Monday, August 17, 2015

As Fires Burn Up the Forest Service Budget, the Conservancy Calls for a Better Way to Fund Fire Suppression

by Will Whelan, director of government relations

As I write this post, Soda Fire in southwest Idaho is by far the largest wildfire in the nation, and Idahoans from Owyhee County to the Clearwater Valley are being advised to evacuate homes in the path of advancing flames.  More than 60 large fires are active across the country, with nearly 20,000 firefighters on the lines.  The entire national system for fire suppression is stretched. The toll on people, communities, and sagebrush habitats that we’ve worked so hard to protect has been heartbreaking.

Soda Fire Column © InciWeb

The headlines grab our attention, but the impact of longer and more severe fire seasons extends far beyond the fire lines.   A Forest Service report issued this month delivered a stark message: the skyrocketing cost of firefighting threatens the agency’s ability to manage for recreation, wildlife, restoration, jobs, and all of the other benefits that Americans derive from our public lands.

Twenty years ago, the Forest Service spent 16% of its budget on fire suppression.  Today, that figure has increased to more than half.  In ten years, two-thirds of the agency’s funds will go to fighting fires.  Because the agency’s overall budget allocation has been basically flat for years, essential land conservation and stewardship programs have absorbed the blow as more and more money goes to suppression.  I was stunned to discover that the Forest Service’s non-fire staff has fallen by 39% since 1998.

This is not a sustainable model for our public lands.  Tens of millions of acres of national forest lands need restoration through actions such as stream rehabilitation, forest thinning, and prescribed fire. Three-quarters of forest trails don’t meet agency standards.  The Forest Service’s road and facility maintenance backlog runs into the billions of dollars.  None of these needs can be met if current trends are allowed to continue.

This week, I joined Senator Crapo (R-ID), Senator Risch (R-ID), and Senator Wyden (D-OR) at a press conference to promote the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.  This bi-partisan bill would change how the federal government budgets for wildfire disasters by making it similar to the way other disasters are funded.  The public land agencies would continue to pay for fighting most fires.  But, the costs associated with the disaster fires would be funded with disaster funds.  The bill would have no impact on the overall federal budget or the deficit, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But it would finally give some breathing room for programs that support restoration, conservation, recreation, and the other public land values we prize.

Smokey Sign © S. Hellstrom

A united Idaho congressional delegation is leading the fight for the bill. Congressman Mike Simpson is the lead co-sponsor in the House, and Senator Mike Crapo is the lead co-sponsor in the Senate. They are all working hard for this cause and have earned our thanks.

Editor’s note: A total of 283,686 acres have burned to date since the Soda Fire ignited on August 10. As of August 17, the fire is 70% contained. Resources deployed include 811 personnel, 6 helicopters, 36 engines, 14 crews, 13 water tenders, and 9 dozers. 

To keep track of this and other fires around Idaho visit:

Friday, August 14, 2015

Learning the Ropes

by Maria Rachal and Alex Jones, Flat Ranch Preserve summer interns

On June 5, we arrived for our first day of work as the Flat Ranch’s summer interns. Earlier that week, through the generous support of the A. Paul Knight Internship Program in Conservation through Washington and Lee University, we had traveled over 2,000 miles from Virginia to Idaho. We go to school in the valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Appalachians, another beautiful part of the country but a noticeable contrast to the Rocky Mountains. Armed with a basic understanding of The Nature Conservancy’s mission and an adventurous spirit for exploring the West, we both began our Flat Ranch experiences not exactly sure what kinds of scientific or manual responsibilities to expect.

Alex and Maria © Alex Jones

Our initial morning as Flat Ranch employees set the tone for the summer; our foremost order of business was to purchase rubber boots for traversing the marshy areas of the preserve and work gloves for just about everything else. When we returned to the preserve, we sat down with Flat Ranch manager Matthew Ward to review our work plan for the summer. The list of tasks seemed foreign and a little overwhelming to two inexperienced ranch hands from the East Coast.

“Ensure all fences are kept repaired.” For all the things that our college educations prepared us for, building and fixing barbed wire or electric fences had somehow never been covered. “Study preserve wildflowers.”  Looking out on a sea of white, yellow, blue, and purple blossoms, we really doubted we’d ever internalize most of the names of the wildflowers found on our 1,600 acre property. “Study common invasive plant species found in Idaho.” If we could hardly keep track of the names of the wildflowers on the preserve, how were we supposed to remember which flowering plants weren’t actually supposed to be here?

