Conservancy Talk Conservancy Talk: The Green Blog of The Nature Conservancy Wed, 17 Dec 2014 13:44:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Great Black Swamp and Toledo’s Water Crisis Wed, 17 Dec 2014 08:01:17 +0000 This past August, when a bloom of toxic blue-green algae settled like a Biblical plague over Lake Erie’s western basin, infiltrating water-supply intakes and turning off the taps for a half million residents of Toledo for most of a weekend, talk eventually turned to an often-forgotten wetland known as the Great Black Swamp.

Today, few outside of northwest Ohio know the story of this sprawling landscape, because very little of the original swamp remains. But when European settlers first reached the western shores of Lake Erie, they encountered a forested wetland that covered nearly 4,800 square miles in Ohio and Indiana. That’s the size of Connecticut or, for a like comparison, approaching half the original land cover of Florida’s Everglades.

“We proceeded on to the foot of the rapids the Swamp being without intermission from knee Deep to Belly Deep to our horses for 8 or 10 mile together,” reads a journal entry by Captain Robert Lucas, who slogged through the Great Black Swamp during the War of 1812. On a second visit: “Traveled about 25 miles, a very rainy day and encamped in what is Called the Black Swamp, had a Disagreeable night of wet and Musketoes.”

The End of the Swamp

It was by any measure a big swamp, covered by towering hardwood forests, majestic and impenetrable, teeming with wild game, and the awestruck immigrant farmers… hated it. It was in their view a pestilential menace and barrier to prosperity, and as soon as possible they began the business of draining it. They felled the massive trees, sent the best lumber back east for ship-building, built their houses and barns with the remainder, and used any scrap lumber to fuel furnaces in which they fired clay drainage tile. The clay tile was used to line drainages ditches, which at first were dug by hand.

Innovation, necessity’s spawn, makes any job easier, and when it came to rendering northwest Ohio suitable for crops, the face of that innovation was James Hill. Mr. Hill was the sort of inventive spirit we celebrate in can-do America, the protagonist in a story of an ordinary man who would create a machine to slay giants. And the giant he slew was the Great Black Swamp.

The Buckeye Traction Ditcher. "Granddad of them all." Image © Hancock Historical Museum, Findlay, Ohio.
The Buckeye Traction Ditcher. “Granddad of them all.” Image © Hancock Historical Museum, Findlay, Ohio.

Hill designed the Buckeye Steam Traction Ditcher, an excavation contraption that could dig a ditch faster than a team of 15 men working by hand. You can see a version of it here or visit the Hancock Historical Museum in Findlay, Ohio, where one of the Buckeye ditchers holds a place of honor. On display, its steam boiler, belts, and massive digging wheel can’t be masked by bright paint and cheerful lighting—it has the look of an industrial menace from a Thomas Hardy novel. But it was acclaimed in its day and still is recognized as a ground-breaking invention (literally and figuratively) by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Between 1890 and 1920, thousands of miles of underground drainage tile was laid in Ohio–15,000 miles was required just to drain the Great Black Swamp. Excess water from the fields leached into the tiles, which eventually emptied into open ditches (which had been known as ‘creeks’ until the settlers straightened and dredged them to make the water flow faster). These altered tributaries eventually emptied into the Maumee River.

At the time, settlers probably didn’t recognize that by draining the Great Black Swamp, they destroyed the kidneys that filtered the water of Lake Erie’s largest tributary. Intact, the combination of the swamp and the Maumee River sent clean water into Lake Erie’s western basin, nourishing one of the most productive fisheries in all the Great Lakes. The swamp also provided habitat for abundant wildlife and was an important stopover site for migratory waterfowl.

“…by draining the Great Black Swamp, they destroyed the kidneys that filtered the water of Lake Erie’s largest tributary.”

But Hill was most assuredly a hero in his day, for swamps were viewed as frightening places of disease and wild animals. And when it was drained, the triumphant farmers discovered that centuries of decaying swamp vegetation had created organic-rich soil that became—and still is—some of the most productive farmland in the country.

Innovation’s Cost

Ohio has always fancied itself a center of innovation, and while the Buckeye ditcher doesn’t have the glamour of the Wright brothers’ flyer or the daily application of Edison’s light bulb, it ranks right up there in terms of its historical significance. The draining of the swamp is still celebrated in parts of Ohio where it opened the doors to settlement. And the Buckeye Steam Traction Ditcher went on to drain portions of the Everglades and other wetlands from Louisiana to Africa.

But as there often is with large-scale manipulation of nature, there was a cost to all this innovation.

Today, up to 40 percent of the farmlands in the Midwest are tiled, draining soils that grow high yields of corn, soybeans, and other crops. Those yields get a boost from modern fertilizers, a mix of nitrogen and phosphorus applied annually and—for the most part—taken up and utilized by the growing plants.

But some of that nitrogen and phosphorus doesn’t get used, and the excess is washed off by rains and eventually winds up in either the Great Lakes or the Gulf of Mexico (via the Mississippi River), where it fuels unnatural blooms of algae. For the past several years, these blooms of blue-green algae have been growing in size and toxicity in several Great Lakes hotspots, including Lake Erie’s western basin, Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, and Lake Michigan’s Green Bay. The toxicity comes from cyanobacteria, produced by the blooms under certain condition.

