University study assesses conservation exchange, finds potential benefitsWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Sublette County – As increased residential growth and energy development have been seen in Wyoming, residents have had growing concerns about the condition of natural resources in the state.
“These activities have increased economic opportunities but have also placed development pressures on land and water resources,” reads a report released by the University of Wyoming (UW) in September.
In conjunction with The Nature Conservancy, a research team from UW conducted a series of focus groups and interviews to gain perspective on potential payment for ecosystem services (PES) programs, resulting in their report Development of a Market-Based Conservation Program in the Upper Green River Basin of Wyoming: Feasibility Study.
“For many years, landowners in the Upper Green River Basin have been discussing ways to generate revenue from management of activities that provide social and natural resource benefits beyond the ranching community,” the report explains.
Study focal points
Researchers investigated three key points, including which ecosystem services are highly valued by potential funders, which practices are enticing and feasible for landowners and what features would be necessary to ensure cooperation from regulatory agencies.
Relevant stakeholder groups for the study included landowners, credit buyers and regulatory agencies.
Landowners were described as agricultural producers who would generate “credits” to be sold by implementing conservation management practices on their property.
“A PES program could provide landowners with an additional stream of revenue to help them continue their ranching operations as a viable business,” states the report.
Energy companies, developers or even conservation foundations would buy the credits created by landowners to offset environmental impacts or support conservation efforts.
The report also notes, “Federal and state regulatory agency approvals can be necessary for the success of a PES program.”
Regulatory agencies may retain ownership of surface or mineral rights, and they also often have influence over how lands are managed.
“Scoping efforts identified three ecosystem services most likely to be of interest to buyers, sellers and regulators,” the report indicates.
Those services included Greater sage grouse habitat, mule deer habitat and hydrologic services.
“The Upper Green River Basin has an abundant natural resource base. The Basin is home to the largest mule deer herd in the U.S. and has the largest documented big game migration route in the continental United States. The Basin possesses excellent sage grouse habitat and is headwaters to the Colorado River System,” describe researchers.
Concerns addressed by stakeholders include public lands issues and payments for improvements, as well as conservation practices already in place, measurable results and regulatory assurances.
After assessing focus groups and interviews across stakeholder groups, the report notes that comments are not always positive concerning past conservation projects in the Basin associated with mitigation of energy impacts. Improvements can be made, however, and stakeholders see potential benefits of PES programs.
“Moving forward, agricultural producers and energy companies would like to know that money spent on conservation stays within their communities and that conservation actions benefit their intended purpose,” it says.
“Agricultural producers, energy companies and regulators would also like to see measurable results from investments in conservation, whether the conservation is driven by regulatory mitigation requirements or not,” the report continues.
Researchers conclude that a market-based PES system carries significant potential to produce quantifiable conservation outcomes, as long as the program is designed well.
“PES programs can be an innovative way to collaborate and create conservation actions locally through science and accountability,” researchers explain.
A well-designed program should help to verify outcomes over time by creating a marketplace that evaluates resource conditions both before and after impact events take place.
“A well-functioning environmental market must possess the following components,” the report states, outlining a well-defined market scope for geographical and timeline aspects, an agreed definition of “good” in conservation goals, protocols that are transparent and accountable and adaptive management.
“The rules that govern the marketplace must be sufficiently flexible to adapt to updates in science and policy,” it says.
Starting a program
Researchers hope that the Wyoming Conservation Exchange will exemplify a well-designed project. On May 22, 2014, a collaboration in the Upper Green River Basin submitted documents to state and federal wildlife agencies outlining a model and plan for the Exchange.
“The Wyoming Conservation Exchange will help prevent further habitat fragmentation and will conserve and expand habitat for the Greater sage grouse. In addition, the Exchange will help energy companies, agricultural producers and other resource users comply with current and future regulations,” the collaboration explains on their website.
The program hopes to gain support and engagement from a wide range of stakeholders for the mutual benefit of everyone.
“By emphasizing quantifiable conservation outcomes, the Exchange will make conservation investments more effective and efficient, and result in more meaningful and long-lasting benefits,” the collaboration says.