Conservancy Talk Conservancy Talk: The Green Blog of The Nature Conservancy Mon, 26 Jan 2015 21:24:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Are the Best Years for Tropical Forest Conservation Still Ahead? Mon, 26 Jan 2015 21:24:25 +0000 I recently read an article in Ecosystem Marketplace“2014: the year in forest carbon” – that highlighted some of the successes in reducing tropical deforestation last year. Companies, organizations and governments made new pledges to end deforestation; buyer interest in avoided deforestation offsets tripled; and the Green Climate Fund passed the $10 billion threshold that can lead to a meaningful impact on climate change.

Reflecting back on year, I agree that good progress was made on the tropical forest front, but – as the Marketplace article recognizes – there is still much to be done, and reversing global deforestation remains a limited-time opportunity.

The coming years will be critical in determining whether we can successfully elevate project-based work and solutions to even larger pieces of land — transforming landscapes for the better and further normalizing low emissions development in countries rich with forests.

This expansion of low emissions development, known as a jurisdictional or landscape approach, can turn spirited commitments into actual results. Success, however, will require close cooperation and coordination between regional and national governments, indigenous groups, private companies and civil society.

I saw exactly this type of cooperation in action in Indonesia late last year, where the country is working to align economic incentives for sustainable land use with their needs to protect their environment and combat climate change.

On Indonesia’s island of Borneo – a place rich with biodiversity and also booming development – the district of Berau is combining an improvement in sustainable working conditions (including introducing integrated land-use planning, improving governance and increasing engagement with key players) with an increase in the scale of site-level activities through stronger community-led approaches, expanded certified timber and reduced-impact logging practices, and a new sustainable oil palm strategy.

But, how can we catalyze more collaboration and action at this landscape level?

New Report: Early Lessons from Jurisdictional REDD+ and Low Emissions Development Programs

The Nature Conservancy has just released a new report – “Early Lessons from Jurisdictional REDD+ and Low Emissions Development Programs” – which reinforces the idea that with the appropriate investment and stakeholder support, low emissions development programs have the potential to become models of forest-friendly development around the world.

The report assesses current projects taking place in Brazil, Indonesia, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Peru, Mexico and Nepal, and provides initial learnings from those projects that can be applied to others in the future.

Our findings show that applying low emissions development activities at a landscape level can provide multiple benefits, but also requires patience and compelling value propositions to be successful.

For example, a lot has been made of finding sufficient financial incentives for Indonesia and other forest nations to justify a shift in their development behavior — the idea of essentially paying people to act differently. Carbon markets may yet deliver some financial reward, but are insufficient in isolation.

Finance and incentive packages created for this purpose will need to be tailored to each jurisdiction, potentially combining financial assistance to strengthen a jurisdiction’s capacity – and ability to implement sustainable practices – with payments for on-ground results.

Another essential ingredient is stronger governance and transparency, including improved law enforcement, streamlined policies and increased empowerment of civil-society oversight.

And, teaching people in government, business and civil society why and how to act differently is another key element, as insufficient skills remain a significant barrier to increased landscape-scale action. For example, we are seeing that local communities who are empowered to manage their natural resources consistent with how they envision their future development is a successful model in many of the existing jurisdictional projects and one that must be replicated to achiever greater lasting results.

The Nature Conservancy works with logging companies to practice reduced-impact logging. Photo © Bridget Besaw
The Nature Conservancy works with logging companies to practice reduced-impact logging. Photo © Bridget Besaw

A closer look at Berau showcases how some of these approaches are leading to real results in Indonesia. We have been working with the government, companies operating in the region, and local communities for nearly a decade to promote forest-friendly development. Over the last six years we have been focusing on scaling up our efforts across the entire district. We have also been working with communities on how to more sustainably manage their forests, in part through smallholder rubber plantations, honey production and other livelihood activities. And, in recent years we have been working with the district government to develop new financial reporting software for its village administrations, and training village representatives how to use it.

Our shared experiences in Indonesia underscores the challenge of actually getting this work done, but also provides lessons that companies, governments and partners can seek to replicate in other districts of Indonesia and countries around the world. There are true value propositions emerging that promote rural development, maintain the natural environment and enhance market competitiveness, but we also must do more to communicate these win-win opportunities.

As Ecosystem Marketplace suggested, there were many reasons in 2014 to feel encouraged by progress to reduce deforestation and promote forest-friendly development. However, many programs are still in the early stages of development, and still have a long way to go to succeed. Our combined efforts will take time, patience, and cooperation among unlikely allies. But, by moving toward larger landscape-level low emissions efforts, tropical-forest countries have the potential to ensure stronger, more sustainable economic development, while also conserving the natural environment and taking a leadership role on climate.

