Conservation exchange:Upper Green River Basin groups address conservation concerns
As energy development continues across Wyoming, energy companies are continually working to fulfill off-site mitigation requirements. In the Upper Green River Basin of southwestern Wyoming, new opportunities for companies to meet those requirements are emerging with the development of the Upper Green River Conservation Exchange.
“Our idea was to create a marketplace for environmental services where energy companies could pay landowners to implement best management practices on their land,” explains Kristi Hansen of the University of Wyoming. “In exchange, energy companies would receive credits for offsite mitigation. Such an exchange could also involve other investors interested in supporting conservation, not just energy companies.”
Because of the unique nature of the Upper Green River Basin in its environmental qualities, recreation amenities, wildlife habitat and riparian areas, as well as the increasing amount of oil and gas exploration, Hansen notes that the area is ideal for a conservation exchange.
Just over a year ago, groups in the Upper Green River Basin came together to begin officially developing a program.
“Discussions to get something underway in the environmental service marketplace started among landowners a number of years ago,” explains Hansen. “The Sublette County Conservation District (SCCD) got involved with the University of Wyoming and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to scope the feasibility of setting up a marketplace to make these transfers happen.”
The result of these numerous discussions was the Upper Green River Conservation Exchange.
In developing the Upper Green River Conservation Exchange, Hansen says they are working towards the establishment of a market where multiple buyers will be able to find sellers involved in implementing conservation strategies on the ground to maintain and/or enhance environmental conditions.
“The Environmental Defense Fund is involved in setting up markets along these lines across the western U.S.,” she adds, “so we are able to utilize their expertise to help us set up a program with benefits for energy companies , other potential funders and landowners.”
UW, SCCD and TNC have obtained a grant from the Wyoming Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to scope the feasibility of a market.
“In the context of that grant, we are implementing four transactions to help us explore how the markets might work,” Hansen comments. “We also have several landowners involved in the discussion and formation of the program.”
On the ground
As part of initial efforts, Hansen notes that developing relationships with stakeholders has been incredibly important to develop the program.
“We have done a lot of ground work in terms of talking to landowners and potential buyers like energy companies,” she continues. “We have talked to federal and state land management agency representatives, as well.”
“Landowners are very important stakeholders in this effort,” she adds.
Hansen also mentions, “We really want to make sure that what we set up moving forward meets the needs of potential buyers and sellers and is satisfactory to all the agencies that have an interest or responsibility to manage the land.”
“Right now, the program is in its infancy,” she says. “We are hoping to begin more pilot transactions this summer to see what the market might look like.”
In getting pilot transactions underway, Hansen explains that there are a number of different possibilities for how the market will look and function, and they are looking at several options.
“In the long run, we’d like to see a market with multiple buyers and sellers develop,” Hansen continues.
While energy companies may be the most likely initial buyers, all kinds of other buyers, from individuals to non-profit groups, could ultimately be buyers seeking to encourage conservation practices, Hansen said.
“One of the important aspects of what we are doing is developing the metrics for translating what happens on the ground into outcomes where we can track values for wildlife habitat and riparian function; and that provide accountability, certainty and flexibility for both buyers and ranchers, while enhancing stewardship for wildlife habitat and riparian function,” she adds.
The metric would basically help to quantify best management practices and conservation efforts. A science team is actively working to develop the metric.
Work with land management agencies is also important in developing the project, says Hansen, who notes that the group developing the Upper Green River Conservation Exchange is also looking at how to incorporate regulatory assurances.
“We are following the development of the sage grouse Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances at the state level,” Hansen says. “The project is intended to help energy companies and land owners to comply with current and future regulations”
The Upper Green River Conservation Exchange is being developed with both benefits for landowners and energy companies in mind.
“Our intention is that the program will help energy companies fulfill their offsite mitigation requirements,” Hansen says. “We really have an emphasis on making sure that conservation is achieved, and the science is there.”
Additionally, she notes that energy companies who participate in the program will know that their money is well spent in achieving measurable conservation on the ground.
“In terms of the landowners,” she explains, “participating in this program provides them with the potential for an additional revenue stream.”
“Ultimately, we are working toward the goal of having a conservation exchange as one way energy companies can help meeting their requirements while achieving conservation,” says Hansen.