Algae bloom in Lake Erie in 2009. © T. Archer/NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Library
Algae bloom in Lake Erie in 2009. © T. Archer/NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Library

At high concentrations, the cyanobacteria can reach dangerous levels – as they did this past summer near Toledo, forcing residents to line up for bottled water because the tap water was unfit for drinking, bathing, or cooking. These blooms have before more frequent and more intense over the past several summers in Lake Erie, leading to closed beaches and health warnings and threatening the tourist economy of the lakeside communities.

When the blooms die and decompose, they can also cause low-oxygen ‘dead zones’ in the lake, killing fish and causing the water to stink.

And now, scientists are beginning to realize just how much phosphorus drains off farmland through the drainage tile system. In the past, the effort to reduce phosphorus in the lake has focused on the nutrient running off the soil surface during rain events.

An article published in October in the Journal of Environmental Quality details research conducted in Ohio and Indiana showing that nearly 50 percent of the phosphorus that drains into waterways does so through the tile drainage system, a percentage much higher than previously thought.

A Modern Quandary

And so, a heroic effort to create an agrarian paradise from swamp land has left a legacy that continues to poison one of the largest freshwater ecosystems in the world, and leaves us with a modern quandary. Without drainage, these lands will not grow crops to help feed a growing global population. But without controlling the phosphorus flowing into Lake Erie, we threaten local economies, an important natural resource, and human health.

Toxic algae surrounding the water intake in Lake Erie's Maumee Bay. © John Delmotte
Toxic algae surrounding the water intake in Lake Erie’s Maumee Bay. © John Delmotte

It will take a collective effort on par with the draining of the Great Black Swamp to reverse this trend and reduce the flow of phosphorus into Lake Erie by 40 percent – the amount scientists say is needed to curb the algae blooms. The Nature Conservancy has been working with farmers, fertilizer suppliers, university extension programs, soil and water agencies and many other groups to find a solution to this problem. We’ve witnessed technological innovations that would impress James Hill, including filtration systems at the edges of farm fields, injection systems for keeping fertilizer from washing off fields, drainage ditches designed to filter farm runoff.

We’re working to restore a fraction of the Great Black Swamp, restoring wetlands in key places between fields and the lake, because we know that nature can be one of most effective allies in this effort.

We know it’s going to take a concerted effort on many fronts to drastically reduce phosphorus entering the lake. But mostly, it’s going to take the kind of spirit that we celebrate in can-do America. The kind of technological innovation, cooperative enterprise, and dogged persistence it took to drain the Great Black Swamp. We’ll need to harness the collective spirit of modern-day James Hills, to undo the unintended consequences created by the farm drainage system, and restore Lake Erie to health.

For more information about The Nature Conservancy’s work to battle algae blooms in the Great Lakes, see

Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.


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Can the Royal Couple Make Conservation Cool? Thu, 11 Dec 2014 19:01:24 +0000 This was a big week in the U.S. for Prince William and Kate Middleton, future King and Queen of England. They met President Obama, LeBron “King” James, and Jay-Z and Beyonce (current royal couple of pop-culture America). It was for both of them, their first visit to New York. Judging from the adoring press, it seems the people of the Big Apple found it quite amusing too.

And it was a big week for some of the world’s most threatened wildlife as well. Prince William joined with Jim Kim, President of the World Bank Group, to announce a huge and carefully crafted strategy to help end illegal wildlife trade.

We at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) are a part of this effort, as one of seven global conservation NGOs partnering with the Royal Foundation in United for Wildlife.

I was our lucky representative at the World Bank on Monday and later in the day in the owner’s box at the Brooklyn Nets’ Barclay Stadium, dining with the Royal Couple, some of our own key supporters and partners, and some of the stars of the NBA, with whom United for Wildlife has just announced a major partnership. I was impressed with the deep, genuine concern on this issue expressed around the table, from my conservation partners to the hard-nosed New York City bankers.

But let’s not mistake the glitz of Jay-Z and Beyonce and the on-court genius of James (who barely had to get out of second gear as the Cavaliers dispatched the Brooklyn Nets with disdainful ease), for being the whole story. Beneath the clever gloss, is a deeply researched and thoughtfully constructed mission to save some of the world’s most threatened and charismatic species.

African elephants are being decimated by poachers. © Robert Granzow
African elephants are being decimated by poachers. © Robert Granzow

As we waited for delayed flights in winter traffic from Washington to New York, I had time to reflect on how amazing it is that the monarchy in my home country has successfully made conservation one of their core commitments over multiple generations. Even in the modern era in which the monarch is often relegated to a figurehead, conservation is one area where they are exhibiting extraordinarily high value to the rest of us. And there is one theme to their approach in particular that the environmental movement can learn from.

In 1986, HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh – Prince William’s 93-year-old grandfather – personally convened, for the first time, the Assisi Symposium of leaders of five of the world’s leading Faith groups to explore what they could collectively do to stem the decline in the natural world – leading to the Assisi Declaration. Interestingly, he still tells the story of how he was rejected by the conservation establishment at least three times when he proposed this, before eventually getting his way.

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Conservation Legacy

The Duke of Edinburgh’s brilliance was that he saw that what was urgently needed between diverse faith groups and scientists was not to try to reach a consensus and issue a common plan, but rather let each faith express its convictions and determine actions separately, but after listening to others and sharing their views and insights with all participants.