Indeed, the best years for tropical forest conservation are likely still ahead of us — and that’s most exciting of all.

Justin Adams is The Nature Conservancy’s Global Managing Director of Lands. You can follow Justin on Twitter @JustinCMAdams.

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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Two Suitcases, a Fax Machine, an Ice Chest and a Mission Mon, 26 Jan 2015 08:01:36 +0000 In 2015, the Conservancy is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Micronesia Program — join us for stories from the front lines and a look back at how it all began.

In 1990, Tennessee born-and-raised agricultural scientist, Chuck Cook, and native Palauan office manager, Shanrang Wenty, launched the Conservancy’s conservation operation in Palau. Now 25 years later, what was the Conservancy’s first office outside the Western Hemisphere has blossomed into the Micronesia Program — and includes work not only in the Republic of Palau, but also the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, and Guam.

View looking back towards Koror, Palau. The coral reefs of Palau are part of a massive interconnected system that ties together Micronesia and the Western Pacific. © Ian Shive
View looking back towards Koror, Palau. The coral reefs of Palau are part of a massive interconnected system that ties together Micronesia and the Western Pacific. © Ian Shive

Chuck Cook…

quote smaller I was employee number 325 at The Nature Conservancy, and I planned to stay five years, max, and then get a “real” job. When I told my family I was going to work in the Pacific Islands, they were scared to death. I arrived in Palau with only two suitcases, an ice chest, a fax machine, two legal pads, and a few ink pens — ready to create the Conservancy’s first “office” outside the Western Hemisphere, but I had no place to live nor an office to work out of.

I first met Shanrang when I rented her house, where I lived upstairs and set up the Conservancy office downstairs. In the beginning, it wasn’t easy. For the first two years, I didn’t have a phone and used to go to the government communications center where I had to wait for one of the four booths, where an operator would dial out for me. (A bit like Andy Griffith of Mayberry and the operator Sarah.)

chuck tilt
Chuck Cook © CJ Hudlow/TNC

Of course, there was some culture shock when I arrived, and I really stood out being 6’4” and blonde. I started fitting in by making friends with locals, friendships that were often formed while fishing together. I also attribute my success in Palau to becoming a skilled boatman and learning the difficult navigation of the islands, tides and coral reefs. At that time, most people traveled by boats using traditional methods of navigation without radios or satellite systems. I worked hard to learn the Palauan boating techniques, which earned me my stripes from locals.

Getting conservation going in Palau in the early 90s was tough. There were no other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and after three years in Palau, I was ready to quit. Thankfully, I was convinced to stay and work to form a local, independent conservation group. In 1994, the Palau Conservation Society (PCS) was established as an independent NGO. Helping create PCS is one of my proudest achievements at the Conservancy, and I am thrilled it is thriving today.

From that point on, conservation gains began to grow by working with local communities, government and partners. It is amazing to see how the Micronesia program has grown into more than 150 conservation sites with very few ex-pats running the day-to-day business.

For the future of Palau, I feel optimistic because their traditional lifestyle appreciates their natural resources and their government is committed to conservation.

Like most island nations, the goal is to continue down the path of sustainable development, like eco-tourism, that also sustains a traditional way of life, and I believe Palau is up to the challenge.

A bamboo raft lies anchored in the coastal waters of Pohnpei (Federated States of Micronesia) to serve as a monitoring station for Enipein Village's Community Conservation Officers so they can protect the Nahtik Marine Protected Area from illegal fishing. © Nick Hall
A bamboo raft lies anchored in the coastal waters of Pohnpei (Federated States of Micronesia) to serve as a monitoring station for Enipein Village’s Community Conservation Officers so they can protect the Nahtik Marine Protected Area from illegal fishing. © Nick Hall

Shanrang Wenty…

Shanrang Wenty in the field with colleagues © Amy Schrei/TNC

quote smallerI started to work for The Nature Conservancy when Chuck asked me to do some freelance work for him. I knew Chuck because I was his landlord before I was his colleague. Over time, the workload increased and my friendship with Chuck grew.

Palau was very different in the 1990s. There was very little western influence, and most people practiced the traditional culture. At that time, there was no concept of conservation in the scientific sense of The Nature Conservancy, but Palauans had been practicing their own form of conservation, called bul, which still exists today. Palauan culture is based on fishing and agriculture, and as a result our people have always had a close relationship with nature.

The practice of bul is a moratorium put out by the council of chiefs of the village to control scarce resources, often centered on food security. Despite practicing bul, when he Conservancy started working in Palau, the chiefs and communities already noticed fish were not as plentiful as they once were. Palau’s traditions of conservation made communities and governments receptive and appreciative to the technical and scientific assistance the Conservancy provided.

