Friday, November 30, 2012

A special place in the heart of the Wood River Valley

By Toni Hardesty, state director of The Nature Conservancy in Idaho

Since I was a little girl, I always loved coming over Timmerman Hill and getting my first peek at the Wood River Valley. Seeing the valley meant it was either a weekend or we were on vacation; we were headed for some outdoor fun (skiing, camping, fishing, riding horses); and, we would most definitely see pretty places and amazing wildlife. Although much has changed in the Wood River Valley since I visited as a little girl, thanks to many visionary people and organizations, it is still a beautiful valley with practically unlimited outdoor recreation opportunities and still home to an amazing amount of wildlife.

Heart Rock Ranch. Photo by Alex Quintero/The Nature Conservancy.

In fact, at the intersection of Highway 20 and Highway 75 is a special piece of property that provides habitat to a host of birds, fish, and mammals.  It was but a few years ago that this property was planned for significant development. But lucky for us, and the animals that love this area, Shirley and Harry Hagey purchased the property, which they named Heart Rock Ranch. After a lot of hard work and intensive restoration, the ranch is thriving with new stream channels, cool and clean water, native plants, and excellent fish and wildlife habitat.  As if that is not enough, all of the improvements are protected into perpetuity with a conservation agreement between the Hageys and The Conservancy.

Shirley and Harry Hagey. Photo by Alex Quintero/The Nature Conservancy.

I had the pleasure of touring the ranch this past month with other Conservancy staff from the west. Believe me, it takes your breath away. For a glimpse into this amazing conservation effort, click on the following link and see for yourself what an inspirational project this is - see video.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Horrible things can be wonderful

By Susanna Danner, Director of Protection, The Nature Conservancy in Idaho

You know you’re in a healthy forest when you have two horrible species.

When I visited a North Idaho forest recently, I was lucky enough to see one and relieved to not see the other. One can pincushion your skin with hundreds of brittle spines, and the other can eat you.

Scientific names are funny things. Sometimes they describe things perfectly, even if you’re not a Latin expert. Like the barn owl: its scientific name is Tyto alba, literally, ‘white owl.’ Poison ivy is Toxicodendron radicans, or ‘toxic leaves with rooting stems.’ Other times, scientific names can be a bit pejorative. They evoke the feeling that the scientist might have had when he or she named the animal or plant. Such is the case for our “horrible” species on a forest recently acquired by the Conservancy.

This week, the Conservancy purchased the Hall Creek Forest in North Idaho, near Bonners Ferry.  The 317-acre property has some of the best forest habitat we’ve ever seen in the history of our North Idaho program, with huge conifer and hardwood trees, and an extensive forest wetland.

So what about those horrible species?  While splashing through the wetlands on the property, I gave a wide berth to devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus). Devil’s club is a wetland plant with spiky stems and enormous, maple-shaped leaves. The plants are very sensitive to disturbance, so when you see a devil’s club, you know you’re in a healthy, ancient wetland. 

As I walked around the old orchard on Hall Creek Forest, I had to step carefully to avoid the abundant scat from our other horrible species, the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis). I peered at the sloping bank of a stream, where tracks showed that long-clawed feet had scrabbled on the slick mud. While I was doing this, I kept to my North Idaho policy of making lots of noise. Bears have an aversion to surprises, and I have an aversion to mauling.

Grizzly bears prefer large habitat areas without many houses, but productive timber operations don’t faze them much. They forage in a mosaic of forest types, and Hall Creek Forest is ideal habitat for them, with its mix of harvest history, deciduous and coniferous species, and wetlands.

We’ll plan restoration activities for the property and to sell the property restricted by a conservation easement to a private buyer. The property will continue as working private timberland, and it will also continue to support two of our favorite “horrible” species in all of lovely North Idaho.

Apple Tree and Grizzly Scat. Photo © The Nature Conservancy.