Nine years later, a convening organization called the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) was formed. By following this same flexible and inclusive model, ARC has been responsible for a number of environmental successes, including protecting threatened wildlife.

In 2012, in partnership with ARC, 50 African religious leaders pledged to counter the illegal wildlife trade through awareness raising and action. In 2014, the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) issued the first ever fatwa (edict) for the environment, requiring the country’s over 200 million Muslims to protect threatened species. This is a powerful statement that will have a major impact in a country home to rhinos, tigers and elephants.

This general principle of joining in diversity, is now (after the false starts of many previous meetings) being recognized as a key organizing principle for the UN climate change meeting (COP20) in Lima, which draws to a close this week. As the world’s governments prepare for what could potentially be a major breakthrough on addressing global emissions at next year’s meeting in Paris, an increasing number of countries, not the least of which is China, appear to be closer to taking on their own national actions – and accept that they’ll be different from country to country – in our broader shared fight to mitigate climate change.

An Exercise in Collaboration

For Will and Kate, their conservation work carries forward this same hallmark approach. They have conceived United for Wildlife as a collaboration exercise, but they are not wasting time and energy trying to force conformity where it is not productive.

For example, the Conservancy’s Africa team has just participated in a joint analysis to identify 230 key sites around the globe that are critical to protecting the four species – elephants, rhinos, tigers and pangolin – on which United for Wildlife is initially focused. Each organization will continue to do its own anti-poaching work and community engagement, and will use information technology in the way that works best for its team on the ground.

But – and this is the secret sauce – there will now be a unified view on how the work all adds up to a systematic solution. Data and evidence will be shared in co-developed applications, which apply commonly agreed upon standards. Learnings will be shared. And, ideas will be tested, discarded, and built upon where there is robust evidence of effectiveness.

And, by collectively seeing the big picture (the current estimate of the initiative’s aggregate funding need is US 70 million), we can each go, separately, to our supporters with a story that gives some hope for a truly big win, not just an isolated skirmish.

The Royal Couple receives gifts from NBA Star LeBron James (including a small jersey for Prince George) during their visit to New York. © 2014 NBA/Getty Images
The Royal Couple receives gifts from NBA Star LeBron James (including a small jersey for Prince George) during their visit to New York. © 2014 NBA/Getty Images

It is early days, but United for Wildlife is setting itself up to deliver what it promises: to be far more than the sum of its parts. This is a lesson that should be carried over to other engagements between public, private and civil society agents—celebrating, rather than deliberating over, our diverse perspectives, needs, and solutions, while working towards a clearly defined and shared common goal. If the climate talks in Lima can carry that mentality forward into Paris, we’ll have a far stronger chance of a successful outcome a year from now.

Of course, it can’t hurt that when the Royal Couple goes to a basketball game in Brooklyn they get a rousing ovation (cameras and iPhones flashing), and LeBron James presents baby George with a mini Cavs jersey. Prince William and Kate Middleton have made royalty cool again, and there is a real chance they can do the same thing for conservation.


Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
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Seeing the Salmon Forest through the Trees Mon, 08 Dec 2014 17:46:39 +0000 “We should create a hashtag for this assignment,” said Taylor Rees, the freelance producer who traveled with Travis Rummel of Felt Soul Media and me on a 10-day trip into Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. We were there documenting the deep connection between people and salmon on Prince of Wales Island, and the efforts that are taking place to ensure that connection can continue for generations to come.

“How about #salmonforest?” Travis suggested. Salmon forest. It was the perfect tag for our assignment — salmon is king in this region, and salmon needs forest to survive.

Clear-cutting of Tongass National Forest at Natzuhini River on Prince of Wales Island © Erika Nortemann/TNC
Clear-cutting of Tongass National Forest at Natzuhini River on Prince of Wales Island © Erika Nortemann/TNC

Alaska’s Prince of Wales (POW) Island was considered Ground Zero for Alaska’s timber industry at a time when the rules were different — as a result, many thousands of acres now await restoration. Healthy forests help keep rivers and streams healthy, which help keep the salmon population strong and the fishery sustainable for subsistence, commercial and recreational fishing.

During our time on POW, we worked with the Haida Tribe in Hydaburg to tell their story of how they rely on salmon for food all year long, and are conducting fish surveys to help get their streams protected under Alaska state law.

Restoring woody debris to Ten-Mile screen to improve habitat for salmon. © Ericka Nortemann/TNC
Restoring woody debris to Ten-Mile screen to improve habitat for salmon. © Ericka Nortemann/TNC

We also documented the U.S. Forest Service’s efforts to restore vital salmon habitat by putting trees and other woody debris back into rivers, and we visited Good Faith Lumber Company, a new partner for the Conservancy in an effort to move sawmills and the timber industry toward young growth timber and develop new markets for second-generation wood.

The trip was a wildly successful on-the-ground shoot, but I was still missing the ‘big picture’ shot.

Keat's Inlet on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska's Tongass National Forest. © Erika Nortemann
Keat’s Inlet on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. © Erika Nortemann

We weren’t able to schedule a fly-over during the assignment, but it just so happened that I was able to take front seat (next to the pilot) on the commercial flight back to mainland Ketchikan from the Tlingit village of Klawock on POW. It was an early morning flight, and the conditions were perfect for aerial photography. I started out shooting like a tourist, but when the sun broke free from the clouds and turned a beautiful landscape into a stunning landscape, I quickly jumped into photographer mode and started making the most of the opportunity to show the bigger picture of this story.

