Conservancy Talk Conservancy Talk: The Green Blog of The Nature Conservancy Wed, 22 Oct 2014 10:22:02 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Land Conservation: The Best is Yet to Come Wed, 22 Oct 2014 10:22:02 +0000 I have long learnt that to understand our future we need to better understand our past. In my six short months at The Nature Conservancy, I have been keen to delve into our past — to understand how our organization’s rich history can help inform and shape where we’re headed.

The Conservancy’s 63-year past is rooted in place. Since our first land preservation project at Mianus River Gorge in New York, our legacy of protecting critical places defines us as an organization. We are anchored in these successes, but how can we amplify them to keep up with the pressing challenges we face today?

This was the question I was mulling over as I traveled, with my wife and three kids in tow, to Colorado for a combined Conservancy business trip and summer vacation. What I was immediately reminded of coming from the U.K. to the Western U.S. and the Rocky Mountains is just how big everything is — the mountains, the rivers and of course, the sky. While we have the beautiful Alps in Europe, they feel more cultivated and civilized, virtually every valley has been inhabited for centuries and you are never far from the comforting sound of cowbells.

There is much more of a feeling of space in the Rockies. Of wide-open wilderness.

Seeing the fingerprints of the Conservancy throughout our journey across Colorado was both rewarding and humbling.

The Legacy of Carpenter Ranch

project director Geoff Blakeslee and his wife Betsy have been working at Carpenter Ranch for 19 years.  © Erika Nortemann/TNC
Project director Geoff Blakeslee and his wife Betsy have been working at Carpenter Ranch for 19 years. © Erika Nortemann/TNC

We visited the Carpenter Ranch in Hayden just outside of the bustling town of Steamboat Springs. This 950-acre property, acquired in 1996 from the Carpenter family, is a critical piece of land with senior water rights near the headwaters of the Yampa River — the only free flowing river in the Colorado River Basin.

The project director Geoff Blakeslee and his wife Betsy have been working at Carpenter Ranch for 19 years and were very gracious and knowledgeable hosts. As we walked through the riparian buffer along the river, I reflected on:

  •  How the Conservancy has scaled its impact from 950 acres to more than 30,000 acres through the Yampa River Valley largely through easements and our work to help landowners improve land and water management.
  • How the vivid history of the Carpenter property can inspire future conservation work.

This was the family ranch of Farrington ‘Ferry’ Carpenter, appointed first Director of Grazing (which later became the Bureau of Land Management) for the Department of the Interior in 1934. Ferry served as peacemaker between the cattlemen and the sheepmen and was asked to help better define land boundaries and improve grazing on the already stressed grasslands of the west.

There is much that is still relevant and resonates with our mission today. Livestock grazing is one of the critical drivers of land degradation in many fragile ecosystems around the world. The Conservancy’s work to improve grazing methods and help restore lands is critical and we need to understand how we can scale that across the west and beyond. Perhaps we can call on the legacy of Ferry and his original mission as we advance our grazing work both in the Western U.S. but also thousands of miles away in Kenya, Patagonia and beyond?

Exploring the Conservancy’s Gems

Wildflowers line the  riverbank in Phantom Canyon Preserve, located within the Laramie foothills area of northern Colorado. © John Fielder/TNC
Wildflowers line the riverbank in Phantom Canyon Preserve in the Laramie foothills area of northern Colorado. © John Fielder/TNC

Another memorable stop for my family at the end of our trip was Phantom Canyon Preserve, a hidden canyon in a pristine wilderness above the north fork of the Poudre River. The preserve is a 1,120-acre site we acquired in 1987 and the centerpiece of our work to protect the Laramie Foothills. The foothills contain rich and diverse grasslands,

shrublands, riparian areas and wetlands, and Ponderosa pine woodlands — some harboring globally rare species. I have lost count of the number of staff who had told me this preserve was a must-see and one of the gems of our protection work. It did not disappoint.

Phantom Canyon is everything you’d expect of a preserve — picturesque views and opportunities to get up-close and personal with nature. But more importantly, the Canyon set the backdrop for memories my family will never forget. My kids saw their first bear in the wild to squeals of delight. We chatted excitedly about our bear siting as we walked to the canyon bottom, only then to be greeted by a rattlesnake, which resulted in even louder squeals. The next morning we fished under the expert tutelage of Jim Oakleaf from our Global Development by Design team. The kids caught their first trout and the photos captured their proud smiles.

It felt like a fitting end to our Colorado tour, seeing Colorado’s beauty up-close, although I am also conscious we barely scratched the surface of our work even within one state.

This eye-opening trip to Colorado has reinforced how excited I am to have joined the Conservancy. We have incredible, dedicated people across the organization and are continuing to do important work on the ground across each of our state chapters and country programs.

We are still firmly rooted in place and that gives us some unique advantages that other large NGOs have lost or never had. It is clear we are standing on the shoulders of giants as we map out the next phases of our journey. We have always looked to how we scale our impact but given the global threats our lands and waters are now under, we need to move our work to an even bigger scale.

Understanding our past can help take us there.

Learn more about The Nature Conservancy’s work in Colorado.

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

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My Awesome Inspirational Conservation Mix (Vol 1-Mongolia) Sun, 19 Oct 2014 21:14:33 +0000 I saw the hit movie Guardians of the Galaxy with my family and it got me thinking about my recent far away trip to western Mongolia. In Guardians, the hero Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord) joins forces with a genetically modified raccoon and humanoid tree called Groot to save the galaxy from a planet-destroying orb. Along the way he draws inspiration from listening to his “Awesome Mix Tape, Vol. 1” (full of 70s hits) – a gift from his mother and his last remaining connection to Earth.

