Conservation Priorities in the Big Empty

South Calico Plain

The South Calico Mountains of High Rock Canyon Wilderness, in Nevada. (Photo by Stephen Chandler.)

Late April in the Tallest Town in Oregon: On the heels of several days above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, giant wet snowflakes whipped sideways as I stepped inside the real estate office to drop off my rent. I started to converse with my landlady, an elderly rancher with a sharp ability to tell a story about people in landscapes. (We’re withholding her name for privacy reasons).

She recounted intrepid tales in which she traversed steep mountain deer trails by horseback. She described the transitions in ranching life from all-day rides into the mountains on horseback, to a time when ranchers loaded horses in the back of pick-up trucks and drove to the edge of the mountains before saddling-up, to more recently, riding ATVs. Ranch life has evolved quickly during her lifetime. Listening to her, I get the impression that the only constant in her life is change. The same can be said for the landscape she inhabits: the Northwest Great Basin.

The Northwest Great Basin is arid. Where rivers exist, they rarely make it to the ocean; instead converging in wetlands and lakes that equilibrate through evaporation and groundwater infiltration. It’s been called The Big Empty—a vast sea of sagebrush that, upon a closer look, is far from empty. Pronghorn antelope and pygmy rabbits, Lahontan cutthroat trout, sage-steppe and aspen stands, mollisol soils (known for their fertile surface horizon), and basalt cliffs, vast migrations of Sandhill cranes and snow geese, and ranches and cattle all shape the region’s identity—an identity that is currently threatened.

Ranching is not the only thing that has changed in the last century; the region’s ecology has also undergone unprecedented change: altered fire regimes, invasive species, development, water scarcity, and climate change compromise the integrity of habitats across the landscape. Conservationists in this part of the region have no time for myopic visions. Coordinated preparation for the future is crucial for ranchers and other natural resource managers. One recent effort by my team aims to tackle this need at the landscape level.

As part of my job as Project Coordinator for the Great Basin Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GBLCC), I’ve spent the last four months traveling The Big Empty, engaging with over 60 people from a diverse set of organizations and walks of life in order to assess long-term landscape conservation needs. Engaging people is easier said than done. The human populations are dispersed widely, and building trust takes time. Many local residents are currently suffering a sense of planning fatigue from such incredible efforts as the Sage Grouse Initiative. However, based on our initial outreach, it’s clear that there’s a need for continued collaboration and a synthesis of the existing efforts and planning on the landscape.

Assessing conservation needs and convening a diverse group are the first two steps of a new effort called the Northwest Basin and Range (NWBR) Synthesis. The project area covers part of south central/eastern Oregon, northwest Nevada, and part of northeastern California (map 1). Led by the GBLCC staff, and colleagues, the NWBR Synthesis is creating a collaborative effort that will facilitate organizations and communities toward a conservation blueprint for the region’s people and the landscape they are so intimately connected to.

On May 27, 2016, the NWBR team held our first Steering Committee Meeting in Lake County, Oregon, which included the Bureau of Land Management, Nevada Department of Wildlife, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Department of State Lands, Oregon Natural Desert Association, and the Oregon Department of Transportation. We’re also in conversation with The Nature Conservancy, Oregon Cattleman’s Association, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Trout Unlimited, county planners, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and others to gather input for the project. This meeting and our broader outreach highlighted the need for increased cross-jurisdictional planning, common strategies for project implementation, and science communication.

Before our outreach efforts commenced, our initial NWBR project team began by doing our homework. We synthesized shared priorities for species and habitat management gathered from more than 60 natural resource plans around the landscape. This included a threats and viability assessment for habitats using the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation tool. This summer, we’re hitting the road to vet our synthesis work with experts. However, through this process of outreach and plan synthesis, we must not forget one of the most important parts: our human communities and their values.

People, from my landlady and her family to members of local tribes, have been an integral part of the Great Basin landscape for thousands of years. The roots of the NWBR Synthesis project lie not only in the cutting-edge conservation science that informs best practices, but also in working with the people that inhabit this landscape and their rich cultural history. Although we’re only in the initial stages of exploring the human dimension side of the NWBR effort, there’s a lively discussion around ways to best incorporate the values and socioeconomic factors that affect people’s everyday lives.

What are the steps towards success for this project?

First, we must build human relationships. The slog of hitting the pavement and trying to reach people and listening to their needs and values is the only path to meet the region’s collective conservation needs.

Second, the project’s science and technical team will create a series of spatially-explicit tools for conservation decision makers, including maps to address needs such as where to place fire breaks or implement prescribed burns, where to restore habitat and increase connectivity for wildlife, and strategies for climate adaption.

Imagine a conservation blueprint that houses synthesized data and tools for natural resource information that is defined by bioregional boundaries rather than political ones, and includes a social, economic, and ecological approach. We’re creating this place through a shared landscape visioning process with a group of diverse stakeholders. Landscape-level conservation blueprint projects are alive and running throughout the country. The Northwest Great Basin is only one of the landscapes involved in this model of pro-active, long-term conservation planning (see sidebar).

Third, this is an iterative process. The products will be interactive and ongoing, adapted based on feedback from users.

As Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel stated in reference to the conservation efforts for greater sage grouse, “What we need is smart planning on a landscape-level, irrespective of manmade lines on a map. We need to take a holistic look at an ecosystem—on land or in the ocean—to determine where it makes sense to develop, where it makes sense to protect the natural resources, and where we can accomplish both.”

The NWBR Synthesis is a collaborative group working toward this end.

A dirt road in Oregon’s Warner Valley. (Photo by Levi Old.)

A herd of pronghorn antelope running across the sagebrush steppe. (Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

The Great Basin spans Oregon, Nevada and a small portion of Northeastern California. (Figure by Max Taylor.)

Partnering with landowners for collaborative stewardship in the Great Basin is crucial for the conservation of regional resources. (​Photo by Britney Glitch.)

Levi Old is the Project Coordinator for the Northwest Basin and Range Synthesis. The Great Basin Landscape Conservation Cooperative received support for this project from the Wildland Fire Resilient Landscapes Program. Please visit our website to sign-up for our email list and learn more. (Photo courtesy of Levi Old.)