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Climate & Energy
A Vision for Conservation in the West: Field Notes from a Strategic Convening

Brian Kittler

 Following the 2016 elections the Pinchot Institute convened conservation leaders to examine potential solutions to persistent challenges facing landscapes in the western U.S. The articles in this edition of The Pinchot Letter are inspired by this convening, with many insights from the event embedded throughout. The problems addressed are among the most pernicious in conservation, transcending the ebb and flow of political tides.

Our biggest conservation challenges cannot be solved by any one national policy, administrative rule, or any particular Presidential administration or Congress. Rather, the problems we face require a culture of compromise and experimentation, and making use of policy and finance to work across multiple levels of governance. Encouragingly, emerging paradigms in collaborative conservation now being applied across the public-private tapestry that is the American West are doing exactly this.

Themes from the Dialogue — Diagnosing Conservation Threats and Opportunities
Unconstrained development is a leading driver of ecosystem degradation. As we move toward the middle of this century two effects of growth bear special consideration—expansion of housing and other structures into wildlands and the expanding footprint of energy extraction, production, and transmission.

The number of homes and the infrastructure at risk of wildfire continues to grow, pressuring natural resources and the agencies managing them. Land-use policy is a pre-eminent example of the tension that exists in environmental policies grounded by federalism. Specifically, land-use decisions primarily made at the local level, are of national significance due to escalating state and federal expenditure on protecting structures in areas of high fire risk.

Continued expansion of low-density development into wildlands is largely unfettered across the West. Each new home makes fuel treatments and fire suppression all the more difficult and expensive, and actions presently taken to reduce forest fuels in the wildland-urban interface are inadequate when measured against the scale of the problem. The focus on homeowner education and technical assistance needs to continue, but a hard look at land-use policies and who pays for fire suppression is warranted.

The tentacles of sprawling energy infrastructure are reaching further and further across western forests and range, possibly impacting a land area the size of Texas between now and 2040.1 Even this estimate may be on the low side as it does not factor in the potential for increased interest in expanding energy development on public lands. Setting aside the aspirations of the 115th Congress and the White House, changes in energy demand, distribution, and supply that were already in motion suggest renewable energy installations and fossil fuel extraction will expand substantially in the coming decades.

Low-density development in the wildland-urban interface near the Front Range in Colorado. Credit: Brian KittlerMuch of the growth will occur in open space in the West where the resources are located, and where direct conflicts with people are more avoidable. Conflict over electricity transmission and pipeline proposals will continue. Mitigation procedures and smart planning are vital to avoid and minimize conflicts. Likewise, any calculation of the distribution of revenues from energy development on state and federal public lands must consider the long term costs of natural resource management and conservation across these lands.

As development in the wildland-urban interface and energy sprawl directly and indirectly stress large areas of public land, planning processes and agencies governing these lands, will increasingly need to address forces outside the management unit. For instance, as National Forests undertake Forest Plan revisions using the 2012 Planning Rule, lessons can be drawn from the landscape-scale thinking now permeating Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs). Ideally, such conservation planning processes are purposefully intertwined.

Similarly, moving from planning to implementation, as future project areas are mapped on Forests, state agencies, Resource Advisory Committees, Conservation Districts, and others, can lay the groundwork for complementary work off Forest. From fiduciary, ecological, and fire-management perspectives this modus operandi makes good sense. This way of working also helps facilitate the widespread and controlled reintroduction of fire into western landscapes.

Monitoring of the Front Range Stewardship Contract, Colorado. Credit: Brian KittlerThese are just a few reasons why a shift towards all lands management (ALM) as an operational paradigm is underway. When implementing individual projects, agencies and landowners are increasingly emphasizing ALM to better deploy resources to problems that often fail to respect ownership boundaries. Supporting this approach, a number of policies have been introduced in recent years to facilitate projects across public and private ownership. Prime examples are the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) Program, the Good Neighbor Authority, the Joint Chiefs Restoration Partnership, and the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, to name a few. These policies provide budgetary flexibility essential for ALM.