It’s that connection and inspiration that keeps Peter going despite the challenges. At the lowest moment when all seems lost, the raccoon asks, “Why save the galaxy anyway?” Peter, with his knack for not complicating things, responds: “Because I’m one of the idiots who lives in it!”

As an idiot who lives on Earth working on conservation, it took a trip to western Mongolia to remind me about the value of inspiration. Immersed in Mongolia’s rich cultural heritage, beautiful landscapes, and spectacular wildlife, it was an awesome mix (and this one dates to way before the hits of the 1970s). I was inspired that the Conservancy’s work with the Mongolian government to develop conservation blueprints is about more than just protecting lands and waters. This is about saving natural and cultural heritage for the next generation and generations to come.

Making conservation happen around the world will take more Awesome Inspirational Mixes and many more Guardians. To help inspire your inner-Guardian, here are ten hits from my Volume 1-Mongolia. What’s your awesome mix tape for conservation?

We joined a family for dinner in their ger. © Bruce McKenney
We joined a family for dinner in their ger. © Bruce McKenney

Nomads. This family welcomed us for a “hot rocks” goat barbeque dinner in their ger. They move their home to new pasture every month, packing up their belongings on five camels. The future for nomads depends on how Mongolia protects lands and waters in the face of the current mining boom.

Saiga. We raced across the steppe with the critically endangered Saiga – an antelope with an other-worldly nose structure that can run at cheetah-like speeds. Our work with government is identifying critical habitat to support the Saiga’s future.

Ancient art. Mountaintop petroglyphs, Turkic statues, and cave pictographs show the wildlife and culture from the distant past. Our work to map conservation priorities includes areas of natural and cultural importance (such as sacred mountains). Gala Davaa, the Conservancy’s Mongolia Conservation Director, points to a sign and pamphlet he designed that urges visitors to protect cave pictographs that are thousands of years old.

© Bruce McKenney
© Bruce McKenney

Throat singing. Who knew TNC had a throat singer! Have a listen to the talents of Tsogoo as he throat sings during a rainstorm. The unique Mongolian art of throat singing is thought to have arisen because the sounds travel well on open landscapes…or maybe it just sounds really cool!

Scientists can cook. Joe Kiesecker, lead scientist and co-lead for the Conservancy’s Development by Design program, made some tasty Khusuur. It’s mutton wrapped like a big dumpling and then fried. The trip was a tour-de-force in Mongolian mutton cooking with hearty and delicious camp meals all week.

Dining al fresco Mongolian-style © Bruce McKenney
Dining al fresco Mongolian-style © Bruce McKenney

Airag. We stopped at a ger in the countryside to buy some airag (fermented mare’s milk) for the journey. This salty and sour staple drink of Mongolia packs in the nutrients, like a nomad sport-drink, but with the extra kick of beer-level alcohol content.

© Joseph Kiesecker
Waiting for our airag (a staple drink of Mongolia) © Joseph Kiesecker

Eagle hunters. We met Kazakh people who are carrying on the tradition of hunting with Golden Eagles. The eagles are trained to kill a fox without damaging the fur, which can then be used or sold. Eagle hunting has been practiced sustainably for centuries.

© Joseph Kiesecker
Kazakh still carry on the tradition of hunting with Golden Eagles. © Joseph Kiesecker

Wide. Open. Landscapes. There are not many places where you can turn 360 degrees and see nothing but the lands and waters. For miles! Our work with government to identify priorities for conservation is helping to protect these large intact landscapes.

© Bruce McKenney
Nothing but lands and waters as far as the eye can see. © Bruce McKenney
© Bruce McKenney
The fly rod was a big hit with the locals. © Bruce McKenney

Fishing with the locals. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish with your fly rod and you won’t get your rod back for hours! Mongolia has some of the best fly-fishing in the world. Jim Oakleaf, a Conservancy Conservation Geographer, fostered international relations by lending out his rod and giving flies to the children.

The night sky. Mongolia is known as the land of the eternal blue sky, and the night sky is super fantastic too. A bonus of protecting big landscapes for nomads and wildlife is that it will help preserve night sky viewing by keeping ambient light levels low in these areas.

© Joe Kiesecker
The lack of ambient light makes night sky viewing spectacular. © Joe Kiesecker

I don’t know about being Guardians of the Galaxy, but the Conservancy’s mission is “to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.” That’s all life. So if aliens are discovered somewhere in that night sky, we’ll need to step up our game. But for now the job is pretty awesome here on Earth.

For more on our work in Mongolia, visit And while there’s no planet-destroying orb in my story, there are challenges. Today, Mongolia is under huge pressure to develop its rich mineral resources and now is the best chance to not only protect important lands and waters but also ensure the future of nomadic herding – the livelihood of about one-third of the population, and the heart of Mongolian culture.

The Conservancy’s Development by Design program does this kind of work in many countries around the world. Our goal is to get ahead of things like energy, mining, and infrastructure development before it hits, to support conservation goals and sustainable development.

