Thursday, April 03, 2014

A Cure For Spring Fever


By Art Talsma, restoration manager

“One swallow does not make the summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw is the spring.”  - Aldo Leopold
Nature is calling us outdoors these first sunny days of spring. The snow geese are now fewer in numbers as they move north. I am excited to hear the call of the sandhill cranes circling high over Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge as I head out to do sage grouse conservation work in Idaho. I am thinking about photos of the grandkids that we just received and the inherent need in us to experience nature.
“Robin” was one of my granddaughter Neelah’s first words! “Let’s go for a hike” are favorite words of my grandsons, Andrew and Ethan. Kids love the outdoors and there are so many wonderful things to discover right out the back door with the world of birds.     

Photo ©Art Talsma
Spring time is great time to teach kids about the needs of wildlife, and birds are especially easy and interesting to observe in your yard, nearby park or nature area.  Birds are interesting to all ages, from little ones to teens to adults. One of the questions I ask kids is, “what is your favorite bird?” I follow with, “what materials do you see that you could use to build a nest?” What kind of birds build nest in trees and what birds nest on the ground?  Ah—and if you look around where would you hide that nest from predators? Perhaps this year you might hide the Easter eggs with a deeper message than, “Where is the candy?”

Photo ©Art Talsma
Okay, I am a wildlife biologist working on sage grouse conservation and I must admit I have a desire to share an adult message in this story too. Throughout sage brush country sage grouse are now gathering on dancing grounds called leks.   
The birds are telling us where they want to be and where safe haven is found year after year for the mating dance. Leks are where they will begin their annual reproductive cycle. Hens nest nearby in the best available habitat to be successful. Like most ground nesting birds they seek a nest site secure from predators and cover from spring storms. Specifically for sage grouse this almost always means a canopy of tall sage and plenty of residual cover. Residual cover usually consists of native bluebunch wheatgrass with tall stems left from last year. Yes- residual cover is commonly used as hiding and nest building material for many species of birds. So ask yourself next time you are out birding-- what habitat and nest building materials are available for birds?  

Photo ©Ken Miracle
If it is your own backyard you can create and enhance bird habitat at little cost. And if you want to see and experience wildlife habitat on your next hike with the kids join a conservation organization like the Nature Conservancy that works with many partners to conserve and protect wildlife habitat at a landscape scale. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

From Silver Creek to Argentina

Editor's note: Conservation manager, Dayna Gross, traveled to Argentina this month to participate in a exchange that aims to bridge the gap between the Conservancy's programs across the globe. The Idaho and Argentina programs have some similar conservation approaches, including grasslands and grazing management. This program presents an opportunity for staff in both locations to expand their knowledge and learn from each other. Dayna will be sharing her experiences on this blog while she is in Argentina.  

By Dayna Gross, conservation manager, Silver Creek watershed

Almost 40 years ago, the community surrounding Silver Creek made a huge leap forward for conservation and for The Nature Conservancy – bringing the Conservancy to Idaho to manage the Silver Creek Preserve. Over ten years ago, I showed up at Silver Creek, starting my career in conservation with open eyes and very little knowledge. Today, as I sit in Bariloche, Argentina, trying to understand the landscape and the community of conservation, I feel very much the same as I did first starting out at Silver Creek.  However, this time around I do feel a stronger sense of excitement and opportunity because the Argentina chapter of the Conservancy is teetering on a development nearby similar to Silver Creek—and this time, I am here at the beginning.

Boys looking for ‘crabs’ along the Limay River, Fortin Chacabuco. Photo ©Dayna Gross/TNC

Fortin Chacabuco is a 12,000-acre ranch about a twenty-minute drive from Bariloche, Argentina.  Bariloche is a picturesque town, called “the gateway to Patagonia.” Located on Lake Nahuel Huapi, it attracts visitors from all over the world who come to see the mountain vistas and enjoy the recreational opportunities of Patagonia.