Flat Ranch Fenceline © Megan Grover-Cereda

After receiving first-time lessons on how to drive a pick-up truck through the grass, learning ATV 101, and having copies of Plants of the Rocky Mountains, Idaho’s Noxious Weeds, and Flat Ranch’s numbered cow pasture map tossed our way, we were immediately trusted as full-fledged Flat Ranch employees. Despite our initial lack of confidence in our aptitude for ranch work and wildlife and plant assessments, Matthew quite willingly sent us off into the preserve to learn. We quickly came to appreciate that often the best way to climb a steep learning curve is to be thrown into the deep end. All of the skills we’ve acquired this summer were completely new to us, from measuring stream flow and cleaning out fish ladders, to monitoring grazing progress and even simply managing to open the ever-challenging barbed wire gates between pastures. With two months of work under our belts, we can say that our summer at Flat Ranch has been a testament to the power of learning by doing.

Not only have we noticed a distinct change in our ability to make significant headway on projects at Flat Ranch, but we also realized that our time at Flat Ranch has shifted and shaped our outlook on our environment outside of work. For example, all of our time spent mending or raising fences has caused us to occasionally admire the handiwork that went into a particular ranch’s fenceline as we drive down the highway. Similarly, the time we have spent mapping problematic weeds on the preserve has tuned us to exercise sharp eyes for Canada thistle, houndstongue, oxeye daisy, common toadflax, and other invaders. We knew we’d finally mastered these noxious weeds when we caught ourselves pointing these species out to one another in various locations where we spent our days off. 

Flat Ranch Wildflowers © Chris Little

Furthermore, when we go on hikes in Yellowstone, we carry a wildflower identification book, not because we don’t know the names of any of the wildflowers, but because we’ve familiarized ourselves with so many at Flat Ranch and have developed a real curiosity for identifying species still unknown to us. As the days have turned into weeks and the weeks have turned into months, we’ve become so well-assimilated to our lifestyle as interns on the preserve that we’ve gained a keen interest in and fondness for our environs and subjects of work.

Additionally, as we’ve gotten to see more and more of Eastern Idaho and the surrounding areas in Wyoming and Montana, we’ve come to understand how special our home at the Flat Ranch is. While reading a Yellowstone trail guide book, we read of a certain hike that stated, “and if you’re lucky, you might even be able to see a sandhill crane!” We chuckled at this highlight, seeing as the Flat Ranch is home to a plethora of sandhill cranes that we see practically each day we’re at work. To experience the rich diversity of plants and wildlife this area has to offer, we certainly don’t have to leave our workplace.

Sandhill Crane © Ken Miracle

Along the way, even as we’ve grown to feel like seasoned Flat Ranch interns, we’ve learned to expect the unexpected. We have found ourselves in such adventurous situations as driving the ATV through a hail storm, hiking many miles in hip waders, and nearly losing our rubber boots in waist-deep muck.

 By the end of August, both of us will have departed Idaho and moved on to our next chapters. On the one hand, our now-extensive knowledge of ranch work and the Rocky Mountain ecosystem seems a little less useful in our lives on the East Coast. However, we will continue to carry with us the increased capacity for problem-solving, teamwork, and most importantly, love for this area of the West that we gained this summer (not to mention the ripped jeans and stained and faded outerwear). Guess we’ll just have to invest in copies of Noxious Weeds of Virginia and Plants of the Appalachian Mountains to tide us over until the next Western adventure. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

California Condor

by Lisa Eller, director of communications

As we turned another corner along the old coast Highway 1 between our campsite at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Sand Dollar Beach, I looked out admiringly at the majestic scene, the Pacific Ocean crashing against the rugged coastline, framed by the Los Padres National Forest. I could look at this view all day. This stretch of road is one of my favorite drives and one of the most beautiful in the West.
The rugged California Pacific coastline in the area near and north of Monterey, Carmel and Big Sur. Photo ©Lynn Mc Bride

Looking out at the fog rolling slowly by, my eyes began focusing on something unusual coming out of the whiteness. Enormous black wings gliding above us, casting a huge shadow below. I had never seen anything so big (and not manmade) in the sky before, so it took me several seconds to realize that I was probably seeing a California condor.