Top image credits: (clockwise from top left) Family ger © Bruce McKenney; Eagle hunter © Joseph Kiesecker; Pictograph © Bruce McKenney; Joe Kiesecker cooking © Bruce McKenney; Fishing © Bruce McKenney; Bruce McKenney © The Nature Conservancy; Woman making airag © Joseph Kiesecker; Gala Davaa © Bruce McKenney; Throat singing © Bruce McKenney
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Chinook Hope and Homecoming in Idaho Mon, 13 Oct 2014 08:00:44 +0000 For the past seven years, I’ve been writing conservation agreements for salmon in the Lemhi River, working from my faraway desk here in Boise, Idaho’s capital city. I’ve fallen in love with the upper Salmon River watershed – I’ve backpacked in the Lemhi Mountains, fished the Lemhi River, and even visited Sacajawea’s birthplace. But being in the Lemhi at the moment when Chinook salmon return home: it’s so rare, it’s like seeing the green flash over the ocean.

The timing, location and conditions have to be just right. I’ve squinted at countless ocean sunsets until my retinas look like moth-eaten blankets, but I’ve only seen the green flash twice.

Seeing wild Chinook salmon in Idaho is like that. They are creatures out of myth, as elusive as sea serpents. In the seven years I’ve worked for the Conservancy, I’ve never seen one. I read the data, so I believe there are salmon in Idaho, and I work on their conservation as an act of hope. It’s worth it to me even if I never see the living result of my efforts. But still, there is nothing quite as satisfying as seeing a conservation result live and up close.

Splashes in the River

That’s why, when I had a meeting near the town of Salmon, Idaho, a few colleagues and I eagerly detoured to a nearby cattle ranch where the Conservancy holds a conservation easement. The rancher graciously gave us the OK to visit his ranch to look for spawning chinook, and we bumped down his dirt road to the Lemhi.

As soon as we got out of the truck, I heard them. Splashes in the river. Really big splashes. And my eyes filled with tears.

As soon as we got out of the truck, I heard them. Splashes in the river. Really big splashes. © Susanna Danner
As soon as we got out of the truck, I heard them. Splashes in the river. Really big splashes. © Ron Troy/TNC

These fish have swum more than 900 miles from the American West Coast to get to this point. Odysseus couldn’t have done better. They’ve navigated the open ocean, avoided sea lion jaws and fishermen, plodded through slackwater, ascended seven dams, and tolerated barges. They were tired, driven and massive: probably twenty pounds and 25-inches long. And they’d made it past Scylla and Charybdis. There was no way I was going to hassle them at the end of this epic journey.

The Green Flash!

Luckily, I watched a lot of “G.I. Joe” growing up and I knew what to do. I dropped to the ground and Army-crawled on my elbows through a field of thistles to the water’s edge. I wanted to stay out of sight, so the fish wouldn’t have to expend any precious energy avoiding me. With my chin on the ground, I inched forward. Thistle prickles embedded themselves in my forearms and broke off. I didn’t care. I parted the riverside grasses with my hands to make a window. Two meters in front of me, an arched back rose out of the river, dazzling green speckled with black. A Chinook. The green flash!

I low-crawled to the edge of the stream to see chinook splashing in the shallow water. © Susanna Danner
I low-crawled to the edge of the stream to see chinook splashing in the shallow water. © Ron Troy/TNC

I felt suffused with disbelief and joy. I could see their battered white fins and tails, where their scales had been abraded as they made their underwater nests (called “redds”). A group of males sparred over the attention of a female, and I saw the gravel under her looked like pale copper, from where she had worn off the rocks’ surface algae digging her redd.

Later, we walked sock-footed across the Lemhi, careful not to cross near a redd or kick up fine sediment that could smother salmon eggs downstream. At a vantage point above the river, we repeated our low crawl to the edge. Peering down on the group of Chinook, the redd, the willow trees, the glinting Lemhi River unspooling across the green river valley, I felt (1) sobby, and (2) proud.

It’s the fish that deserve the most accolades in this moment. They are 900-mile sojourners through countless hardships. But the rancher deserves thanks and accolades, too, for agreeing to protect the willows and the water flow levels the Chinook need. The funding agencies made salmon conservation a priority and provided the grant for the water and habitat protection.

And the Conservancy entered into the perpetual partnership – the conservation easement – that ensures the riverside habitat and water flow will be protected forever. We – all of us, Conservancy members and staff, funding agencies, and the landowner – are like the Chinook’s support crew. They are the Green Flash, and we are here to give them a safe watercourse to come home to.

For more on the Conservancy’s work with salmon in Idaho, here’s a story from Lee Creek.

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Tidings from the King Tide Wed, 08 Oct 2014 20:18:36 +0000 It’s King Tide time again this week – those super high tides that generally occur twice a year when the alignment of the Earth, moon and sun combine just so to cause unusually high water levels. In South Florida where I live, we’re already seeing tidal flooding, and the highest tides aren’t even expected in many areas until Thursday, October 9.

(See when some local king tides are predicted.)

People often talk about King Tides and climate change, but I think it’s important to point out that these tides are cyclical and predictable, and they happen all around the world. Australia, South America, everywhere, and have happened as long as there have been tides. They’re not caused by climate change. But they are an important glimpse of what a “new normal” might look like – especially in places like South Florida – as the world’s sea levels rise. What these tides really show us is that with higher sea levels, floods will continue to reach farther and farther inland.

It can be hard to take a longer view in times like this – water flowing down the street in front of your house is, after all, a problem in need of an immediate solution. But the good news is that King Tides are not our new normal; instead, they are a kind of warning from a future that isn’t quite here yet, and we have time to take actions and make decisions to make ourselves, our property and our families safer.