The Nature Conservancy of Argentina has been here for six years, working on such things as sustainable grazing projects, conservation easements, biological assessments, oil and gas exploration issues and strengthening the Land Trust movement in Argentina. The owners of Fortin Chacabuco have offered to sell the ranch to the Conservancy for a substantially reduced price—offering the chapter a Silver-Creek-like deal of a lifetime. The ranch could be a gateway to the Conservancy for the community, a recreational haven (six miles of river and two smaller trout streams on the property), a place to demonstrate sustainable grazing, an educational center and scientific research station.

Bariloche is located in the rain shadow of the Andes Mountains and therefore receives more rainfall than the surrounding area. The vegetation in and around the city and in the hills is diverse – pines, firs, cotoneasters, roses and spirea.  As you move east, the landscape dries out and from a distance looks very much like Idaho sagebrush steppe.

Limay River which runs along the property line of Fortin Chacabuco. Photo ©Dayna Gross/TNC.

With the similarities in landscape, Fortin Chacabuco and Silver Creek struggle with similar management issues – invasive species, climate change, inadequate grazing buffers, trespass and overuse.  Some things are different, however. Here, the invasive species are rose, willows, and pine – the very plants we often plant for habitat at Silver Creek. Fishing and recreational pressure appear to be less than the Silver Creek area; although, that remains to be seen because we are here during the “slack” season. While we allow for duck hunting at Silver Creek, Fortin Chacabuco will be controlling red deer, rabbit, and wild boar, which are nuisance species in their hunting plan. In Argentina, there is little public land. The national parks compromise approximately 8 percent of the land and they can include “category 6” lands which allow for private land holdings, development, grazing, and other uses. This is compared to more than 60 percent public lands in Idaho. Land ownership itself presents very different challenges and opportunities. Owning a large ranch like Fortin Chacabuco (actually small for Argentina) creates a rare opportunity for the Conservancy to showcase a new way of doing conservation in Argentina and the public benefit of conservation on private lands.

These are the similarities and differences that I notice as a land manager. It is funny to hear the similarities and differences my kids notice as we play this game. This morning we made a list and this is what they came up with:

Same- the trees, the rivers, people, lakes 
Different- Motorcycles, buses, the toilets, the ice cream, more noise, Spanish, street dogs

This is how I think of the Silver Creek and Fortin Chacobuco comparison.  In the end, the big things are the same—the nature, structure, and opportunities. It’s just the specifics and the noisy things that are different.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Rare Sighting of the Politcal Kind

By Will Whelan, director of government relations

This blog often reports on sightings of rare wildlife at our preserves.

Last week brought a rare sighting of a different kind: all four members of Idaho’s congressional delegation in the same room with Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service.  One veteran of Capitol Hill commented that he’d never actually seen Senator Crapo, Senator Risch, Congressman Simpson, and Congressman Labrador in one place before.

Senator Crapo, Senator Risch, Congressman Simpson, Congressman Labrador, and Tom Tidwell. Photo ©Will Whelan/TNC.

Idaho’s congressional leaders and the Forest Service chief did not come together for a major political event or convention.  Instead, they came together to collectively voice their support for collaborative forest restoration at the annual conference of a small but ambitious organization called the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership.  IFRP’s conference brings together the members of groups that are working on forest restoration across Idaho.  Participants ranged from conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy, the Idaho Conservation League and Trout Unlimited to timber companies such as Boise Cascade and Idaho Forest Group to rural county commissioners. Just about every interest group that cares about national forests had a representative in the room.  The Conservancy is a founding member of the Partnership and helped organize the conference.

The collaborative groups that met last week in Boise support the use of active forest management, such as thinning and prescribed fire, in the roaded portion of Idaho’s national forests to further ecological, economic and social goals. Many of the projects that these groups helped develop also include measures to improve water quality, decommission old roads, and enhance wildlife habitat.

Last week’s event is a clear sign that collaborative groups are coming of age and earning the kind of support that can help accelerate their work.