Growing up in Southern California in the early 80s, I never thought I would see the condor outside of captivity. The bird was a recurring topic of our natural history lessons in school. By 1987 the California condor had become extinct in the wild because of poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction. The 22 remaining wild and captive individuals were put into a captive breeding program by the U.S. government in an effort to save the species.

Beginning in 1991, condors were released back into the wild. But it wasn't until 2006 that a pair of released birds attempted to nest in a hollow tree near Big Sur. According to Sky News, that was the first time in 100 years that a pair of condors was seen nesting in Northern California. Click here for more information on the California condor.

My heart began racing immediately after I spotted the rare bird — although I didn't realize just how rare it was until doing some research later in our trip.
Portrait of a California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), the largest flying bird in North America and one of the most endangered birds in the world, shown here in flight, CA. © CA Fish and Game

"That was a California condor," I told my husband, who was driving the car. Ever the skeptic, he insisted that what I had seen was probably a turkey vulture. "No, I don't think it was. Pull up over here," I said, pointing ahead. I wondered if we could catch another glimpse of the bird.

After he turned into a scenic point and stopped the car, a condor (probably the same one I had seen above) landed on the edge of the cliff in front of us. After getting an impossibly close look at the bird's impressive size, characteristic bald, gray/nude-colored head and the tag on its wing, we agreed that it was a condor. "Quick, take a photo!" I told my shocked husband. But it was too late. The bird took one look at us, stretched out its enormous, beautiful black wings and flew off into the fog.
The author and her husband ©Lisa Eller

Something about seeing the bird made me sad and hopeful all at once. It was sad to think how close we came to losing the species altogether, how small the population remains and how seeing condors in captivity pales in comparison to seeing them in the wild. Yet I couldn't shake the hopeful feeling that even when all seems lost, swift conservation actions can be taken to reverse the course and move us in the right direction. And to be clear, the condor is still critically endangered and we still have a lot of work to do.

This unforgettable experience made me think about birds that are meaningful to Idahoans and integral to its landscapes, birds like the long-billed curlew and Greater sage grouse. At varying levels, each of these species faces the same or similar threats that the condor does. Habitat loss through various human uses is a common thread. As an organization we could not possibly tackle all of these threats at once. But I am thankful that we are focused on that key piece of conserving, protecting and restoring habitat. And I'm thankful that we are part of a community of organizations focused on doing its part to ensure we all get a chance to see these majestic birds in the wild.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Cuba to Yellowstone

by Bob Unnasch director of science

During the past several weeks I had the opportunity to take a break and travel some. At the end of May I traveled to the Archipiélago de los Jardines de la Reina, a cluster of islands off the southern coast of Cuba. Two weeks later I spent a few days in Yellowstone. 

While honestly, the main reason for my visit to the Caribbean was to catch large fish on flies, I was also excited to see the island’s biodiversity. Cuba is only 90 miles south of Florida and 140 miles east of the Yucatán. At times the Gulf of Mexico Loop Current sweeps past the Yucatán peninsula and turns due east brushing the northern coast of Cuba. Other times the current flows north through the Gulf of Mexico then south along the western coast of Florida before flowing east through the Straits of Florida. It seems like the ideal conveyor to carry critters to the island. I anticipated the fauna of Cuba to be an amazing collection of North and Central American critters. 

Going Fishing © Bob Unnasch

My trip to the Jardines involved flying into Havana and then driving ~300 miles to the small town of Júcaro. We then boarded a boat for a 60 mile trip to the islands. To my great disappointment I saw no mammals, nor any evidence of mammals. Similarly, I saw few bird species — even remarkably few individual birds. I was dumbfounded; my daydreams of a biologically diverse paradise, shattered. Maybe it was time to get my eyes checked.

Upon my return, I did a bit of research and discovered that it wasn’t my eyes. Cuba's native land mammals include two insectivores, one coney, and twelve rodents. Of these, five are extinct, including the coney, and five are critically endangered. By comparison, Yellowstone has 67 native mammals in the park, (Idaho has 107).

Cuban hutia © Bob Unnasch

Our visit to Yellowstone National Park was a typical driving tour over a few days with a couple of stops at the Conservancy’s Flat Ranch. We saw all the charismatic mega-fauna that make Yellowstone famous and lots of small and medium mammals. It was fun, as always, to see the abundance and diversity of the park, and to imagine what the Rocky Mountains were like a millennium ago.