Aerial view of Southeast Alaska's Tongass National Forest during flight from Prince of Wales Island to Ketchikan © Erika Nortemann/TNC
Aerial view of Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest during flight from Prince of Wales Island to Ketchikan © Erika Nortemann/TNC

To make this image, I used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at f/8, 1/50th of a second at ISO 100.

In order to ensure a bright future for the Tongass National Forest, we must see the salmon forest through the trees.

Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
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Protected Areas: Much More Than Pristine Nature Mon, 01 Dec 2014 21:01:54 +0000 Last month, more than 6,000 government, business, and civil society leaders gathered at the once-a-decade World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia to discuss the future of protected areas.

To some, protected areas may seem like “traditional” conservation—setting aside pristine places for the benefit of wildlife. And to be sure, protecting biodiversity remains at the very core of every conservation strategy in our toolbox.

But protected areas also do much more. From improving food and water security to reducing the impacts of climate change, well-planned and managed protected areas can provide important benefits to people too.

Australia was a great place to have this conversation. With about 5000 private protected areas covering 8.9 million hectares (22 million acres), the country has long recognized the value of its natural assets and pursued innovative conservation strategies to protect them. Take the country’s extraordinary coral reefs, which are world renowned for recreation and tourism. Continuing to strengthen the protection of these reefs will help build resilience against the threat of climate change. These habitats also provide natural barriers to storms, produce fish that fuel the region’s economy, and protect source water–critical services that coastal ecosystems provide around the world.

A new TNC study looked at the multiple benefits of healthy coral reefs and mangrove forests, and how well national parks and reserves currently protect those benefits. The results were mixed. Not surprisingly, reefs that bring in high tourism revenue are fairly well protected. In contrast, there are still great opportunities in most regions to increase the protection of reefs that have high values for coastal protection and fisheries production. While we have a long way to go to refine these maps and make specific recommendations for countries, our goal is to encourage policy makers and planners to consider and include ecosystem services –coastal protection, carbon storage, and fisheries, for example – in their protection plans.

One exciting commitment at the Congress was the Australian government’s pledge of an additional $AUD 6 million to support The Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI-CFF) —a joint commitment by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste to protect marine and coastal resources across the region. The Initiative is demonstrating the potential social and economic impacts of an integrated strategy for conservation and development, with protected areas at its foundation.  The CTI-CFF has brought significant progress to protecting the reefs of the Coral Triangle that support the livelihoods and food security of nearly 400 million people in the region, and millions more living in other parts of the world.

We were also pleased to see delegates calling for a stronger recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples in protected areas management. With their important traditional knowledge and vast experience as sustainable environmental stewards, Indigenous peoples are uniquely positioned as conservation leaders.  At the Congress, The Nature Conservancy shared best practices from our programs and partnerships with Indigenous peoples in the Amazon, Africa, Australia, and Canada to help set an inclusive, rights-based agenda for design and management of protected areas.

From China’s commitment to increase its protected areas territory by at least 20% to South Africa’s pledge to triple ocean protection in the next ten years, a number of countries stepped up at the Congress to demonstrate their leadership. Just as important, the Congress resulted in “The Promise of Sydney,” a bold new agenda for protected areas that will guide development and policy around the world.  The Promise charts a pathway for reaching a global target to protect at least 17% of land and 10% of oceans by 2020.

We applaud the Congress for putting forth an ambitious agenda that highlights the central role of protected areas not just in halting biodiversity loss, but also in tackling climate change, reducing the risk and impact of natural disasters, improving food and water security and promoting human health.

As IUCN Director General Julia Marton-Lefevre said at the Congress, “Protected areas are by far the best investment the world can make to address some of today’s biggest development challenges.” Going forward, we must continue to better articulate the many benefits provided by natural habitats to ensure that protected areas live up to this promise.

Image: Soft and hard corals growing next to a mangrove swamp at Kofiau. Kofiau is part of the Raja Ampat Islands of Indonesia located in the Coral Triangle. 

Photo © 2010 Jeff Yonover

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Requiem for a Shark Dog Mon, 01 Dec 2014 08:00:23 +0000 When The Nature Conservancy bought Palmyra from the Fullard-Leo family in the spring of 2000, one of the conditions of the sale was that the existing pets—three dogs and two cats—be allowed to live out their lives on the atoll.

Two of the dogs died within a few years, but the other lived to be at least 15. His name was Dadu, and when he was laid to rest a year ago this fall the atoll lost its most famous resident.

“Dadu was Palmyra’s shark-chasing dog,” says Conservancy marine scientist Kydd Pollock. “He wasn’t scared of anything.”

Beloved by staff and celebrated by visiting researchers, Dadu was the subject of blogs and YouTube videos and at one point had his own Facebook page. At the south-eastern end of the atoll there is even a small islet that now bears his name.

Dadu was a mongrel, a poi dog. He had a coarse, light brown coat and big black protruding ears. His many shark encounters had left scars on the side of his belly, and a chunk of his left ear was missing—the result of being picked on by the other dogs when he was young.