You can read Idaho Statesman’s article about last week’s event at: http://www.idahostatesman.com/2014/02/20/3039515/forest-collaboration-draws-attention.html

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Addressing the Global Food Footprint Locally

By Justin Petty, development officer

When I first began dating the woman who would later become my wife, she was a farmer.  Organic, one acre, highly labor intensive, cut the baby arugula by hand with scissors, and let’s have “greens” at every meal.  I spent many weekends on the farm, working for free and still being reprimanded about the quality of my work.  The farm had a reputation to uphold, a standard I was not meeting. I felt like a threat to the brand at times.

Mid-summer greens. Photo ©Lynea Petty.

This was a model of for-profit Ag production that I hadn’t seen from the inside.  Hoop houses, raised beds, net coverings for insects, no space sparred. An incredible amount of produce was harvested annually in what used to be a large corral for livestock. Nestled at the base of the Soldier Mountains, it was an idyllic setting and at a scale that did not distract from its surroundings.  Feeding the masses it was not, but providing a high quality product for a small community is a bill it could fill.  

Cutting baby greens. Photo ©Lynea Petty.

Access to locally produced healthy foods has continued to have a growing demand in many places, and this is good news for small scale Ag producers.  It is one of our community’s attributes I value most.  The loss of local food producing operations represents more than the loss of places utilized by wildlife for passage, food, and livable habitat, it also marks the loss of key elements of a sustainable community.  Jobs and food are prerequisites. However, the worldwide demand to feed a growing population is changing the face of our planet.  Food is a global commodity, largely mass produced and consumed.  And in order to address the impacts to nature, the Conservancy is working with producers at all scales.  In Idaho we are protecting working farms and ranches that provide benefits to wildlife and people. We are also partnering with businesses, such as MillerCoors, to use water more efficiently on several barley farms. On a global scale we are working with food producers to implement sustainable practices.

Sunflowers. Photo ©Lynea Petty.

We are fortunate to live in a community where it is possible to find high quality locally produced food in relative abundance.  I wish this for everyone, but I recognize the reality.  By 2050 food production will have to double to keep up with need, placing a heavy demand on an overtaxed planet.  We all must make informed decisions as consumers to address the associated increased demands for land, water, and energy.  Last year, with the help of friends and the owner’s blessing, my wife and I turned a vacant residential lot into a maze of vegetables.  It was just as back breaking and rewarding as I remembered.  I enjoy taking local steps to address my footprint on this planet, no matter how small these steps may seem. And I am thankful to work for an organization that sees the big picture and seeks innovative solutions to addressing the global challenges ahead.

The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Conservation for People and Nature

By Ryan Haugo, forest ecologist

Conservation scientists from across the Conservancy gathered last month in San Jose, California to discuss the science of conservation for people and nature. This “all-science” conference was incredibly wide ranging, with topics from conservation of sage grouse to the use of social media to track the impact of nature experiences on peoples’ well-being. 

One common theme throughout the meeting, however, was that “conservation for nature and people” represents evolution, not revolution. People always have been and always will be a critical piece of the conservation equation. In Idaho, the Conservancy embraced the concept of “Working Landscapes” more than 15 years ago. For almost two decades we have been focused on finding conservation solutions that benefit both our state’s biodiversity and our rural communities.


Members of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative discussing forest management. Photo ©TNC

Since joining the Conservancy one of my primary focuses has been working with the Clearwater Basin Collaborative. The Clearwater Basin is renowned for its pristine waters, productive fisheries, diverse wildlife, vast wild landscapes and scenic vistas. It has also seen tremendous battles over the management of its lands and waters. The collaborative, a group of conservation, business, government and tribal leaders, formed 5 years ago to help resolve these longstanding conflicts. The Conservancy is involved with the Clearwater Basin because of the outstanding biological diversity that this landscape supports. Yet, the focus of my work in the Clearwater has been defining how the tools of ecological restoration (mechanical harvests, controlled burning) can be used to meet the needs of both human and natural communities. While this work is a far cry from my early career when I focused on classifying and measuring biological diversity, it has been some of the most rewarding of my professional life.