It has been a pleasure to work for the Conservancy all these years. And I enjoy working with partners who are so dedicated to the work they do in helping to preserve Palau’s cultural heritage and natural resources.

I do think back to when I first started working with Chuck. Those early days were fun times. If Chuck had a good meeting or successful day, he would come into the office and say, “Betel nut time!” We would take a break to celebrate by chewing betel nut.

It touched me that Chuck adopted the Palauan custom, even though he sometimes dribbled the red betel nut juice on his shirt.

Looking forward, my hope is for Palauans to maintain their cultural heritage despite development and western investment. Our history is treasured within our families and traditions. Being a matriarchal society, women have a valuable role in society and instill a strong sense of family and community pride that is passed down through generations. I hope our children will embrace these same values and develop the knowledge to preserve our natural gifts.

Traditional dancers © Jez O'Hare
Traditional dancers © Jez O’Hare
Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Nature Conservancy.


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Quick Take: World Economic Forum Ranks Water Top Global Risk Tue, 20 Jan 2015 20:24:05 +0000 This week, the World Economic Forum’s annual risk report ranked water crises as the top global risk by impact – as noted by nearly 1,000 leaders in politics, business and organizations around the world. While this may be surprising to some, it is not to me. Here are three reasons why:

1. Global politics are shifting toward countries that are more vulnerable to water crises

Bends in the upper Yangtze River, Yunnan Province, southwestern China. Photo © Ami Vitale
Bends in the upper Yangtze River, Yunnan Province, southwestern China. Photo © Ami Vitale

Economic development cannot happen without water. And world leaders of the fastest growing economies, such as China and India, are already in the midst of water crises: their unconstrained growth is out of sync with their limited resources. Their challenges are shifting the global agenda. It is telling that while water crises represent the risk with the highest potential for impact, the World Economic Forum rates interstate conflict as the risk with the highest likelihood. With some of the fastest growing economies dependent on the same rivers, the relationship between the two should not be underestimated.

2. Businesses are increasingly experiencing the impacts of limited water supply and poor water quality

Dried river bed near the San Juan River, New Mexico. Photo © Erika Nortemann/TNC
Dried river bed near the San Juan River, New Mexico. Photo © Erika Nortemann/TNC

Companies located in areas plagued by drought or poor water quality are experiencing what could become the norm for years to come. They are waking up to the fact that adjusting their operations and investing in their water sources will be a matter of survival – both for the health of their businesses, as well as the health of the places in which they operate.

3. City leaders are realizing that traditional water systems will be too expensive for the long run

Water treatment holding tanks at the water purification facility that supplies 50% of Sao Paulo's drinking water. Phot © Scott Warren
Water treatment holding tanks at the water purification facility that supplies 50% of Sao Paulo’s drinking water. Photo © Scott Warren

Water costs a lot of money to manage, even more when it is managed poorly. As urban populations swell, and traditional funding for maintaining water systems continues to dry up, cities are realizing that they must find the most efficient investments possible to manage their water. If they do not, the income inequality that plagues many societies will be revealed in its most basic form by dividing those who have access to water because they can afford to, from those who don’t.

Bottom line: When it comes to water risks, the world still doesn’t quite know what it’s getting into. But this year’s top rankings of risks and trends reinforce that it could be extremely severe if we do not take action toward smarter development. We might be ready to have that conversation, and environmental organizations – as stewards of the underlying resources – need to be ready to offer solutions commensurate to the challenge.

Giulio Boccaletti is The Nature Conservancy’s Global Managing Director of Water. You can follow him on Twitter @G_Boccaletti.

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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Early (Very Early) Morning Light on the Animas Tue, 20 Jan 2015 08:00:24 +0000 I arrived at the Wheeling’s home before sunrise. We met for the first time at an hour my non-photograher friends back home swear doesn’t exist.

I always cringe when I tell people how early I need to meet them in order to photograph in the best morning light. Luckily Jenn and Joe Wheeling are farmers at Jenn’s family farm—the James Ranch—near Durango, Colorado and are well-aware that pre-dawn hours do, in fact, exist.

James blue tnc_80893005_preview_cropped

The icy flora crackled beneath our feet as we made our way from the house down to pastureland. The fog was beginning to lift, and the world had a blue cast from the mountains’ shadow—sparing the frost a little longer from the sun’s rays.

As we walked, Jenn and Joe gave me an overview of the farm’s “beyond organic” philosophy, and their holistic approach to ranch management. Their understanding of the importance of a healthy ecosystem was the reason I was there—specifically, I wanted to photograph their best practices regarding use of the Animas River.