These policies also encourage leadership to emerge somewhat organically within ALM collaborative efforts from state, federal, and non-governmental entities—enabling resources to be placed on the ground more effectively. Moving forward into the next phase of ALM collaborative planning and implementation, a culture of experimentation could further promise new operational models, hopefully increasing cost-effectiveness. This will not necessarily require new or expanded authorities (although reauthorization of programs like the CFLR is important), but rather political will and social license for experimentation to occur.

Also vital to pilot testing of new policy concepts is improved outcome measuring and study of what is being learned. As has occurred with prior forays in policy experimentation, initiation need not be driven by Congress, rather as was the case with the Joint Chiefs Initiative and the origins of Stewardship End-Result Contracting, leadership can come from the field and administrators.

Given the combined impacts of climate change and the other threats of the Anthropocene, collaborative planning and implementation of natural resource management programs across all ownerships is likely the only viable path forward. Additionally, this needs to happen at scales matching “mega-disturbances” which increasingly stretch the mind and exhaust budgets.2 Budgetary and structural implications for agencies are significant, as mega-disturbances are forcing something akin to a perpetual disaster-response mode. Given the history of conflict in natural resource management, particularly around salvage timber on federal public lands, how can we begin to approach consensus on mere principles for responding to changes as large as the drought-driven die-off of more than 100 million trees in the Sierra Nevada or the mortality of more than 800 million trees in Colorado? Answers come in part via the process of collaborating.
Landscapes across the West have been transformed by large scale mortality events. Credit: Don Graham CC BY-SA 2.0
Finding durable solutions to conservation challenges equates on some levels to reframing the issue away from expenditure to investment.

At different stages in our national story we have invested in western lands in different ways as we sought different types of returns. For better or worse, the large water projects of the Bureau of Reclamation made cities in the desert a reality; post-World War II, timber from National Forests built many of the homes for the Greatest Generation to inhabit; and New Deal investments in the National Parks and National Forests laid the foundation for diverse recreation opportunities. So today, given the nature of our problems, what types of investments are needed and what returns should we expect?

For starters, investing in forest conservation and restoration can provide savings as evidenced in the emergence of water funds. This renewed focus on watershed investments in federal public lands recalls the whole reason these lands were conserved in the first place —to provide drinking water and to enable the development of human communities throughout the West. This foundational purpose still requires investment, but today innovative financing mechanisms can help. For instance, forest resiliency bonds are being tested and California’s recent Assembly Bill 2480 allows for the same bonding mechanisms used to build and maintain pipes and aqueducts to also apply to key forested watersheds. Likewise, programs to reintroduce fire to western lands can arguably be viewed as investments with the return coming in the form of reduced future expenditures in damage mitigation. What are the top restoration investments we should be making in the next decade to protect infrastructure like the Oroville dam in California?

Finally, the act of ecological restoration itself provides employment opportunities. In many cases forest restoration not only facilitates, but hinges directly upon new investment in sawmills and other wood processing infrastructure, which has economic ripple effects in rural communities.What lessons did we learn from the Great Recession and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act? Rather than scrambling to find shovel-ready projects to stave off the most deleterious effects of a future economic downturn, perhaps we as a nation would be better served by building the resilient watersheds and landscapes of the future with strategic investments made today. The opportunity is right in front of us to build a regenerative economy, one that not only builds wealth and well-being but tackles some of the most critical problems facing conservation.

Brian Kittler is the director of the Pinchot Western Region office.

A fly fisherman in Rocky Mountain National Park. Credit: Tim Wilson CC BY 2.0

1 Trainor A.M., McDonald R.I., Fargione J. (2016) Energy sprawl is the largest driver of land use change in United States. PLoS ONE 11(9): e0162269. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0162269
2 Millar, C. I., & Stephenson, N.L. (2015) Temperate forest health in an era of emerging megadisturbance. Science, 349(6250), 823-826.
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