Across the Northwest there are many other examples of conservation projects that are built around the needs of local communities. During this past New Years I spent a week on the Washington Coast with my family and had a chance to visit the Ellsworth Creek Preserve. Ellsworth contains some of the last remaining ancient forest stands left on the Washington Coast, isolated within a landscape of private industrial forest lands. The Ellsworth preserve also contains thousands of acres of former industrial forests. Here the Conservancy is conducting a groundbreaking study examining the use of mechanical thinning to both provide jobs for the local economy while accelerating the development of old-growth habitat and healthy watersheds in these young forests.

My wife and daughters taking in an ancient western red cedar at Ellsworth Creek. Photo ©Ryan Haugo/TNC.

Thinning operations at Ellsworth Creek. Photo ©Ryan Haugo/TNC

As conservation scientists, we’re no longer able to solely focus on the question of which lands we should protect to maximize the diversity and resilience of the natural world. We are also called to evaluate the benefits of our conservation actions for people and find ways to balance the “nature and people” equation. It’s an amazing and interesting time to be a scientist at TNC – and that’s a good thing! 

Thursday, January 09, 2014

In Search of Marshmallows

By Susanna Danner, Director of Protection

When I went home to Massachusetts to visit my family this Christmas, I had an agenda besides my typical holiday pursuits of assembling jigsaw puzzles, eating ham, and wrapping presents. I wanted to see my very first snowy owl.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). Photo ©Janet Haas

You may have heard about the snowy owl irruption of 2013. The word “irruption” shares the same Latin root as the word “eruption,” but it means to burst in, rather than to burst out (like lava.) These enormous arctic birds have been bursting into the northern United States this winter, including in our neighbor states of Montana and Washington. The “polar vortex” that froze the central and eastern U.S. in early January probably felt like old home week to the snowies visiting the States.  These birds have feathered feet and legs to protect them from the cold, and one thing that makes them easier to find than other owls is that they perch on low posts, fences or the ground. Where they come from, tall trees are less common, so these birds are comfortable perching low.

The reasons for this irruption, which is one of the largest on record, may have to do with climate change. Conditions in the Arctic are changing dramatically, and scientists speculate that changes in sea ice, small mammal population dynamics, or seasonal temperatures may be factors in this owl incursion.

Several snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus) had been observed at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge near my hometown, so my mom, my sister-in-law and I decided to put on our parkas and go birding. At the refuge entrance, we asked the ranger where we might have luck finding snowy owls. “Look for the cars,” he said. Apparently we weren’t the first bird tourists of the day.

We drove to the end of the refuge, past a few clutches of idling cars. All we could discern through our pocket binoculars were white refuge signs masquerading as white owls, and the previous evening’s snowfall made picking out white shapes on the icy salt marsh a challenge.

Sus and her mother owling. Photo courtesy Sus Danner.
We climbed an observation tower and saw a pair of mute swans winging their way just above the low tide, but no owls. Just when we were losing hope, a couple of local birders climbed up the tower stairs and renewed our resolve.

If you’ve ever birdwatched in winter, you know that while the weather conditions can be tough, the people are often a joy. There is a siege mentality to winter birders. The sentiment seems to be, “if you’re out here braving frostbite and hypothermia, you’re my friend.” The local birders seemed thrilled that we were out on the refuge, and gave us unexpected advice on how to find a snowy. “Look for a marshmallow,” they said.

I had read how large snowy owls are (two feet tall!) and so I had been looking for a big white Doric column among the salt marsh grasses. But the owls hunch up to conserve heat, and their proportions are marshmallow-like. Now that we knew what to look for, we found one right away. Sitting on a sand dune, just above the slate-colored Atlantic Ocean, we found a preening adult snowy owl. A giddy group of us formed, helping each other pick out the bird amongst the pale dunes.  Another benevolent local birder saw us peering through our binoculars and stopped to offer us a look through his spotting scope. In the scope, I could see the speckled black on the owl’s shoulders, and its blazing yellow eyes.

Huddled around the scope with a group of birders from all over the world, with a biting wind coming in off of the sea, my feet numb with cold, I couldn’t have been happier.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Reclaiming Old Logs and Reuniting with Family

By Clark Shafer, associate director of philanthropy

As the snow starts to fall in the mountains of Idaho, it is hard to think about summer. As much as I love winter, summer is a special time for me and my family – it means reuniting with my family in Maine. Each summer for the past 40 years, I have spent at least a week at a family camp near Baxter State Park.