James Animas tnc_74628071_preview_cropped

The Animas (and its parent river the San Juan) are part of the Colorado River Basin—a focal area for The Nature Conservancy and one of the eight basins in the Great Rivers Partnership. I had spent the week in New Mexico, covering the recovery, restoration and recreational pursuits on the San Juan River, but I was missing the a big part of the picture: agriculture.

James river tnc_31878399_preview_cropped

This particular image highlights one of the many efforts that Joe and Jenn Wheeling have taken to take care of their water supply. They’ve built up a fence and natural plants to keep cattle out of the water that flows onto their property from the Animas.

As early as we had arrived, the sun’s light was quickly making its way over the mountains and down into the valley.  Knowing I had a fairly short window of time before the beautiful blues turned into harsh whites, I turned my attention to shooting. I used my new Canon EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II to make this image.  Since I foolishly left my tripod back at the Wheelings’ house, I had to hand-hold my camera at ISO 200, f/7.1 at 1/125 sec—a much faster shutter speed than I would have liked for the flowing water.

James favorite tnc_43110227_preview_croppedThis image is one of many that I like from that cold, frosty mountain morning with the Wheelings.  Their beautiful property on the banks of the Animas was made all the more special to me knowing that they are working hard to ensure that their livelihood and their environment remain sustainable.

Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinion of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
All images © Erika Nortemann
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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Communicating Climate Change and the Scientific Delusional Disorder Thu, 08 Jan 2015 11:00:52 +0000 One of the things I’ll never forget from grad school, back when I was a budding scientist, was my professor’s favorite motto: “I would rather be methodologically correct than right.”

It sort of pissed me off. I mean, come on: what normal person wouldn’t rather be right? And yet, my professor had put his finger on the essence of what it means to be a scientist.

This philosophy was pounded into our heads, in statistics classes, in the peer-review publications process, and over beers as we joked about the shoddy arguments of shabby scientists.  Scientists go through this rite of passage in graduate school — during which we swallow a sort of group delusional disorder pill.

That pill imprints us with an unnatural frame of mind: care less about finding truth (which is unattainable), and care more about the way to seek truth.

Science does not deliver the simple truth. It only delivers a cumbersome process for attempting to gather unbiased information about the elements of truth that can be measured. Capiche?

But while that frame of mind in many ways defines science and its relationship to truth, it’s alien and frustrating to those outside our weird club. Scientists, however, often persist in the delusion that what works for each other should work for everyone else, too.

This culture clash — which I’m calling the scientific delusion disorder — is a big part of the communications problem between scientists and normal people.

It’s why normal people are driven crazy when scientists can’t seem to just get to the point – stop your drivel of qualifiers and give us your bottom line!  And it’s why scientists get so frustrated when normal people don’t understand that for a scientist, there rarely is a bottom line!

In a New York Times op-ed piece this past Saturday, Naomi Oreskes articulates very well the implications of this communications problem for action on climate change.

She points out what the public (especially certain “conservative” elements of the public) does not seem to fully appreciate: the scientific community is by definition very conservative when it comes to communicating information.

This conservatism is a corollary of my earlier point about scientists being methods obsessed: we tend to be more averse to being wrong than desirous of being right. The implications of this tendency are that scientists routinely ignore findings until they are rather obvious — at least to those who are “in the weeds.”

Along these lines, Oreskes emphasizes that science is prone to “being too conservative and missing causes and effects that are really there.” She states that scientists “often refuse to use the language of danger even when danger is precisely what they are talking about.” In making these points, it seems that Naomi is asking scientists to be more like normal people.

This sort of scientific common sense might seem very appealing. But as a scientist, I can’t agree with it. Science should not be confused with common sense. If it is, it risks losing the specific value it offers to society — a particularly credible and unbiased source of information.

Scientists should be circumspect about jumping too deeply into an advocacy role — because too much advocacy by scientists can undermine the objective credibility of the scientific community. Likewise, I think scientists should continue to be conservative in how we interpret data. If scientists do shift into a common-sense advocacy role (as well-informed humans with even a vestige of common sense may be prone to do), we should point out that we are speaking as normal citizens, rather than as our alter-ego: delusionally conservative data rats.

That said, here’s where I totally agree with Oreskes — and here’s my bottom line: scientists need to do a better job explaining to the rest of society that scientists are not normal, and we are definitely not liberal in our methods.

It is critical that the public understands just how conservative the scientific community is about communicating data. If we can do a better job explaining this to the rest of society, then the rest of society can do a better job advocating for sensible climate policy.

