A look at The Nature Conservancy’s Landscape Conservation Forecasting program

by Roger Moellendorf and Brian Bahouth

Louis Provencher is director of conservation ecology in Nevada for The Nature Conservancy and pictured here at the River Fork Ranch just east of Genoa, Nevada, a Conservancy property - image - Roger Moellendorf

Reno – While many may be familiar with the work The Nature Conservancy (TNC) does in acquiring environmentally sensitive properties in order to preserve, rehabilitate and protect them, many may not be aware that TNC also operates the Landscape Conservation Forecasting (LCF) program.  The LCF provides scientific and technological management services to large scale landowners to include federal agencies, military reservations, mines and private ranches.  These services aid property owners in making conservation management decisions and provide vital data that guides their efforts in completing the National Environmental Protection Act of 1973 (NEPA) process before taking any action that may disturb the land or ecosystems.

Environmental reporter Roger Moellendorf attended a presentation by Louis Provencher held on January 25th at TNC’s River Fork Ranch just east of Genoa, Nevada.  Provencher is director of conservation ecology in Nevada for The Nature Conservancy.  Listen to that interview …

To date, The Nature Conservancy has used Landscape Conservation Forecasting techniques on over nine million acres of property in the states of Nevada, Utah and North Carolina combined.

“It’s actually not that new,” Provencher said.  “What you’re saying about us buying, protecting, and managing land, that is true.  We’ve done that and we continue doing that, and people actually like us and they give to The Nature Conservancy because of that aspect, but probably since the mid-’90s, The Nature Conservancy has put an emphasis also on preserving, on doing conservation lands that they do not own that was managed by usually public lands managers or the Department of Defense.

“The people who did that (conservation forecasting) may have had a lower profile in the organization because there’s nothing concrete like acres and land and deeded land, which you can manage, and people can visit.  The landscapes that people would have to visit where I am involved is BLM land or Forest Service or Park Service land where they may be going camping anyway, so it’s not so connected, but there’s a group of us in the Nature Conservancy that went to large landscape public lands probably in the mid-’90s, and we persist at that, but we’re less known for that.”

The River Fork Ranch encompasses 800 acres of agriculture and riparian areas along the East Fork of the Carson River in Carson Valley.  The preserve includes a protected natural area along the river and maintains a working ranch; Ranch 1 was the first ranch operation in the Carson Valley – image – Roger Moellendorf

Provencher explained that the reason for holding the presentation was to raise awareness about the Conservancy’s conservation forecasting work.  The genesis of the forecasting program was based in the Conservancy’s mission to conserve and protect biodiversity.  

“We wanted to conserve, to promote the conservation of biodiversity in these areas we did not own, and the managers could have been federal agencies, and sometimes it’s ranchers,” Provencher said about why they started offering conservation consulting.  “Some ranchers actually have significant deeded land and others do not, but it was this aspect of how do you do this and how do you do it effectively at the least cost possible. It’s frightening how much land the agencies are responsible for but for which there is no funding or very little funding, so it was, how can you squeeze milk out of rocks type of thing.

“The agency or whoever the land manager is of these large areas needs to be successful.  They don’t have much money to do it, and therefore we’re going to help them try to achieve mission success in that sense.”

Provencher said sometimes land managers come to him, but typically he seeks out land in need of management assistance, especially in remote areas.

“I have a soft spot for people and federal agencies where the office is remote.  No one pays attention to them, and they would like help, but they don’t get that help.  They may or may not have money to do restorations, and I feel for those managers who would like help, who probably could afford doing something if they got help, and I go to them, and often in these remote areas often have landscape that is just incredible, and I actually like these remote areas like that. 

‘So I do my cold-calling, and recently we’ve had more people contact us to help them, and it always comes down to how much money do you have sometimes, and where are you exactly and what’s your resource, and we have to do our homework, and they do their homework on us and all that, but what is your question? What do you want to solve, and are we actually the group to help you?”

Satellite imaging is used to create large scale maps of vegetative habitat and identify areas of critical wildlife habitat.  Verified computer modeling then predicts how vegetative communities and habitat will change over a twenty-five year period by considering various management options.  When looking into the future, Provencher and his team consider disruptive events like fire, drought, weather cycles and trends, adverse impacts of development, positive impacts of conservation management actions, failure rates of management action, and return on investment for spending on conservation measures.

Typically the model is cast 25 years into the future, but if climate change is part of the assessment, the model is run 60 years forward. All the data is intended to feed into the NEPA process should land managers decide to alter the land or its use.  

The NEPA process is a requirement of any federal agency that manages public lands or lessors of public lands such as ranchers and mining corporations that are planning new projects on federal lands.  This includes fire suppression work, grazing rehabilitation, extraction uses, grazing operations and recreational uses.  NEPA requires a very detailed data collection process, the development of proposed alternative options and a very open public input process.  Provencher said under-resourced federal land managers are typically looking for a management tool that feeds directly into NEPA documentation, and the LFC is designed to do just that.

For instance, in 2015 the Nevada Barrick Bank enabling agreement was implemented to save the “near-threatened” sage grouse.  As part of the agreement, The Nature Conservancy would did conservation forecasting to examine the effects of open pit gold mining.   Barrick wanted financial certainty that they will be able to continue mining and that the sage grouse  not alter their permit.  The Nature Conservancy submitted the final report in 2017 with the goal of increasing the amount of sage grouse habitat.

Currently, LCF is being used to determine the risk of catastrophic wildfires in the Truckee headwaters and the potential effect on on domestic water and irrigation.  

Provencher is a scientist but a conservationist at heart.  In a perfect world where money was no object, Louis Provencher has a dream he offered during his recent talk in Genoa.

“I would like for once to be able to pick a landscape I would want to go to that we have our own funding and I don’t have to go hustle money from the Forest Service or the BLM or the Park Service and pick especially a landscape of high ecological value that is neglected by everyone and cannot attract funding by itself because it is remote and no one cares about it.

“I think about the north Snake range and Mount Moriah or the Quinn/Grant range.  There are a lot of these important landscapes that are at the edge of the Great Basin that are in the middle of nowhere, and no one pays attention to them, and it would be nice for once to actually have the ability to go there to work and invite the agencies to work with us because I would never do that without them, but money is not that much of a consideration.  That’s one of those pipe dreams I always have.”

For more from Louis Provencher, listen to the audio interview above …