The Shafer family in Maine. Photo courtesy of Clark Shafer.

Baxter State Park is a large wilderness area permanently preserved as a state park and home to Mt. Katahdin. It is about 200,000 acres and was gifted to the State by the former Governor, Percival Baxter from 1931 to 1962. Baxter State Park is vast, rugged and pristine. It is the beginning of the Appalachian Trail and tallest peak in Maine. It is where I proposed to my wife and where I taught my children to paddle a canoe. It inspired writers like Thoreau and artists like Fredric Church. I am lucky to be able to vacation there – it inspires my family and me. 

Mt. Katahdin. Photo ©Clark Shafer/TNC


The area surrounding the park, and most of northern Maine for that matter, has been owned and managed by Timber Companies since the turn of the century. The timber industry was the lifeblood of this area for the past 100 years.

Following through Millinocket, the small town where my grandfather was born, is the West Branch of the Penobscot. The area was once home to the world’s largest paper mill and was first logged in 1828. This river supported the historic river-driver logging industry and was choked with freshly cut trees as a way to transport them to the local mill. There are no longer river drives, but what remains is a stockpile of first cut, virgin timber submerged in nearby lakes.

Painting of Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp by Frederic Church.

Today the landscape and attitudes are drastically different than that of 100 years ago. While visiting this past summer I toured my brother’s new business venture, Maine Heritage Timber. My brother was a former Wall Street executive who needed to re-invent himself a few years ago when the economy hurt many people. He is now reclaiming logs that have been submerged in settling ponds for the past hundred years. The tour of his facility was remarkable. I was able to see some of the flooring material and furniture that he mills from these logs that for years were left submerged in the icy waters of northern Maine. For every year Maine Heritage Timber operates, they save 1,000 acres from being cut.


Reclaimed spruce/fir flooring. Photo ©Clark Shafer

As consumers we have the choice to purchase sustainable products. I can’t think of a more environmentally friendly way to remodel a kitchen or dining room, than using river reclaimed lumber. The thought of standing on flooring made of wood that started as sapling before the Constitution was signed amazes me. For more information please visit Maine Heritage Timber.

The Nature Conservancy in Idaho and Maine have partnered with timber companies like Plum Creek and Forest Capital Partners to promote sustainable timber practices that is good for people and nature. To learn more about the work The Nature Conservancy is doing in Idaho and Maine forests please click on the links above.

It is exciting that my brother and I are taking different approaches to help the health of our forests. I am excited to get back to Maine this summer to be with family and see healthy, working forests again.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A promising way to prevent wildlife-vehicle crashes

By Lisa Eller, communications director

A white creature hurries across the road against a pitch-black night. It wasn't an elusive white bear, as my coworker Art joked, but the thermal image of a moose crossing one of the deadliest highways in Idaho - US Highway 95 in Boundary County. 

video

This stretch of highway sees a relatively high number of fatalities (both human and animal) from collisions between wildlife and vehicles. Between 2000 and 2010, there were 321 wildlife-related accidents reported on Highway 95 in the McArthur Lake vicinity. Two of these accidents caused human fatalities, and 36 more resulted in injuries. All told, these collisions cost an estimated $4.9 million, ranging from loss of life to vehicle repairs. ‬

For several years the Conservancy, as a partner of the Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative, has looked for ways to make the area safer. Earlier this month, after researching several safety options, we deployed a new but promising safety system. The first phase of the project was funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

According to its creator, Brice Sloan of Sloan Security Systems, the system is the first to combine the use of Doppler radar, high-resolution thermal camera, web-enabled remote power systems, and other wireless technologies to create a mobile animal detection system to reduce crashes between animals and vehicles. Unlike traditional perimeter detection methods this system tracks movement over the entire roadway – from fence to fence - over a distance of up to 1km in a given area.