Located 1,000 miles south of Hawai'i, Palmyra Atoll is one of the most spectacular marine wilderness areas on Earth. ©Tim Calver
Located 1,000 miles south of Hawai’i, Palmyra Atoll is one of the most spectacular marine wilderness areas on Earth. ©Tim Calver

But as the only dog on a remote Pacific atoll, he led a charmed life. He could run and swim to his heart’s content and was well cared for and loved. Staff took him for walks along the beach and sewed him sweaters that he wore when it got cold. He pretty much slept where he wanted and was rarely denied his two favorite treats: sashimi and spam.

“He sure loved his spam,” recalled Katie Stadler, one of Palmyra rotating chefs and the woman who ran the galley. “He would sit, shake hands and give five just for a small taste of this treat….But the price to pay after such an indulgence would send everyone running. Dadu was known for his silent but deadly gas attacks!”

Growing up Wild

dadu-collage-200-x-554It’s believed that Dadu came to Palmyra as young pup from nearby Christmas Island, and that he was trained to hunt by a Frenchman who worked as the caretaker on the atoll. But at some point the Frenchman left and there was an eighth-month period when the dogs had to fend for themselves, subsisting on rats, crabs and juvenile sharks.

“It was an amazing sight to see the dogs scan the lagoon waters for a protruding shark fin,” says Stadler, who first met Dadu while serving as a chef on a VIP trip to Palmyra in 1999, before the Conservancy purchase. “Once they saw one, they’d take chase, herding the shark to shallow coral outcroppings, where they would surround and capture it.”

Growing up in the wild made Dadu very different from a typical domestic dog. “He was an intriguing animal,” says Pollock.  “He had this knowledge of the island that made him fascinating to watch.”

Yet like most dogs, Dadu intensely disliked baths and anything else that put a crimp in his born-free lifestyle.  David Sellers, the Conservancy’s operations manager for Palmyra, recalled the time he had to put a cone around Dadu’s neck to keep him from licking a wound.

“One night we were sitting around laughing about how he looked like a lamp,” he says. “I think Dadu knew we were laughing at him, because he gave us an indignant look and got up and left the room. About an hour later he comes back and there’s no cone. And to this day, we still don’t know what he did with it.”

A Fond Farewell

Well into his later years, Dadu remained a vital, active dog. But when his health started to decline, his hearing was among the first things to go. One day during a 2012 runway refurbishment project, Dadu took a nap behind a 4 x 4 truck that had come to pick up food supplies for the crew. When the driver re-started the engine, Dadu didn’t react and the rear wheels ran over his back hindquarters.

Dadu resting at the research station. ©Tim Calver
Dadu resting at the research station. ©Tim Calver

“Dadu made this loud yelping sound and dragged himself over to the bushes,” says Sellers. “But within a few days it was hard to tell that he had ever been injured. After that, I thought Dadu was indestructible and might live forever. ”

But Dadu’s health continued to worsen and last fall he enjoyed his final days on the atoll. Today, he lies buried beneath the Chinese lantern trees along the path to North Beach, where he loved to walk and chase sharks.

Says Katie Stadler, “If you look at the trees, they look like they are upside down women, their roots being their arms, embracing Dadu as he rests.”


Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the opinions of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
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Cities Should Look to Nature to Bridge Investment Gap in Water Wed, 26 Nov 2014 08:00:08 +0000 From Los Angeles to Mumbai, natural solutions have the potential to save cities $890m a year in water treatment costs alone.

The water sector has always struggled for investment, and each year the gap between dollars being spent and dollars that need to be spent on critical water infrastructure grows. The US, for example, is facing an $84bn funding gap by 2020, and it is estimated to grow to more than $140bn by 2040.

Despite numbers like these from around the world, investment in water remains low as cities struggle to keep annual budgets out of the red. Governments, international organisations and water utilities are trying to find solutions that provide for growing global populations, but traditional financing of engineered structures cannot get us there alone. We need to think beyond city boundaries and look to nature for a solution and an investment opportunity.

The provision of clean drinking water is arguably the most fundamental service provided by cities and utilities. It’s not only fundamental for sanitary living conditions; it’s expected by city residents. Despite this, cities struggle to access the capital required for the necessary investments to provide this “basic” service.

Urban Water Blueprint

A new report by The Nature Conservancy – the Urban Water Blueprint – shows one route out of this deadlock. And that route starts with realising where cities’ water comes from.

According to the report, some 823 million people live in the 100 largest cities around the world. These cities occupy less than 1% of our planet’s land area, but their source watersheds—the rivers, forests and other ecosystems from which they get their water—cover over 12%. That’s an area of land roughly the size of Russia. Some of these watersheds lay far outside of a city’s boundaries, and collectively, these cities transfer 3.2m cubic metres of water a distance of 5,700km every day to meet residents’ needs. As more people move into cities, the demand for water will continue to increase. This will require cities to better protect what limited supplies they have.

Watersheds are the most basic water supply infrastructure for cities. They collect, filter and transport water and can improve the quality of water that reaches cities. In fact, protecting water at its source can be cheaper and more efficient than treating it after it has already been polluted. Restoring habitats such as forests and stream banks, as well as making adjustments to the way we use agricultural lands, can reduce sediment and nutrient pollutants in water sources, offsetting the need for investment in more advanced water treatment technologies.