In other words, as a common-sense citizen, I think you should be FREAKED OUT by the drivel — i.e., the wonderfully dry, painstakingly measured and conservative scientific conclusions — of the IPCC.

Wait, one more qualifier. As a scientist, I must remind you that we cannot say with absolute certainty if humans are causing a global climate change catastrophe. It is virtually impossible to predict anything with absolute certainty about the future of our planet.  What this does mean is that humans are more likely to be causing a global climate change catastrophe than you realized. Which leaves use each with a common sense question: should I do something about it?

Bronson Griscom is the director of forest carbon science at 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.
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Nature Is Key To Achieving Governor Brown’s Ambitious Climate Goal Thu, 08 Jan 2015 03:50:39 +0000 Monday, in his Inaugural address, California Governor Jerry Brown announced a sweeping vision for combating climate change with major proposals for increased renewable energy, decreased fuel use in the transportation sector, and greater energy efficiency. The Governor noted the need to “manage farm and rangelands, forests and wetlands so they can store carbon,” but he will also need to develop equally ambitious and measurable targets for the land sector if he is going to be successful in realizing his climate goals.

Fortunately, managing our natural landscapes for climate benefits is not a foreign concept in California. The Golden State is already home to some of the most progressive projects aimed at managing landscapes for their dual climate and economic benefits.

For example, California’s AB 32 program has created financial incentives for forest landowners for conserving forests and ecological forest management to keep carbon out of the atmosphere and back on the ground. So far, the state has approved more then 6 million tons of carbon benefits from forests. This includes 836,619 tons from the Yurok tribe in northern California, which is generating income for the tribe from the sale of its credits while protecting 7,700 acres of natural forests.

A Tradition of Leadership and Collaboration

California’s efforts don’t stop at its borders, and the state is doing its part to catalyze international momentum. In keeping with its tradition of leadership and collaboration, California has signed an agreement with Mexico to enhance cooperation on climate change and the environment, which includes promoting emissions reductions from deforestation and forest degradation, among other areas of cooperation.

It’s a permeable border with Mexico when it comes to innovative ideas for forest conservation, as the Mexican government is also leader on this issue. In 2012, the country passed a forward-looking climate change law with a commitment to reach net zero emissions from land use by 2020. The new agreement paves the way to share lessons on nature-based solutions to climate change across borders and could potentially lead to the sale of credits for reducing emissions from deforestation for the first time in a regulated market.

The Selva Maya in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
The Selva Maya in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the largest expanse of forest in the Americas outside of the Amazon. © Ami Vitale

Like California, Mexico is making great strides in protecting its most valuable forests. For example, the three states in the Yucatan Peninsula (Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo) have joined forces to achieve net zero emissions from deforestation across the Mexican portion of the Selva Maya, the largest expanse of forest in the Americas outside of the Amazon.

The Nature Conservancy is supporting their efforts by piloting highly productive forest-friendly enterprises that will increase local incomes while reducing forest loss on more than 2 million acres across the Peninsula, in addition to supporting subsidy reform, innovative land-use planning tools, and new financial instruments that will help scale up these actions to state and national levels.

Jazmin Diaz and the ranchers she works with in the Selva Maya. © TNC
Jazmin Diaz and the ranchers she works with in the Selva Maya. © TNC

This translates to real benefits on the ground for people like the ranchers that agronomist Jazmin Diaz works with. With support from the Conservancy, Diaz helps ranchers improve their pasturelands in ways that let them raise more cattle on existing land, eliminating the need to clear more forests. This is a clear win for nature and a tangible benefit for ranches who increase their income and are relieved from labor-intensive forest clearing.

Nature as Part of the Climate Solution

With Governor Brown’s comments yesterday, we expect to see California continue to be an international leader on climate, and we look forward to seeing scaled up efforts to pioneer ways that nature can be part of the climate solution, both in the Golden State and around the world.

“Taking significant amounts of carbon out of our economy without harming its vibrancy is exactly the sort of challenge at which California excels,” Governor Brown said. “This is exciting. It is bold, and it is absolutely necessary if we are to have any chance of stopping potentially catastrophic changes to our climate system.”

We couldn’t agree more.


The writers are all staff at 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.
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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Sharing Moments of Grace in Arnhem Land Mon, 05 Jan 2015 08:00:53 +0000 As part of an assignment to document a Conservancy program in northern Australia, I headed deep into Arnhem Land, to the Aboriginal ranger settlement inside the Warddekken Indigenous Protected Area.