Diver Freddy Perez  from the Miami Beach Storm Water Dept. clears a drainage pipe. But in this case, the pipe was broken so the workers had to  seal off another pipe with a temporary plug. © Patricia Sagastume
Diver Freddy Perez from the Miami Beach Storm Water Dept. clears a drainage pipe. But in this case, the pipe was broken so the workers had to seal off another pipe with a temporary plug. © Patricia Sagastume

Looking at the pictures of water flowing down Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderale and road crews plugging drains in Miami Beach, I’m reminded of a line from one of E.B. White’s essays, “The urge to solve a problem with a bulldozer or some other piece of heavy machinery is strong.” And it really is. I get it. I live in the low-lying Florida Keys. I love living here and if a bulldozer or a seawall or a bulkhead is the best defense against rising waters, I want to know that. But it’s important for us to recognize that bulldozers and concrete aren’t the only defenses, and sometimes they’re not even always the best choices for coastal defense.

A healthy wild colony of staghorn coral offshore of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida ©2012 Tim Calver.
A healthy wild colony of staghorn coral offshore of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida ©2012 Tim Calver.

The good news is that nature gives us a pretty big suite of options to add to our existing toolkit. Here in South Florida, we’re already seeing how mangroves, beaches, dunes and coral reefs can play a role in coastal defense by slowing erosion, breaking waves and absorbing storm water. Natural infrastructure (the go-to term for habitats that provide economic and social, as well as ecological benefits) is also good for local communities because healthy habitats provide the benefits that are so important to our Florida way of life and our tourist-based economy – clean water, broad beautiful beaches, thriving coral reefs and abundant fisheries.

It used to be that King Tides were fairly unremarkable except to the people who lived right along the coast. Now they’ve become much more well known – and well-documented – as they affect more people and their property. In fact, the Web is starting to fill with images that show how King Tides are affecting cities up and down the East Coast. If you want to join the conversation, you can search on #KingTide, and tag and upload your own images.

For my part, I’ve always believed that when nature is the source of the challenge it can (and should) be a key part of the solution. Today, I was heartened to see that the federal government is recognizing the benefits of nature and its infrastructure-value to communities, too. The Council on Environmental Quality just released an agenda full of commitments to build community resilience through the use of nature-based solutions to protect our cities and towns from more extreme weather. I’m proud to see the Conservancy mentioned as a strong part of these commitments that will help not only communities around the country, but also my friends and neighbors in South Florida and the Keys.

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A Gift of Wolves Mon, 06 Oct 2014 08:00:24 +0000 It was the end of a long day and we (myself and two rangers) were almost finished surveying marmots at Toson Hulstai Nature Reserve in Mongolia’s Eastern Steppe. We made one last stop to count a herd of Mongolian gazelles. I was surveying them through binoculars and counted all the way to 3000 when a small, stealthy movement caught my eye. I looked more closely and could not quite believe what was I seeing.

Chono – the gray wolf – moving across the grassland. I held my breath as he turned his head toward me and stood silent and suddenly still. Did he sense my presence, my eyes on him, even across the distance between us? He was alone, trailing the unsuspecting gazelles, and a moment later he was gone, vanished into the gathering dusk.

As a biologist, seeing a gray wolf — a species that has become virtually extinct in the Eastern Steppe — was exciting because it is living proof that the Conservancy’s work at Toson Hulstai is successfully supporting important predators, a sign of a healthy landscape. The scientist in me was pleased and gratified to get photographic documentation of wolves returning, but the Mongolian in me was not nearly so calm. I was awestruck and breathless, barely able to believe what I had seen, the gift the grasslands had given me.

For my people, the gray wolf is an important symbol of our culture, an ancestor to Chinggis Khan. Yet, in day-to-day life, the wolf is also a potential predator on the animals Mongolian nomads raise for their livelihoods. In this, the wolf carries double significance: a respected, mythical being of immense cultural value, but also a potential direct contributor to hard times. Because of the risk wolves pose to livelihoods, hunting of the wolf has been rampant, and led to their precipitous decline in the Mongolian grasslands, as in many other parts of the world.

A young boy minds his family's herd of goats as they graze in Toson Hulstai. The conflict between wolves and people is one of the reasons these important predators have all but disappeared from the Eastern Steppe. © Nick Hall
A young boy minds his family’s herd of goats as they graze in Toson Hulstai. The conflict between wolves and people is one of the reasons these important predators have all but disappeared from the Eastern Steppe. © Nick Hall

But the wolf plays an important role as the only top predator in the Eastern Steppe. Without Chono, the ecosystem teeters out of balance—populations of gazelles, marmots, hares and other prey grow too rapidly and overgraze the landscape. In Toson Hulstai, people are part of the balance here as well, and we work with herders to implement practices that will ensure that just as the wolf and the gazelle have enough to eat, so too do the livestock on which herders depend. And, our work throughout the Eastern Steppe is helping to protect the large landscapes that wolves, gazelles and other grassland species need to roam and forage.

Hunting of wolves is still a problem, but the tide may be turning. I’ve spoken with many herders who have also recently seen wolves in Toson Hulstai. They tell me that when wolves abounded, they didn’t know how important this creature was. But when the wolves were gone, they missed their howls filling the emptiness of the grassland nights.