By targeting specific activities to a small fraction of land, millions of people can experience better water quality. For example, improved farming practices, such as the use of cover crops on fallowed fields or wetland construction near streams and rivers, have the potential of reducing sediment and phosphorus concentration from fertilizer runoff. By applying these practices to 6.4m hectares of farm and ranch land (slightly smaller than the size of Ireland) located in watersheds, more than 600 million people could see an improvement in their water quality.

Planted forests border the Sao Francisco Verdadeiro River north of the city of Foz do Iguaçu, Parana state, Brazil. ©Scott Warren
Planted forests border the Sao Francisco Verdadeiro River near the city of Foz do Iguaçu, Parana, Brazil. ©Scott Warren

This realisation changes the boundaries of the water challenge, even for the most complex environments. About 172 million people living in some of the world’s largest cities drink water that has traveled through land that is more than 50% cropland. By knowing how land is used within a watershed, cities and utilities can start to understand the opportunities for improving water quality and use nature as a tool to do that.

Mumbai and Los Angeles

Take the case of Mumbai. In the past 300 years, the city has grown from a collection of seven small, swampy islands to the sprawling cultural and financial heart of India that around 14 million people call home. Like many large cities, stability and reliability of the water supply is a concern for water managers. Over the years, managers have looked outside the city’s boundaries for water. More than two-thirds of the lands in the watersheds that supply Mumbai’s water are devoted to agriculture. The city could reduce nutrient levels in its water supply by working with farmers in the watershed to implement better farming practices on just a few thousand hectares.

On the other side of the world, Los Angeles could benefit from improved farming practices in its distant watersheds, too. Some 90% of the city’s water travels an average distance of 71km, some of which is through the agriculturally-dominated Central Valley picking up agrichemicals and sediment runoff from fields along the way. The city could improve water quality and reduce treatment costs by working with farmers on just 1,000 hectares to reduce field nutrient runoff.

Savings of $890 Million a Year in Water Treatment Costs

There are many cities and utilities that could see similar results by adding nature to their water treatment toolbox. In fact, out of all 534 cities analyzed, one in four that apply natural solutions to their watersheds could realise a positive return on investment. Natural solutions have the potential to save cities $890m a year in water treatment costs alone. Significant additional savings will come from avoided capital expenditures for additional treatment plants.

Cities, whether in the red or black, will have to look well beyond their walls to overcome the investment gap in the water sector. Nature can play a critical role in improving water quality and reducing water treatment costs, but it will require the water sector to redefine its scope, as sustainable farming, ranching, and forest management all become investable opportunities in the provision of clean, safe water to people.


Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
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Carrying the Torch from Arkansas to Zambia Mon, 24 Nov 2014 08:00:29 +0000 Nothing reminds you that you’re not in Arkansas anymore like a pair of lions blocking your path to dinner.

One May night last year, my colleagues Mike Melnechuk, Roger Mangham and I were walking from our tents to the dining room at the Mukambi Safari Lodge in central Zambia when our flashlight’s beam revealed two sets of gleaming eyes in the tall grass about 60 feet ahead. Not wanting to become dinner ourselves, we backed slowly into a nearby shower building and waited there for nearly an hour until the big cats decided to continue their evening stroll.

As the adrenaline from that encounter faded, I reminded myself that humans pose more danger to wildlife in Zambia than vice versa. Poaching is one of the biggest environmental concerns facing 22,480-square-kilometer Kafue National Park, where elephant, buffalo, cheetah, leopard and antelope roam. The growth of ecologically responsible tourism—Mukambi is one of at least 15 safari camps around the park—is helping to bolster conservation efforts and create an economic alternative to poaching.

Though our wildlife in Arkansas is not quite as dramatic as Zambia’s, our landscapes have more in common than you might imagine. Both include a mix of open grasslands and forested areas. And in both places, the combination of hot, dry seasons and windswept plains can be a recipe for destructive wildfires.

As a fire ecologist with The Nature Conservancy since 2001, I know that fire doesn’t always have to be an enemy. Used properly, it can be a powerful ally that helps rejuvenate the land and prevent larger blazes. For the past three years, I have traveled to Zambia to help our partners apply this principle to their own situation.

In Arkansas, as in much of the American South, the landscape looks very different from they way it did when fire was allowed to clear debris and regulate forest growth at a natural pace. The past century’s emphasis on fire suppression caused forests to grow more densely, crowding out sunlight and greatly reducing the variety of our woodland plant and animal species. By reintroducing fire to the landscape with carefully controlled burns, the Conservancy and its partners have been able to restore ecological balance and native species in places like the Ozark and Ouachita national forests.

The situation in Zambia is a little more complex. Kafue, established in the 1950s, is one of the world’s largest national parks—more than twice the size of Yellowstone—but it doesn’t have a lot of roads or other infrastructure that can be used for fire management. In recent decades, as much as 80 percent of the park has burned in a single year, causing populations of grazing animals to decline. Many of these fires occur late in the dry season, when they burn hotter and faster and cause more extensive damage, often displacing wildlife and discouraging tourism.