Waterfalls, rivers, wetlands, woodlands and savanna comprise the landscape surrounding the Kabulwarnamyo Ranger Station on indigenous Arnhem Land. © Ted Wood
Waterfalls, rivers, wetlands, woodlands and savanna comprise the landscape surrounding the Kabulwarnamyo Ranger Station on indigenous Arnhem Land. © Ted Wood

This is a model program in which indigenous rangers are using modern science and traditional knowledge to manage a 1.4-million-hectare protected area. The landscape of rock outcroppings and savannah forest was subtle and secretive to my unknowing eye.

Dean Yibarbuk (Dean Munuggullumurr Yibarbuk) and aboriginal elder and guide on Arnhem Lands, at an aboriginal rock art site near the Kabulwarnamyo Ranger Station in the Arnhem Land of Australia's Northern Territory. © Ted Wood
Dean Yibarbuk (Dean Munuggullumurr Yibarbuk) and aboriginal elder and guide on Arnhem Lands, at an aboriginal rock art site near the Kabulwarnamyo Ranger Station in the Arnhem Land of Australia’s Northern Territory. © Ted Wood

That was until the village elder/ecologist, Dean Yibarbuk, provided a peek behind the curtain, revealing the cultural and natural mysteries everywhere in the rock folds.

After hours of exploring rock art, Dean led the Conservancy’s Geoff Lipsett-Moore up a small incline to the base of what seemed to be a solid rock wall. Dean pointed to a small crack in the wall, no wider than two people, and he and Geoff disappeared inside. The vines framing the entrance were covered in butterflies, and the air had the rich smell of spring water. The crack opened to a narrow vertical cave whose walls were covered in iridescent green moss.

At the back of the cave, Dean and Geoff knelt by a pool of spring water, so clear that the roots growing into it from the mosses made it look like the beating heart of this place. Just as they shared a sip of water, a shaft of brilliant golden light hit the back wall and lit their hands.

It was one of those divine moments, when you see and feel the sacredness of what you’re being shown.

A moment of grace. Aboriginal elder Dean Yibarbuk shares a sacred spring with Conservancy program lead Geoff Lipsett-Moore. © Ted Wood
A moment of grace. Aboriginal elder Dean Yibarbuk shares a sacred spring with Conservancy program lead Geoff Lipsett-Moore. © Ted Wood

Ted Wood’s photographs appear in publications worldwide, including Nature Conservancy Magazine, Smithsonian, National Wildlife and Vanity Fair. He’s a member of the International League of Conservation Photographers and Aurora Photos. See more of his work 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.


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10 Reasons to be Encouraged We Made Real Environmental Progress in 2014 Fri, 02 Jan 2015 23:20:20 +0000 2014 was a year of significant progress for the environment. To be sure, we still face plenty of very daunting challenges (you know the list).

But there was also a lot of very significant progress to celebrate. Around the world, governments, businesses, nonprofits, and communities successfully came together to protect nature in a big and powerful way.

Here are our ten good outcomes from 2014 that really encourage me:

1. U.S.-China climate accord

2015-01-02-USChina13756957204_28815235be_z.jpgIn an agreement that I think will prove to be hugely important over time, the U.S. pledged to reduce its emissions 26-28% by 2025, and China pledged to peak emissions around 2030 and increase renewables to 20% of total energy. No longer can opponents to climate policy say that China is on the sidelines. China’s move already added momentum to the UN climate negotiations in Lima. We now even hope for imminent climate action by India. Wow! Well done!

By the way, the European Union also pledged to reduce its emissions 40% by 2030, including a 27% increase in renewables and energy efficiency. All of these commitments add real momentum for the UN’s Paris Climate Summit this year.

2. President Obama creates world’s largest marine protected area

2015-01-02-MPA_tnc_87442542_preview_cropped.jpgIn September, President Obama expanded the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument from 87,000 square miles to 490,000 square miles. The move doubles the global amount of protected oceans!

The new designation protects an enormous swath of the Pacific Ocean from commercial fishing, mining, and other extractive activities. It’s also an important step toward rebuilding declining fish stocks.

3. State ballot measures raise $29 billion for investments in conservation

2015-01-02-stateballot_tnc_21146597_preview_cropped1.jpgOn Election Day 2014, U.S. voters approved 27 state and local ballot measures in 19 states. This raised over $29 billion to invest in open space, water protection, parks and trails!

The wins far exceed any amount approved by voters in previous elections. Support came from both sides of the aisle. Many of these measures passed with 65 percent of the vote or more.

Don’t let anyone tell you that voters in the U.S. don’t care about the environment. Or that these are hopelessly partisan issues. It’s not true. The voters spoke!