I hope we may soon hear wolves once again howling the moon down over the Steppe. ©Tuugii Enksetseg/TNC
I hope we may soon hear wolves once again howling the moon down over the Steppe. ©Tuugii Enkhtsetseg/TNC

There is a Mongolian saying that no one can see a wolf unless he or she is that wolf’s equal, and as I think about this day, I consider myself lucky and perhaps even an emissary of the people of the Steppe. We are working so hard to prove ourselves equal to Chono, showing that we can bring balance to the ecosystem, creating and managing a landscape where wolves, gazelle and livestock can thrive, and human herders and hunters of all species can coexist.

It’s hard to describe the way I feel here in the grasslands. This is home for me, as it is for Chono. And standing in the space between land and sky with the mountains a distant backdrop, feeling the breeze rush over my skin and tug at my clothes, listening to the grasses murmur in the wind and knowing that we may soon hear wolves once again howling the moon down over the Steppe, I am grateful and I am at peace.


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Hoping for the Catch of a Lifetime Thu, 02 Oct 2014 14:46:55 +0000 A simple smile can communicate so much information when there’s a language barrier between two people. And as I interviewed Betsina Hay in Raja Ampat’s village of Kapatcol for Nature Conservancy magazine, her smile was telling me exactly how she was feeling before our translator could get the words across. I could see a mix of excitement and reservation as she told us about some fishing grounds that had been reserved for the women of her village.

“We closed the reef to all fishing about six months ago,” she told me. “Next week, the divers will come and tell us if it is full of sea cucumbers and trochus [a kind of sea snail]. If it is, the women of our group will begin fishing.”

This is no small thing for Hay and the women of Kapatcol. According to Gondan Rensari, the Nature Conservancy’s marine programs Director for Indonesia, most women in Raja Ampat don’t have a steady income and have to make do with whatever their husbands give them. They often fish to put food on the table for their families, but the role of professional fishing is left to the men. The little income women here do generate, through activities such as basket weaving, is never enough to really improve their economic status.

Sending Children to School

Hay described her group’s plans on how to use the money they will earn: They agreed that some of it would be divvied up among members of the group. Other profits would help pay to send the village’s children to school. Kapatcol has its own elementary school, but like many communities in this sparsely populated island region, children must travel to another village if they want to continue their education into middle school or beyond. Lastly, some of the money would go toward hosting a regional Christmas festival in Kapatcol. Every year, the event shifts to a different village among the area’s Christian communities, and the influx of visitors brings money into the village.

The fishing grounds Hay had her hopes pinned on are locally known as a “sasi.” Raja Ampat’s communities are applying a modern adaptation of traditional fishing rules to their reefs, says Purwanto, the Conservancy’s lead technical advisor in the area. With a sasi program, the villagers agree to close fishing on some communal reefs so that plants and animals can accumulate. Then selected community groups are allowed to fish there once the commercially important species have reached certain size and population thresholds. The reefs are monitored during the fishing to ensure the populations of those species don’t fall below a predetermined level.

Googles plus 2In many ways, these fishing grounds act as investment accounts in these villages: resources are set aside, given time to grow, and then a portion of the dividends are cashed out. Then the process starts over.

Purwanto notes that while the reefs are closed to fishing, they are also contributing to the marine populations of the wider area. In recent years, he has helped many other villages in Misool and Kofiau identify potential sasi fishing grounds. Some sasis were intended to support families, community churches or village projects. But this one in Kapatcol is the first to be managed and fished solely by women. And by the time Hay was done telling me their plans for the money, I was rooting for their reef, too.

This was actually the second location they’ve tried. The previous fishing grounds never developed the abundance of mollusks and sea snails they’d hoped for. Hopefully, this second reef would produce better results.

I could understand why Hay was so anxious to get the next reef monitoring report. So much was riding on the outcome: village economics, children’s access to education and a new place for women in their community’s fishing culture were at stake. As we left, I wished Hay and her group well, and asked my translator and guide to keep me updated on the progress of that sasi.

Waiting for News

Betsina Hay's smile says it all -- her village's sasi is a success and all of her hard work and her hopes have been rewarded. There will be money to send children to school and support social and economic growth for the women of Kapatcol and their families. © Nugroho Arif Prabowo
Betsina Hay’s smile says it all — her village’s sasi is a success and all of her hard work and her hopes have been rewarded. There will be money to send children to school and support social and economic growth for the women of Kapatcol and their families. © Nugroho Arif Prabowo

News doesn’t flow quickly out of these remote islands, but it started to trickle into my email a month later. First, I heard that the dive team confirmed that the reef was supporting enough marine life that the sasi would be open for fishing very soon.

A few weeks later, I received some pictures of Hay and her group of women and kids, all wearing swimmers goggles and loading up their traditional dugout fishing boats with sea cucumbers, sea snails and a variety of creatures that I can’t attempt to identify. In two days of fishing, that sasi netted more than $400 for the group. That’s a significant amount of money in a Raja Ampat village.

But one photo in that email stood out the most to me: It was a shot of Hay standing in their boat. Her smile shows nothing but exuberance and confidence—the kind of smile someone flashes when she has just landed one of the most significant catches of her life.

Read more about how the community in Raja Ampat is protecting its marine life in Nature Conservancy Magazine: “Heart of the Ocean

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Can Technology Get Agriculture Out of its Climate Hole? Thu, 25 Sep 2014 15:44:32 +0000 The projections jump around, but the essential warning they are sending us is the same: agriculture is in a hole and the world needs to double food production over the next generation or Bad Things Will Happen.