Deer captured in a test image from Warm Springs in Boise. Photo and video (above) ©Sloan Security Systems

Once movement is detected, the monitor triggers nearby alert signal strobe lights to turn on – these lights stay on until the animal is off the road. The mobile monitoring system and alert lights communicate via powerful radios similar to how you would trigger your garage door.

Signal strobe light. Photo ©Sloan Security Systems.

Monitoring trailer. Photo ©Sloan Security Systems.

If effective the system could offer benefits many traditional safety measures don't: mobility, adaptability, permeability and affordability. Rather than forcing wildlife to respond to various funneling systems, the system can be adapted (moved) in response to the animal behavior. And it is relatively affordable when compared to infrastructure changes like building tunnels under highways.

In addition to the detection feature, the combination of radar and thermal cameras are helping the Idaho Transportation Department to identify where, when, and how many animals are crossing the roadway within the detection area and where potential collisions might take place – invaluable information for designing safer roadways.  

Much more data needs to be collected but results, thus far, are positive.

For more on the project and to donate, go to the McArthur Lake Safety project page. To volunteer by verifying data coming through the monitor, contact Brice Sloan at brice.sloan@sloansg.com.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Morning on the desert

By Sunny Healey, Silver Creek Preserve manager

Morning on the desert! I can smell the sagebrush smoke; 
An' I hate to see it burnin', but the land must sure be broke.
-Katherine Fall Pettey, from Songs from the Sage Brush, 1910


Near the North Fork of the Boise River. Photo by Sunny Healey/TNC

The high-desert sagebrush steppe ecosystem is hard to simplify and even more difficult to replicate from scratch. This summer we lost more of that ecosystem when the Beaver Creek fire burned so hot that the plants are not expected to grow back anytime soon. The rain we wished for did arrive but it came falling out of the sky with such intensity (and questionable timing) that it started to dramatically erode the mountainsides. We got to see geomorphology in action, right from the kitchen window for some people. The celebration of fire containment and houses and lives saved was dampened by the 4 feet of mud up against the garage.

By the sheep bridge on the Big Wood River. Photo ©Sunny Healey/TNC

To prohibit further erosion and mudslides, experts recommended a series of measures to be prescribed in the fire rehabilitation plan, one of which included reseeding priority areas within Blaine County. The recommendations came after field inspection by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Forest Service (USFS), Geologic Survey (USGS), Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), BLM, Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) and others, In addition to stabilizing the hillsides, the reseeding will improve wildlife habitat more quickly, provide increased resilience and allow us once again to be hiking the hills, gazing at a big bull elk standing majestically amongst the wildflowers, native grasses and sagebrush.

Soldier Creek Preserve. Photo ©Sunny Healey/TNC

The NRCS and USFS suggested performing aerial reseeding this fall. In the beginning, it was going to be bluebunch wheatgrass, Idaho fescue and a quick-acting sterile cereal seed to the rescue. But several groups came together to ensure diverse native species would be added to this reseeding mix. With the support of Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary, IDFG, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the NRCS, Dayna Gross (TNC) and Dani Mazzotta (ICL) drafted an application to enhance the seed mix with native species. Choosing the seeds turned out to be an interesting and semi-controversial discussion that included private and public lands, county, state and federal funding, and price and availability of seeds, with major timing constraints, and some measurable (and some total) uncertainty. Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson’s comments about private, federal and state property lines being part of a tapestry that is woven together by natural systems and habitats that cannot be compartmentalized for political convenience helped conceptualize and focus the importance of the reseeding initiative.

Native forbs should be included with the grasses and sage seed mix for many reasons but partly because different species will inhabit different layers of soil.  If a particular soil layer is not inhabited, it provides an opportunity for the notoriously crafty noxious weeds to take up that niche.