4. Private sector shows more leadership on climate

2015-01-02-privatesector_tnc_90559052_preview_cropped5.jpgAt September’s UN General Assembly, many companies stepped up to show much more visibility on climate change. Forty companies committed to zero net deforestation in 2030, including Cargill, Walmart, General Mills, and McDonald’s. Thirty companies and organizations committed to help the world’s farmers improve resilience, boost productivity and reduce GHG emissions. And more than 1,000 companies signed a declaration calling on governments to strengthen policies to put a price on carbon.

There is still much much more companies can do on this front (see my blog), but these commitments do show real momentum and progress.

5. U.S. Congress protects new national parks and wilderness areas

2015-01-02-BobMarshall_3717352591_0bd9d7648e_z.jpgAmazingly—during a period when many folks assumed the U.S. Congress was totally stuck—in December lawmakers passed the most significant package of land conservation bills since 2009. The legislation sets aside nearly a quarter million acres of wilderness areas in the American West; creates or expands more than a dozen national parks; and adds more than 100 miles of rivers to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

6. Impact investing for conservation gains momentum

Investing in nature has been too dependent on philanthropy and government spending. We love our philanthropic supporters. And we will continue to champion smartly-designed government programs. But we need additional sources of capital to meet our goals. Good progress occurred last year.

New initiatives likeNatureVest, launched by The Nature Conservancy with support from JPMorgan Chase & Co., are creating opportunities to fund conservation projects that deliver both financial returns and clear environmental benefits. There has been lots of buzz around impact investing as a breakthrough solution to big social and environmental challenges. It’s exciting to see that buzz turn into reality, as we tap into new sources of funding to scale up our work and get more conservation done.

7. United for Wildlife launched

A number of environmental and conservation organizations (including The Nature Conservancy) were thrilled to co-host the visit to the U.S. last month by Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge—both great champions of nature. This followed their recent launch of United for Wildlife, an alliance of top conservation organizations to combat wildlife poaching. The consortium aims to counter illegal wildlife trade through better use of technology for site protection, a zero-tolerance approach in the private sector, and support for communities whose livelihoods are affected by poaching. It’s great to see high visibility leadership by the Duke and Duchess here.

8. 165,000-acre purchase protects Montana & Washington forests

My organization—The Nature Conservancy—was thrilled to announce the purchase of 165,000 acres in Washington’s Cascade Mountains and Montana’s Blackfoot River Valley. The project cost about $140 million.

Why is this a big deal? First, the acquisition allows us to connect the purchased “checkerboard” lands–square-mile units granted to railroad companies 150 years ago in an “every other unit” pattern–to already protected but fragmented land. By erasing this complicated pattern of land ownership, the project connects vast swaths of wildlife habitat, protects sources of clean water, and hugely expands recreational access.

Second, the deal shows it’s still possible to protect huge areas of nature the “old fashioned” way–by buying it! Some of our critics claim we don’t do business this way anymore. They’re wrong.

Third, most of the capital for the deal was provided by mission-driven investors (not philanthropists)—so-called “impact capital” (see #6 above).

9. The Wilderness Act turns 50

2015-01-02-WildernessAct_tnc_60200119_preview_cropped.jpg2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Wilderness Act. Every U.S. citizen should be very proud of this powerful legislation. The act provides the highest levels of protection for the country’s most pristine lands and waters. Hundreds of millions of acres of iconic wildlands are protected. And we can push for more and more designations every year. Go USA!

10. The Colorado River reaches its delta for first time in half a century

In March, conservationists released a “pulse flow” of water in order to reconnect the mighty Colorado River with Mexico’s Gulf of California. Sadly, the river hadn’t reached the delta in decades. But now it has.

This accomplishment shows how diverse organizations—the U.S. and Mexican governments, state governments, many conservation nonprofit organizations, and funders—can all come together to make important things happen. TNC was very proud to be part of this team.

These are just a few of the countless conservation successes that have been achieved over the past year. Looking ahead now to 2015, here’s to another year of even greater success in protecting the lands and waters that sustain our lives, our health and our wellbeing.

So, nature lovers and conservation organization supporters, let’s enjoy the holiday weekend. And on Monday, let’s get back to work. Onward!


Image credits: 1) AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais; 2) © 2012 Tim Calver for The Nature Conservancy; 3) © Ethan Daniels; 4) Jennifer Molnar @ The Nature Conservancy; 5) © Sam Beebe; 6) © 2013 Ami Vitale for The Nature Conservancy 7) © 2008 Suzi Eszterhas; 8) © 2014 Steven Gnam for The Nature Conservancy; 9) © Kent Mason; 10) © 2014 Nick Hall for The Nature Conservancy

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In Praise (and Envy) of Photographers Mon, 22 Dec 2014 08:00:39 +0000 This is my absolute favorite image in the Conservancy’s photo archive.