How Bad? We’ll be living in a world where climate change bites just as agricultural demand spikes. Yields could level out or fall as climate stress increases, rising seas will salt the fertile river deltas and extreme weather events will wipe out crops. All leading to political tensions and increased pressure on natural resources which in turn will lead to….well, you get the not-so-pretty picture.

Ironically, one of the reasons global agriculture is in its current hole is the success it had in clambering out of its last one.

The Green Revolution and the Subsequent Coma about Global Food Security

A couple of generations ago, there were similar worries that rising population would outstrip global agricultural production. The Green Revolution was the response, a technological revolution that successfully ramped up production but also bred one perverse consequence: complacency among governments and societies, which came to believe the food supply was a solved problem. It was a natural conclusion as food prices fell and agricultural productivity rose.

And events calcified those assumptions. True, there was a food price spike in 2009, which jerked many governments out of their coma. But even with that blip, the big picture has still been year-on-year global declines in extreme hunger and poverty, and the rise of obesity rather than malnutrition as the major global issue around food consumption.

The collective complacency, though, has had serious consequences: the decline of public funding for agricultural research, and the running down of rural extension services across the world. Farmers are doing just fine, the conventional wisdom says, when it comes to food production. They don’t need as much support. Let market mechanisms take the lead.

How Tech Could Help Future Ag Landscapes Adapt to Climate Change

Well, climate change is finally (and fortunately) breaking that complacency down. All around the world, it is dawning on governments and others that climate change has very direct implications for the world food system.

Climate stress depresses production and yields, unless farmers can manage it successfully. They have managed it in the past — since farming began, in fact — but the projected temperature rises over the next century have no precedent in human history over so short a period. There are clearly risks. Can technology help us mitigate and adapt?

Maybe. Think about what an agricultural landscape could look like in 2030:

  • Small drones hovering over fields would be a common sight, monitoring and analyzing everything from micro-level soil conditions to pollinator density.
  • Fertilizer would be applied in precisely measured doses, in carefully chosen places at certain times only — helping produce higher yields than possible today but using half as much fertilizer, with all the attendant environmental benefits of that reduced application.
  • Automated machinery would plant, till and generally manage crops, ensuring precisely the right distance between plants and delivering the best possible water regime for them.
  • Seeds planted would be adapted to the micro-conditions of where they were planted to maximize yield, but would also be adapted to cope with climate stresses. Some would be genetically modified to add nutrients and vitamins.
  • All farm machinery would be uploading data all the time to the cloud. Farmers would need IT skills to manage farms properly — because as much management would be done from a laptop screen as in the field.
  • Technology cuts both ways too: regulators and environmental agencies in 2030 have much more sophisticated tools for tracking what is going on in real time, finding out who did what when, and enforcing rules and regulations.

Everything I have described above already exists somewhere, but the elements haven’t (yet) been put together into a single package. As my favourite cyberpunk novelist William Gibson once wrote, “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

For example, right now, we at The Nature Conservancy are collaborating with IBM in Brazil to develop an Internet portal that works for agriculture and the environment.

It allows farmers to model different land-use scenarios for their farms, and also to upload their farm details into a geo-referenced database that enables environmental agencies to help prevent illegal deforestation by tracking farmer compliance with Brazil’s Forest Code.

The Forest Code mandates the preservation of certain percentages of native vegetation on every farm, an idea that every government worried about climate change should consider very seriously. Satellite imagery is cheaper and higher quality every year, transforming our knowledge of what is happening on the ground and our ability to model and predict what alternative futures are out there.

The agriculture of the future will be all about alternatives and trade-offs, and technology can now lay those out as never before.

What We Need to Get to a Climate-Smart Ag Future

It is dangerous to assume this future will happen automatically, however.

The crucial question in getting to climate-smart agricultural is whether technologies developed in California can be adapted to Kenya. © Ami Vitale
The crucial question in getting to climate-smart agricultural is whether technologies developed in California can be adapted to Kenya. © Ami Vitale

Technology has yet to prove it can deliver on its promise and make agriculture climate-smart. Precision agriculture is being developed to improve yields and deliver profits, not sustainability, which is almost an accidental and incidental by-product of increased input efficiency. And truly climate-smart agriculture will depend on a lot of things besides technology: more diversified crop portfolios, better integration between grazing and cropping, and so forth.

There are also crucial historical differences between the Green Revolution and the current burst of technological innovation in agriculture. The most important is that the Green Revolution was public sector innovation. It was developed in an international research centre in Mexico, and specifically aimed at Mexican peasants. The second stage of the Green Revolution was aimed at Punjabi peasants. There was no food crisis in the 1960s and 1970s because countries like Mexico and Pakistan got the agricultural technologies they needed.

Today, the crucial question in getting to climate-smart agriculture is whether technologies developed in California can be adapted to Kenya. All the technological ingenuity in the world is useless if farmers in Mexico and the Punjab, who could afford publicly funded seeds 50 years ago, can’t afford the privately funded technologies that depend upon recouping development costs and generating profits from affluent, well-educated and technologically sophisticated farmers.

Precisely the kind of farmers, in other words, who are difficult to find in the places where it matters most for climate-smart farming, like sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian sub-continent. It is in sorting out this complicated public/private, rich world/poor world farming nexus that solutions to managing the impact of climate change on farming will be found.