Though the Zambian Wildlife Authority had been doing an admirable job of trying to curb late-season fires through early-season burns, it did not have adequate equipment, manpower or resources for the scope of the problem in Kafue. The Conservancy’s new Zambia field office collaborated with the U.S. Forest Service’s International Programs to offer assistance starting in 2011. Since Zambia and Arkansas have similar topographies and types of vegetation, our team was asked to help develop fire-management strategies for Kafue.

When we first got involved, the safari operators and park rangers were blaming each other for causing the fires. So Dan Kelly, a Conservancy geographic analyst, used satellite imagery to map the blazes and determine their scale and origins. He discovered that most were starting outside the park and were associated with poaching and other illegal activity. Once everyone understood the real source of the problem, they began working together.

Prescribed burning in Zambia's Kafue National Park. © McRee Anderson
Prescribed burning in Zambia’s Kafue National Park. © McRee Anderson

We established annual fire-management training sessions that have covered a range of strategic and practical concerns: setting objectives for each burn; tailoring the timing, frequency and methods to the situation; and sharing information with the public along the way. The Conservancy has also provided the local wildlife authorities in Kafue with modern equipment: drip torches to start small fires, as well as rubber fire swatters and backpack-style sprayers to keep flames in check.

Equipped with the proper tools and techniques, Kafue’s caretakers can now conduct early burns more efficiently to curb catastrophic wildfires—freeing up time and resources to fight poaching instead. This year, for the first time, four Zambian officials came to Arkansas to observe and take part in planned burns around the state.

Among their wildlife sightings was a red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species whose habitat is dependent on fire, and one of our program’s success stories. It may not have been as fearsome as a lion, but as a symbol of how we can solve complex conservation problems when people work together, it was every bit as thrilling.

McRee Anderson is the director of The Nature Conservancy’s fire-restoration program in Arkansas. This essay appeared in the Oct/Nov issue of Nature Conservancy magazine.

Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. – See more at:
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Are Marine Protected Areas in the Right Places to Support People? Tue, 18 Nov 2014 16:31:44 +0000 I’m at the World Parks Congress, a-once-a-decade global meeting of scientists, protected-area managers and other experts to focus on the state and future of national parks and nature reserves. There’s so much to talk about here—new science and technologies to monitor parks, ways to engage local communities, and government commitments to add new protected areas to a growing global list.

But I’m focused on a different question: I want to know whether national parks and nature reserves are located in places where they can successfully protect some of nature’s most important services to people, including providing natural barriers to storms, producing fish, storing carbon, and supporting tourism and recreation industries?

In advance of the Congress, colleagues and I conducted new research looking at the location of protected coral reefs and mangrove forests, in particular—iconic habitats with immense importance for both people and nature.

Along with colleagues at Cambridge University, World Resources Institute, UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre and BirdLife International, we are releasing some preliminary findings to coincide with the Congress.

In our discussion paper, we start with five global maps focused on key services coral reefs and mangroves provide to people. Specifically, we examined the tourism, coastal protection and fisheries services of coral reefs; and the carbon storage and fisheries benefits of mangrove forests. We then apply a simple overlay of maps that reveal how many of these services are contained in the world’s protected areas.

The answers are, not surprisingly, mixed. However, the message is a bit clearer: outside of the tourism industry, we must do a better job of articulating the full value to people of these ecosystems, and protecting the places that maximize this value.

Mangrove forests are “fish factories” that support fishing jobs and food security for many coastal communities. Globally, 36 percent of mangroves are in protected areas, but a much lower percentage of their fisheries values fall in these sites. Indonesia, for example has 20 percent of its mangroves in protected areas, but only 10 percent of its fisheries production value is protected. This is hardly a wise allocation given the crucial industry to the region, both for jobs and sustenance, let alone the growing global appetite. These numbers are similar for nearby countries, and the East and Southeast Asia region overall.

By contrast, tourism values the world over, are generally well protected. In Australia, with its iconic Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, tourism is a major industry. While 83 percent of all Australia’s coral reefs are in protected areas, an estimated 91 percent of the tourism income from coral reefs is derived from sites in protected areas.

Governments and communities seem to better understand the value of tourism, and the economic and social benefits of safeguarding such value. At a World Parks Congress reception celebrating recent successes of the Coral Triangle Initiative with The Nature Conservancy and partners, Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt said, “If the reef pays, the reef stays.”

In reality, ecosystems “pay” in many ways, but the challenge for the science and conservation field is to give the full suite of ecosystem values a voice that can influence governments. We need to do a better job of showing all the ways ecosystems “pay.” Going forward, we need to better articulate the other critical services provided by coastal and marine habitats, such as fish production and coastal protection. The global conservation community has talked a lot about these values, but ours is one of the first global studies to try and quantify their protection, and it is part of our wider initiative we call mapping ocean wealth.

The need is clear and urgent. With these ecosystems under increasing strain globally, we can’t wait ten years until the next World Parks Congress. We need to ensure that protected areas are indeed protecting the services people need, and that future designation and management of protected areas deliver for both people and nature. If we can better articulate their full value, we stand a better chance of protecting these critical places.

A summary of The Nature Conservancy’s work at World Parks Congress is available here.

Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. – See more at:
Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
Lizard Island, Australia © elmarte74/flickr under a creative commons license
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Bourbon, Bipartisanship and the Benefits of Nature Tue, 18 Nov 2014 08:00:12 +0000 President Obama and the next Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in a moment of statesmanship, searched for a bit of common ground the day after the November election. Tax reform? Trade agreements? How about a glass of Kentucky bourbon?

