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Revolutionary Road for Rangelands

We often take the landscapes around us and those who manage them for granted. But as resources become scarcer, they become more valued. Hence, the growing interest in Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES).

PES offers financial incentives to farmers or landowners to manage their land to provide an ecological service. And it’s a topic important enough for the United Nations – in 2005, they commissioned the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which identified specific environmental services: crops, livestock, fisheries, wild foods, timber, cotton, genetic resources, natural medicines, fresh water, air quality regulation, climate regulation, waste treatment and pollination, as well as spiritual, religious and aesthetic values, recreation and ecotourism. The “big three” currently receiving the most money and interest globally are climate change mitigation, watershed services and biodiversity conservation, with demand predicted to continue growing. But this changing approach is also coming to Arizona – with a unique regional flavor.

Derrick Widmark is one Northern Arizonan who takes PES seriously. As a spokesperson for the Diablo Trust (http://diablotrust.org/index.htm), he’s helping to pioneer one of the first and most extensive PES programs in the state. Committed to a version of PES they call “Ecosystem Stewardship,” the Trust provides management of 426,000-acre mixed ownership land southeast of Flagstaff. It’s a system they see as the most promising way to ensure long lasting care of this historic area. Based on working ranches and farms, their “one dollar per acre” proposition has been the Trust’s primary fundraising initiative for the last three years when approaching foundations or individual donors for support. To date, this small nonprofit effort has had modest success, although it’s only raising a fraction (around five percent) of their targeted $426,000 per year – the amount necessary to ensure next- and future-generation continuity of the landscape-scale conservation work that’s been carried out on Trust land.

Widmark is keen to stress that Diablo Trust is not looking for handouts, but rather for long-term partnerships with mutual benefits. “Our proposition has a lot to offer to businesses in an economy where companies are looking to ‘green’ themselves,” he said. So far, funds have mostly come from small foundations and individual donors and been used to initiate holistic land management practices, wildlife habitat improvement and regular monitoring to ensure sustainability both ecologically and socially. Long-term, the idea is that these dollars would also pay landowners and managers for mitigating irresponsible recreational use, illegal dumping and road maintenance – something that until now they’ve being doing without any recompense.

Central to PES is the idea that the environment is not “free goods,” but rather should be managed as natural capital. “And like other forms of capital, the environment in question will depreciate without appropriate care,” Widmark said. “Put another way, PES is a method for valuing a land area beyond what a developer would pay for it. That valuation offers the possibility of new revenue streams, to complement declining or uncertain returns from traditional sources – i.e. local and national food markets.”

Also the owner of Flagstaff’s Diablo Burger eatery, Widmark has no direct link between the Diablo Trust and his burger sales at the present time. While there are some who advocate embedding food products with an Ecosystem Services surcharge, he disagrees with this approach, especially in the current economy. “I don’t think it’s feasible for burger sales alone to fund long-term, landscape-scale conservation,” he explained. “But if people discover that this beef is a critical part of an innovative conservation project in our own backyard, that’s an important start.”

Widmark envisages a combination of local, regional and national entities and corporations contributing to such projects, not just locals and visitors. “There may be dangers to such plans,” Widmark conceded, “but it’s worse to not do anything.” And unlike some of the carbon trading models that have fallen into disrepute, often enriching middlemen or brokers more than anyone else, Widmark says that the Diablo Trust proposition operates literally at the grass-roots level. “Ranching and farming are the original green jobs – if PES doesn’t work for them, it won’t work for anybody,” he concluded.

Another groundbreaking Arizona PES is Apache Wilderness Tours in the White Mountains. This project offers eco-tourists a chance to pay to experience Apache culture, see aspects of the White Mountain wolf recovery program – and perhaps catch a glimpse of the world’s most rare wolf. In turn, the revenue generated helps the tribe in maintaining the wolf habitat, wolf populations and enhancing tribal values and customs.

Getting PES to work is an issue of concern at the national as well as the local level. Sarah Lynch, a director in the Agricultural Markets Division of the World Wildlife Fund, says that right now “is a period of exploration trying to field test different elements to PES programs. They are a great idea – if you can find a buyer – the challenge is enticing buyers with sustained money to bring to the table in the current financial climate.”

In her experience the best potential is where there’s a buyer who really needs services that can be market driven or regulatory (e.g. the EPA clean water act or endangered species act).

Frank Casey, an agricultural economist formerly with Defenders of Wildlife, agrees. He explains that up until now, PES has mostly involved conservation payments from federal agencies (e.g. USDA, Fish & Wildlife Service) that install a cost sharing program to mitigate an identified resource problem. The challenge, Casey says, is to make PES programs work in “quasi-markets” rather than conventional “free markets” – because many environmental services (biodiversity, watersheds, and landscape beauty) are spatially specific, so the users have to work with the providers, which happen to occupy the land that provides their targeted environmental services. He sees PES as one more tool in the toolbox of ranchers, land owners and tribes to help them diversify revenue and benefit habitat conservation.

In his role as the new Ecosystem Services Theme Leader for the USGS in Washington D.C., Casey explains that the current administration has created a new approach which it calls “landscape conservation cooperatives,” or LCCs, intended to be partnerships between public bodies, private agencies and tribes. And it seems with Diablo Trust and Apache Wilderness Tours, Arizona is just starting to dip a toe in those waters. FBN


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