Opinions expressed here and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. For more information about our editorial policy and legal terms of use, see our About This Blog page. – See more at:
 Opinions expressed here 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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Favorite Son: A Story of Community and Conservation Thu, 25 Sep 2014 12:00:23 +0000 Earlier this week the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), a network of 27 community conservancies and a key Conservancy partner in Africa, received an Equator Prize from the United Nations Development Program in recognition of the group’s transformative work to secure peace and transform lives in Kenya. The Trust puts communities in charge of their own natural resources and creates ways for people to earn income by protecting wildlife and using resources sustainably.

Tom Lalampaa, the Northern Rangelands Trust’s Chief Programs Officer, was on hand in New York this week to receive the award. Tom’s own story embodies the simple elegance of NRT’s model – if people see benefits from healthy nature, they’ll protect it.

A warm, friendly smile curls at the ends of his mouth as Tom Lalampaa starts his story. He is a Samburu from the West Gate community in Kenya’s rugged northern rangelands and the second of 17 children. One evening, while his father took his tea, he told Tom and his eldest brother about a recent community meeting where village chiefs were encouraging local elders to send children to school.

He then presented Tom’s oldest brother with a choice: “I get the feeling school is a good idea. I want one of you to go to school and one to look after livestock.” His brother chose herding and so Tom began primary school in 1981.

Tom explains that it’s difficult for him to say exactly how old he was when this fateful decision was made. “I don’t know how old I am. When you are Samburu, you are told you were born during a certain time – during a drought, when the cattle was moved to Mount Kenya – and that’s how they mark your age.” The birthdate on Tom’s Kenyan identity card is a best guess.

Ten years into Tom’s education, his family lost all their cattle to a severe drought. For herders in Kenya’s arid rangelands, cattle are both your income and your savings account. With the cattle gone, there was no money for Tom’s education. At the time, Tom was the only member of his community attending school. Although many of his neighbors were suffering with similar hardships from the drought, the West Gate community thought beyond current circumstances and chose to allocate a shared pot of funds – earned through ecotourism – to pay Tom’s educational expenses.

“We are pastoralists,” Tom explains. “We live together so we can assist each other. We live communally.”

He left for university in 1995 and after graduating, he returned to West Gate to work as the conservancy manager. By then West Gate was one of several communities working with the Northern Rangelands Trust to build strong local governance structures so that communities are better equipped to manage their own natural resources in ways that generate benefits for both people and wildlife. The Nature Conservancy has been a close partner with the Trust since 2008, sharing science, business planning, mapping and other resources to increase the impact of this community-led conservation movement.

As conservancy manager, Tom oversaw the conservancy’s day-to-day operations, like wildlife security and monitoring, and grazing management. Helping to care for and sustain the shared resources his community relies on was his way of giving back to the people who had given to him.

Africa images 2Today as the Trust’s Chief Programs Officer – with an MBA and a second Master’s in project planning – he continues to give back by sharing valuable experience with not just West Gate, but with all 27 conservancies under the Northern Rangelands Trust’s umbrella and even beyond. A 2011 presentation on Capitol Hill had Tom sharing Kenya’s community conservation lessons with U.S. congressional staffers. In 2013, the Duke of Cambridge presented Tom with the Tusk Conservation Award for his incredible contributions to his community, his neighbors and wildlife. And this week, he is back in the U.S., representing the Trust as a recipient of the Equator Prize, a biennial award that recognizes local sustainable development solutions for people, nature and resilient communities.

But it’s the progress at home that means the most to Tom. With conservancy revenue, the West Gate community has now sent more than 40 students to university.

“What makes me most happy,” he says as his familiar smile returns, “is seeing the progress and my people benefit and get more organized. You build that ownership in the community and they see the value in managing those [natural] resources for the future. It’s amazing work.”

Images: Children at the Samburu School in the West Gate Community. © Ami Vitale
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Walking the Devil’s Backbone Tue, 23 Sep 2014 08:00:54 +0000 In a place like Iowa, where you can see the horizon from your front yard, and cornfields stretch their green stalks towards the sky for miles on end, the abrupt cliffs and forests of Backbone State Park are an astonishing revelation.

And Backbone certainly does reveal itself as you enter the park’s gates.

A narrow two-lane road wanders up a small hill as you pass the entrance sign, one sharp turn to the left and…you have left the corn fields and abruptly entered a forest of lush, green oaks and maples of varying height and girth. The sun peeks through the leaves and illuminates the forest floor. And if the forest wasn’t a big enough surprise, as you wind down the road, towering cliffs of yellow limestone peek out from behind the thick woods.

Iowa’s first state park protects a geological wonder, a narrow ridge of bedrock – called the “Devil’s Backbone” – because of its resemblance to a spine. Cut by a loop in the Maquoketa River, the Backbone, rises 80 feet from the ground. With sheer drops on either side, it’s not your typical Iowa landscape.

I recently took my four- and six-year-old sons to hike the Devil’s Backbone. It was our first trip to the park, and excitement filled the car as we made our way towards the Backbone Trailhead. I had heard the park was beautiful, and I was ready for a change of scenery. And the boys? Well, they knew they were going hiking in the forest. They danced around. They yelled. They ran ahead. They talked at the same time and over each other. Yes, excitement was in the air.

As we started up the trail that would take us along the spine, I admit that the overprotective mom in me wanted to stand between them and the cliff that dropped – precipitously – to the river below. But I watched them instead, and offered hiking guidance.

