange to bring businesses, private landowners, and conservation-minded people together to improve Colorado’s air, water and land for health wildlife and communities. The experiment happening on Vermillion Ranch is a great start. As this program builds from one ranch to dozens, we can expect the process to stimulate our economy.
I’ve been told that conservation is a luxury undertaken only when times are good since we “can’t have our cake and eat it too.” My answer is to bake a bigger cake! By working creatively together and viewing conservation concerns as opportunities not just problems we can come together as a community and capitalize on our amazing natural resources.
Sasha Nelson is the field organizer in Craig for Conservation Colorado.