Photographer Jeff Yonover sharing pictures from the bottom of Samana Bay with curious children. © Mark Godfrey
Photographer Jeff Yonover sharing pictures from the bottom of Samana Bay with curious children. © Mark Godfrey

I know it seems an odd choice. There’s no forest, no sunset, no waves crashing, no waterfall falling, no reef, no beach, no charismatic megafauna. There’s nothing in this image with fur, or a flower or feathers. There’s really not anything we usually think of as “nature.”

Even so, it’s still a photograph about nature and, to me, tells a story about the unequaled power of photographers to make nature real to people on a scale, and with an immediacy, that nothing else ever quite equals.

I also admit to a certain bias for this image because I was there – just out of frame — when it was taken.

We were in a small town along the Samana Bay in the Dominican Republic covering stories about the Conservancy’s work with local communities. A few of us had spent the day interviewing people, learning about their lives, their challenges, and the importance of fishing and tourism (especially whale watching) to their towns. The rest of our team had been out diving, shooting the underwater life of the bay that supports the fisheries and the Humpback whales that come here  to breed every winter.

Dive tanks, ice chests and curious kids

Our group unloaded the boat while I sat cross-legged on the end of the dock surrounded by red and blue ice chests, and an ever-growing pile of dive tanks, weight belts, and big black Pelikan boxes full of photography equipment. I was making notes and getting down details from some interviews we’d just finished when I heard laughing and looked up.

Our underwater photographer, Jeff Yonover, was surrounded by a growing pack of children. I think they were originally drawn to his crazy-looking equipment. The underwater housing on his camera – with its gangly arms and small round lights – looked like something that might belong to the villain in a Spiderman movie. But the kids had apparently lost interest in the camera itself once he started showing them pictures from his recent dive to the bottom of Samana Bay.

(top) Secretary blenny hiding in a sponge (middle) sea pearl algae (bottom) social feather duster worms. All images © Jeff Yonover
(top) Secretary blenny hiding in a sponge (middle) sea pearl algae (bottom) social feather duster worms. All images © Jeff Yonover

Sadly, my Spanish was not up to following all of the rapid-fire conversation, but it was clear from their body language and their shaking heads that the children were very skeptical that some of the amazing creatures on Jeff’s camera screen – sea pearl algae and feather duster worms and goggle-eyed secretary blennies hiding in sponges – actually lived in the bay they looked at every day.

“Si, si,” Elianny Dominguez, who grew up in Santo Domingo and was the Conservancy’s project manager for Samana Bay, assured the children. “All of this and more. Your bay is special.”

It didn’t take long for the laughing, chattering children to draw a crowd as their parents wandered over to see what had captivated their kids. The conversation really left me behind then, but it was clear the people peering at Jeff’s camera were seeing their bay with new eyes.

A writer’s confession

Here’s where, as a writer, I confess: I am jealous of skilled photographers. I know – and believe in – the power of words to change the world, but I also know the sheer, raw power of images to spur action and touch people’s emotions like nothing else. Especially in the world of conservation where so much that matters can seem so separate from our every day lives.

Even the places where we live, we don’t always know.

It can take a stranger with crazy equipment to open our eyes, to bring things back and show us a world we might never be able to see (literally and figuratively) otherwise.

My notes from that day would go on to find their own purpose, to tell stories of the people and places of Samana Bay, to hopefully move people to care about the plants, animals and people of the Dominican Republic and support the Conservancy’s work there. But all of that was in the future and my words were not something the children or the parents on the dock were ever likely to read. I would have passed – I did pass — through their lives without leaving a ripple, or an idea or even a question in their minds about the connections among the life above, below and within the waters of the bay most of them said they had lived beside all their lives.

But Jeff could step off the boat, hair still wet, camera still in its monstrous housing and take anyone who would look into another world. That’s a gift. And even though many of the photographers I’ve traveled with have had us both courting various disasters, including (but not limited to) drowning, falling from great heights, snake bite and alligator attack (twice!), I still love to work with them because they always remind me to look for and seize those unexpected moments of experience and connection.

The skilled photographer’s gift

They teach – by the nature of their sensibilities and their skills and their curiosity – about perspective, point of view, and framing. They pay attention to the moments of opportunity, as Mark Godfrey did when he shot this image of Jeff and the kids. And though the photographers I’ve been privileged to travel with have never, despite their best efforts, been able to make me more than an adequate photographer (at best), they have made me a better writer – and a better conservationist, and honestly, probably a better person — by teaching me not only to look, but to see. (And also, the corollary lesson: you have to be willing to get up ungodly early if you want the best light.)


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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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 become 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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