Stanley, Idaho. Photo ©Sunny Healey/TNC

The ideal mix is too complicated and expensive but a few seeds were considered and selected for their relevant attributes.  Lewis blue flax, named in honor of Meriwether Lewis, provides erosion control, pollinator habitat and beautification. What the Intermountain Native Plant Growers Association refers to as a ‘handsome and statuesque bunchgrass,’  Great Basin wildrye provides good cover for deer and antelope, important winter forage for elk, and serves as habitat and a food source for upland game birds, songbirds, and small mammals.  Western yarrow, which has a long history as a powerful healing herb, is also a great food source and is commonly used as nesting material for birds. It is an early succession species and readily establishes on disturbed sites.  The beautiful bright-yellow arrowleaf balsamroot flowers grow quickly in the spring and are good browse for wildlife stressed by winter conditions. The most sought-after seed of the mix was sagebrush. Though its leaves are bitter and toxic to some ruminants, sagebrush provides food and habitat for pronghorn antelope, mule deer, pygmy rabbit and the gray vireo. It is essential to sage grouse, and cows and sheep commonly graze on sagebrush slopes. Its scientific name Artemisia tridentata refers to Artemis, the Hellenic goddess of the hunt, wild animals and wilderness. Native Americans burned dried sage leaves to purify tipis and to bless pregnant women and young warriors.

The part of the seed mix selection process that most inspired me was the value of sagebrush, literally and otherwise.  Great Basin wildrye costs $12/lb., blue flax $10/lb., antelope bitterbrush up to $40/lb., and Big Mountain sagebrush $50/lb.  For this restoration project, 2500 critical acres are being reseeded at a rate of one quarter to one pound per acre for each seed type.  How much will it cost to reseed all that land?  In the end, we were able to get a suitable mix for about $50,000, not including the plane ride.

But it made me wonder, how much sagebrush do we have?  What if wildfires or land use changes destroyed too much sagebrush? How much would it cost to reseed the entire ecosystem?  Or, rather, what is the current value of all the sagebrush in the American West?  In 2005 a conservation strategy and assessment from Colorado estimated over 106 million acres of sagebrush in the western U.S. The Handbook of Western Reclamation Techniques suggests seeding sagebrush at two pounds per acre.   At current prices and suggested application rates, it would cost $10.6 billion.

This is a simplistic equation and not very realistic because there are many more variables besides seed costs and acres but the question made me think about some of the reasons I love sagebrush and how life in Idaho wouldn’t be the same without it: fishing the long lonesome trails along the Little Wood River; listening to the last songs around a cowboy campfire with a backdrop of stars and sage; reading  about the essence of the West from a child’s point of view in my New York City niece’s school project about a ride across the Camas Prairie; that feeling as you quietly traverse the open range of the Rock Creek Valley that a mountain lion is watching from a secret hideaway in the basalt ledge above. During the reseeding effort I learned that a few dedicated people and a lot of hard work can make a big difference and that beyond any price we could try to attribute to it, plain old everyday sagebrush has significant wildlife, spiritual, cultural, historical and economic value. 

"Sagebrush ain't so pretty?" Well, all eyes don't see the same;
Have you ever saw the moonlight turn it to a silv'ry flame?
An' that greasewood thicket yonder—well, it smells jest awful sweet 
When the night wind has been shakin' it; for smells it's hard to beat.
-Katherine Fall Pettey



Thursday, November 21, 2013

Strong support for Boise's clean water and natural areas

By Bas Hargrove, senior policy representative, The Nature Conservancy in Idaho

On November 5th, a strong majority of Boise voters made it clear they support investments in clean water and critical natural areas. Though the measure did not receive the two-thirds majority needed to pass, more than 3 in 5 Boise voters supported the bond to provide $15.7 million for Boise parks and natural areas.

While we did not get the outcome we hoped for, I was proud of the campaign and the Conservancy’s contribution to it. Seeing the passion, hard work and community spirit of volunteers knocking on doors and making phone calls every day was truly inspirational. So was the broad coalition of local businesses, the outdoor recreation community, non-profit organizations and Boise’s decisions makers who came together on this effort.

Bas at campaign tabling in Boise. Photo ©Birkinbine Photography.
The Conservancy got into this campaign because of the opportunity to invest in clean water and wildlife habitat, but we came out the other side reminded of how much people matter.

We are united in our dedication to making Boise a great place to live, work and raise a family, and will continue to work with our partners to find new tools to ensure the protection of Boise’s clean water, wildlife habitat, and open spaces.