Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Field Notes Intro: Dirt Road Challenge - My Work

The Challenge:

172 conservation easements
300,000 acres in 3 months
1,000 miles of dirt road

And there I was, wedged under the truck in a pile of antelope poop with a hacksaw…

I was on my way to visit one of the most remote conservation easements held by The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming when the muffler partially sheared off the truck and was dragging down the bumpy dirt road.  Since there’s no such thing as cell phone coverage in most places I work and little chance of another vehicle driving by, I couldn’t just sit there -- waiting to be rescued.

In Wyoming, there are more antelope than people, at five humans per square mile.

I pulled over and secured the muffler and exhaust pipe back on the truck with old fence wire I found in the borrow ditch.  A few miles down the road I found an oil patch worker that let me borrow their hacksaw.  And after sawing off the muffler I was on my very noisy way up to the top of the Rattlesnake Mountains to a visit the Marshall conservation easement.

The Wyoming Chapter has acquired over 170 easements in its 25 year history. I'm responsible for visiting 31 of them each summer.  Conservation easements have protected a variety of lands in our state - from high desert sagebrush country for the iconic sage grouse to grizzly bear and wolf habitat in the Greater Yellowstone.  We have conservation easements that protect miles of blue-ribbon trout streams and land within historic mule deer and pronghorn migration routes.

Conservation easements are a voluntary agreement between a land owner and an organization, such as the Conservancy, that protect land in perpetuity for future generations while allowing the owner to retain private property rights. Easements have made a significant contribution to conservation with approximately 3.2 million acres protected by Conservancy easements in the U.S.   This is also a tool that is gaining momentum worldwide.  The Wyoming Chapter is currently working with Argentina to introduce conservation easements to their country. 

It is a significant investment to hold an easement in perpetuity.  Staff monitors each easement on an annual basis to ensure that the easement is in compliance.   Most of the properties are working ranches and we have built great relationships with many ranchers and ranch managers over the years.  We visit the properties by truck, on foot, mountain bike, horseback, and on our largest easements we sometimes using  fixed-wing aircraft.  For me, each field visit is different - unexpected things happen.

This particular easement, smack dab in the middle of the state, was conserved to protect the area from subdivision. Years ago, it was part of a larger ranch called the Matador Ranch.

The Rattlesnake Range is intriguing and unexpected - it rises straight out of the sagebrush prairie into red-rock faults, canyons, spring-fed creeks and wide open valleys. Garfield Peak, at 8,244 feet, is the highest point (which is not very high for our state!).   The area is mostly limber pine, aspen and sagebrush.  Pronghorn, mule deer, elk and any number of raptors call it home.  Because of its remoteness it feels wild and intimidating but it's also beautiful.  
This is the best part of my job: criss-crossing this beautiful state of ours, visiting our easement properties and talking with conscientious landowners and managers who are the real stewards of the land.   My goal this season is to publish a series of short blog posts that follows my fast and furious season of easement monitoring.