Devils Club, one of those 'horrible' plants. Photo © The Nature Conservancy.
TNC Staff walking through Hall Creek Forest. Photo © The Nature Conservancy.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Staff Spotlight: Bob Unnasch

In our 2012 annual report we visit with Idaho's Director of Science Bob Unnasch to chat about his 25-year-anniversary with the Conservancy and what keeps him excited about conservation. Read on for the full interview: 

Bob Unnasch spent much of his childhood outdoors. After feeding him and his brother breakfast, Unnasch’s mother would put the boys outside and say, “Don’t come back until it gets dark.” He quickly developed an all-consuming curiosity about the ways of the natural world. “I spent my childhood roaming around in the woods, becoming comfortable in the natural world, identifying all the birds and collecting snakes and salamanders,” he recalled.  

His interest never waned. Instead it inspired his study of Wildlife Biology and Ecology at Rutgers and then Stony Brook Universities. He wrote his dissertation on seed dispersal and seed predation in shrubland communities. During graduate school he began working part-time for The Nature Conservancy at its David Weld Sanctuary in Long Island, NY. More than a quarter century later, he still works for the Conservancy. 

Photo courtesy Art Talsma/The Nature Conservancy

In 2012, Unnasch celebrated his 25th year with the organization. After working at the sanctuary for four years he moved to Connecticut to serve as preserve director for the Ordway Preserves, where he lived next door to affluent and famous people including Keith Richards, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Soon after The Nature Conservancy’s national office recruited him to be the national director of monitoring and research. His responsibilities included leading the grazing management program, which brought him out West to Boise, Idaho. He has served as the director of science for TNC’s Idaho Chapter for four years. 

Tell me the story of how you got started at The Nature Conservancy. 
Twenty nine years ago I was in graduate school and our department was interested in identifying natural areas within the vicinity of the university to facilitate research. All the faculty doing ecological research in exotic locales and students who weren't interested in tropical ecology had no real place to do work. So a group was formed to try to identify places near the university. I was on that committee. As I explored areas around the university I stumbled upon a preserve that was owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, The David Weld Sanctuary, and I nominated that location as a potential site. The department was very excited about it because it was a private preserve and we didn't have to get permits to undertake research in it. We contacted the Nature Conservancy and they said, "That's great but the university has to provide a caretaker [for the property]." And so I volunteered to take that job as caretaker and that involved moving into a small, one-room cabin, sitting on a bluff overlooking Long Island Sound with a one-mile long beach that was piping plover habitat. It was surrounded by state parks on either side. Despite having no electricity, heat, or telephone we stayed there for four years.

What excites you in your day-to-day work? 
I have always been and remain committed to conservation, old school conservation - the conservation of species and habitat, biodiversity. I remain very excited to coming to my job, especially here in Idaho because what we do is we are still focused on conserving on plants, animals and natural communities. I think that's a valid life mission and that's something I always have and remain very excited about. 

What do you consider your greatest career accomplishment? 
Conservation Action Planning (CAP), which, for a number of years, has evolved. CAP was the first real transparent framework for doing conservation planning. My team and I designed the foundation and initial framework of this conservation action planning process. And CAP has now been implemented by hundreds of organizations in dozens of countries worldwide. 

Photo courtesy Art Talsma/The Nature Conservancy
What do you like to do outdoors besides collect data? 
In the growing season I'm an avid fly fisherman – have been my entire life. I'm also an avid birdwatcher. As a kid, I could lie on my back and see 15 to 20 species of warbler in a single tree. In the winter, I hike, tele-ski, and cross country ski. 

What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing science as a career? 
Anyone that I've ever known who's been successful in the natural sciences has spent enormous amounts of time outdoors understanding the diversity and complexity of the world. Sometimes students decide to study natural sciences because it ‘sounds interesting.’  Those students may feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the subject at the college level. So I always encourage students to find something that naturally interests him/her and figure out what subject encompasses those interests. Try to understand [the subject], try to understand all the interactions within that subject and then develop an emotional commitment to the study of it. That commitment is what will sustain you in your career. 

Can you tell me something that people would be surprised to know about you? 
Not only am your general natural historian but I also do medical research. I have a research appointment at the medical school in geographic medicine in the University of South Florida.