Maybe that proffered glass offers some big, unexpected opportunities—opportunities to bring Democrats and Republicans together around an environmental agenda.

How could this be? Environmental issues, after all, usually fall into the category of partisan conflict. But there’s a story behind that glass of bourbon. And it’s a story with bipartisan appeal and broad public support.

Bourbon is Kentucky’s own special whiskey—or “water of life.” Its heritage starts with the limestone waters of Kentucky’s landscape. The limestone, a natural filter, keeps the water clean. Its high pH even facilitates fermentation. For bourbon makers, investing in Mother Nature to sustain these waters is good for wildlife—and good for business, too.

The benefits of nature go well beyond securing a glass of good bourbon. Wetlands purify waters. Oyster reefs and coral reefs help reduce the impact to coastal communities from waves during storms. The benefits are nontrivial. Examining these benefits, The Nature Conservancy found that coral reefs can reduce wave energy by a whopping 97 percent.

Even in cities, nature can help. Planting trees and transforming concrete back into permeable surfaces—like grassy grounds—can keep cities cleaner, protect against flooding, and manage storm water runoff.

And investing in nature can offer cleaner, cheaper, smarter solutions to protecting cities from floods, keeping water clean, and, even reducing energy costs through the shade that trees provide. What’s not to like?

Voters have figured this out. Election Day 2014 brought the biggest land and water conservation funding victory in U.S. history. Nineteen states approved 27 state and local ballot measures that will bring over $29 billion for land and water protection. In many cases, these measures pulled support from more than two-thirds of voters, across the political spectrum.

Yes, these measures will bring new parks. But many of these ballot measures also aimed to invest in nature with an eye to its contribution to reducing flooding and storm damage and protecting water for communities.

This focus brought new partners to the conservation table. Infrastructure contractors, emergency planners, engineers, and others joined conservation enthusiasts to bring these ballot measures to overwhelming victories.

capitol tnc_58915745_preview_croppedAmerica voted for nature—in states, cities, and towns. When Obama and McConnell sit down for that glass of bourbon, they would do well to add conservation to their “to do” list of bipartisan opportunities.

In 2015, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, bedrock funding for nature, comes up for reauthorization. Its revenues do not come from taxpayers. They come from the public’s share of proceeds from federal oil and gas leases. Reauthorizing the fund, originally set at an annual $900 million for conservation, would help communities across America protect their drinking water and conserve lands and waters that keep communities, safe, prosperous and healthy.

With a growing population, more demands on water resources, and more people living along coasts subject to hazardous storms, investing in nature is not just nice. It is essential for community safety and basic needs.

There is even a potential bipartisan “smart regulations” agenda Democrats and Republicans can jointly embrace. When Philadelphia tried to use green rooftops and greenways to reduce overflows of storm water, it took years of negotiating with the Environmental Protection Agency to get approval for an approach that would do the job and cost the city less than building miles of new pipes and underground tunnels to manage the water.

These “green innovations” should not be so difficult—for cities or companies. Republicans, always on the alert for regulatory streamlining, and Democrats looking for environmental benefits, could join up for a regulatory “refresh” to help companies and communities that want to invest in nature’s solutions.

When those bourbon glasses are raised in a moment of comity, the president and Senator McConnell should think about that bourbon and the clean waters upon which it depends—and find some common ground for a new environmental agenda.

Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. – See more at:

Lynn Scarlett is the Conservancy’s managing director for public policy. From 2005-2009 she was deputy secretary at the Department of the Interior and also served four years as the Department’s assistant secretary for Policy, Management and Budget.

The post originally appeared on The Hill Congress Blog and is reprinted here with permission.

Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. – See more at:
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The Joys of Working Barefoot in a Photographer’s Paradise Mon, 17 Nov 2014 13:00:16 +0000 Texas, September 2014

By the time I arrived at Dolan Falls Preserve it was a critical moment for me where I need a mental oasis as much as a literal one. For three weeks I drove the entire span of the widest part of Texas during the hottest month of the year with the average temperature hovering near 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I was documenting four different properties for The Nature Conservancy, each one wildly different and incredibly beautiful.

Dolan, though, was the only preserve where as a photographer I could make great compositions while also getting a break from the heat by kicking off my hiking shoes and socks and working barefoot, tip-toeing from spot to spot surrounded by nothing but the trickling of the river.

Dolan Falls is an oasis of cascading waterfalls and cool, shallow, quiet pools of water amidst an otherwise arid and rocky landscape. When I first arrived on the preserve I immediately recognized it as a photographer’s paradise with ankle-deep streams of water flowing over smooth, warm rocks in all shapes, sizes and colors. There were so many different opportunities for unique compositions that I had difficulty deciding where to begin.

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Dolan Falls consists of 4,965 acres and is bolstered by an additional 157,994 acres that is either owned in fee or under Conservancy conservation easements along the Devils River.

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It is located at the intersection of three biological regions: the Edwards Plateau, Chihuahuan Desert and Rio Grande Plain brushland. This combination of terrain creates a landscape of outstanding beauty and diversity supported by the pristine waters of Dolan Springs, Dolan Creek and the Devils River.

All images © Ian Shive
Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. – See more at:
Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. – See more at:
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