As these young boys of mine would near the edge, they would naturally calm down and step slowly. Peeking over the edge together, we marveled at the long drop below. Rocks poked out of the dirt of the trail, and crevices in the rocks were big enough for a young child to squeeze through. This was encouraged. I wanted them to explore and be curious. They were discovering a new world.

Playing outside in our yard is wonderful, but giving my kids the opportunity to explore a new trail or forest felt priceless. I don’t think this opportunity exists for kids like it did when I was young. I remember walking slate-filled creeks in the woods of my grandparents’ backyard, and disappearing for hours in the woods. These walks always fostered curiosity, independence and confidence for me. But today? Those opportunities have all but ceased to exist for my children’s generation. So to give them an opportunity to explore a new place – supervised or not – seems invaluable to me.

Rock crevices were made for exploring by curious boy. (Sadly, no bear sightings.)  © Megan Sheehan
Rock crevices were made for exploring by curious boys. (Sadly, no bears were hiding here this trip.) © Megan Sheehan

My youngest son kept exclaiming, “This is awesome!” as we slowly meandered through the woods. They asked why trees had fallen over, what had made that hole in the dirt, and what lives in the woods. They picked up acorns (acorns are plentiful in Iowa this year) and looked for bears (bears are not).

When we returned to the car (Uninjured! No one had fallen off the cliff!), I read the signs posted near the trailhead that provided the history of Backbone. And something stood out to me about the creation of this state park: One man’s generosity made it possible. E.M. Carr donated the initial 1200 acres of the park to the people of Iowa and it was officially dedicated in 1919. His individual act, nearly 100 years ago, was now positively influencing our little family – and surely has done the same for countless others.

Individual experiences are often defining moments for change that extend far beyond the individual. This idea – that individual experiences and actions matter – is one of the reasons I work for The Nature Conservancy. I get to be part of so many stories of conservation that are as inspiring as E.M. Carr’s donation of his favorite nature to the people of Iowa. To me. To my boys. Those kinds of acts – those kinds of people — are hopeful reminders of how powerful we are as individuals, and how influential nature is to our well-being and our growth.

I’m already looking forward to the next hike in Backbone State Park, where I can relish  the quiet, forested reminder of how powerful we are as individuals, and how being connected to nature ultimately connects us, not only to ourselves, but to each other as well.



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IBM, Big Data and Saving the Amazon (the Real Amazon) Wed, 17 Sep 2014 08:00:21 +0000 Can applied technology and the wisdom of crowds help save the Amazon rainforest?

Yes. That’s why 10 IBM technology and business experts from seven countries are spending a month in Belem, Brazil, helping The Nature Conservancy tackle rampant deforestation. With assistance from a crowdsourcing Web site, they´re recommending key strategy, technology and marketing improvements aimed at making it easier for Brazilian municipalities and landowners to comply with the country´s Forest Code.

The Web site not only reaches out to IBM and Conservancy staff but also to anybody who is interested in helping preserve the rainforest.

How the app helps Brazil monitor forest compliance

Rampant deforestation is, of course, the biggest problem facing Amazon conservation efforts.

And while enforcement of forest laws helps slow the rate of deforestation, local, state and federal land managers still face complicated challenges stopping forest conversion. One of the biggest: Brazil needs a quick, integrated reliable way to establish land-ownership records and monitor land use so that municipalities can enforce the laws to stop illegal deforestation when it happens or, preferably, prevent it from happening in the first place.

To help solve that problem, the Conservancy has developed a cloud-based application called PAM to enable land managers to track and meet their environmental goals, as well as assess how landowners are complying with Brazil’s forest laws.

It’s a pretty straightforward equation: Good monitoring is the key to good enforcement and good enforcement is the key to halting illegal deforestation. And though several Brazilian municipalities have adopted PAM (a Portuguese acronym for Municipal Environmental Portal App), it needs more widespread implementation to have the impact we need.

Enter IBM.

Through the support of the Conservancy’s Latin America Conservation Council, IBM’s non-profit Corporate Services Corps is on the job. They are using their technical and organizational expertise to overcome barriers to adoption and make PAM the most used and most effective land management tool in the country (and maybe one day, the world).

To accomplish that they are:

  • Working out technical solutions to integrate PAM with existing environmental management reporting systems in Brazil. The main reason PAM has not been widely adopted is because the lack of integration meant huge inefficiencies because land managers had to load data in two separate places.
  • Tackling the challenges of remote access to the Internet. Given PAM data is stored in the cloud, reliable access to the Net is absolutely necessary. Which, not surprisingly, can be a significant problem in some of the most remote areas on the planet. The IBM team in Belem sent the question to more than 400,000 of their colleagues to ask who had the best solutions for connectivity in remote areas. The answers that came back from the crowd included a promising project involving solar-powered drones broadcasting wireless.
  • Working on new functionalities, including mobile platforms. PAM has the potential to meet all the data-management needs of Amazonian land managers, from enabling the collection of field-based data to streamlining licensure and conservation plans and payments.

Right now, IBM’s experts have another week to go on this rapid-development project in the Amazon. It’s not your typical conservation story – at least at the Conservancy.

Developers and programmers don’t often figure in the stories we tell about our work, and maybe that should change.

The challenges we face today clearly require imagination, innovation and, in this case, an epic knowledge of programming languages and database integrations. So we offer our thanks and admiration to the 10 highly skilled IBM professionals who even now are working in a small office in Belem, Brazil — staring at computer screens and helping to save a little more of the Amazon with every stroke of a key.


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