During my drive home, I started to think about the contrast between Yellowstone and Cuba. What would Yellowstone, or Idaho, be like if we only had a handful of native mammals? It would certainly feel different... and empty. Conservation biologists have described many tropical forest parks as suffering from an “empty forest syndrome”. The forests still have their trees, but all the large mammals are gone; typically the result of market hunting.

Yellowstone bison © Alan W. Eckert

We are seeing dramatic changes in the Rocky Mountains. Warmer winters have released mountain pine beetles which are now decimating our forests. Our whitebark pines, which play a keystone role in these ecosystems is disappearing. Whitebark pine nuts are a crucial food resource for a diversity of animals, including the Clark’s nutcracker and grizzly bears. We don’t know what will happen when those pine nuts are no longer available. Climate change rather than market hunting may well be emptying our forests. While we cannot predict how the future will unfold, we can build on what we do know to hopefully minimize the impact of the changes we see coming.

Ecologists use the word niche as a catch-all term that means “all the biological, ecological, and physical constraints on a species’ range”. Physical constraints include climate, geology, soils, hydrology, etc.  In 2010, two TNC scientists, Mark Anderson and Charles Ferree proposed a unique strategy for biodiversity conservation in light of climate change. Rather than focus on the species, we should focus on maintaining those geophysical features that ultimately control species distributions. This idea has taken hold and the strategy is now called “Conserving Nature’s Stage”. Click here for more information.


Flat Ranch bluebird © Marilynne Manguba

TNC has embraced this idea and is now mapping the geophysical diversity (Nature’s Stage) across North America. We completed this assessment for the Pacific Northwest late last year, and are now identifying key areas for conservation. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation recently granted The Nature Conservancy $6,000,000 for land conservation work within these areas.  I’m hopeful that by conserving the diverse ecological stage we’ll be able to ensure that the actors will always find a home.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Tree Hugger

by Valerie Connor board liaison/operations assistant 

Big, strong, dark and handsome.  I’m standing under a mighty Ponderosa Pine and it is my new favorite tree. The orange-brown color, the vanilla smell, and the puzzle-like texture of the bark are all so captivating. It’s the weekend and my husband and I are out exploring.  We end up outside of Featherville in the Baumgartner campground.  We set up camp beneath this pine, the canopy dense enough to create a circular open space at its base.  

Ponderosa Pine © Valerie Connor

Over the weekend, we get to know this tree and its inhabitants. The first morning we watch western tanagers flying in and out of its branches, flights of yellow and red flashing overhead, their fluty calls making us smile- so cheerful and uplifting.  Later the nuthatches flew in and nimbly scurried around the trunk, excavating for insects.  Gray jays swooped in looking for handouts. 

Western Tanager © Brian E. Small

Pinus ponderosa is a long-lived, common tree throughout the western U.S. They are drought-tolerant trees with a thick protective bark that can withstand low-intensity fire and have a deep tap root. Old growth ponderosas can grow up to 180 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter. The cones are 3 to 6 inches long, and take two years to mature. The bark starts off dark brown and turns to orange-yellow at about 90 years of age. Ponderosa needles are bundled in threes and they are five to ten inches long.

Ponderosa Pine thrives from Canada to Mexico and from the Pacific Coast eastward to South Dakota, an area that stretches over more than 35 percent of the area of the United States.  They make good lumber and were mercilessly harvested over the course of a century of railroad building and development in the West. Concurrently, fire suppression became the defacto forest management policy. Over time, the buildup of flammable materials on the forest floor resulted in hotter fires that the trees were not designed to withstand.  The combination of these two factors quickly diminished the forests across the Western US. 

Burned pine forest © Valerie Connor

The science of Forestry is well known, yet poor management practices persist today.  The Nature Conservancy is taking a stand for forests, offering resources, expertise, science and collaboration to help restore and protect our forests.  Find out more about our forest initiatives here. 

Back at the campground, we pack up. It rained overnight and the trees look vibrant in the morning light. The tanagers fly in, alight on a high branch and peer down at us.  We decide to stay just a few minutes longer and bask in the peaceful shade of the ponderosa.  I am drawn to this illustrious tree and when I wrap my arms around its trunk, I feel one with nature-just me, the ground and sky and my new favorite tree.