Archive | May, 2014

New Defenders White Paper: “A Guide to the Farm Bill Conservation Programs”

The U.S. has nearly 1.4 billion acres of private land, much of which is used for forestry, agriculture, or pasture and ranch lands. Over half of all the imperiled species in the country have at least one population on private lands, so measures that help landowners conserve the habitats these species depend on are tremendously important. One of our country’s best tools for helping private landowners enact voluntary conservation programs is the Farm Bill. It authorizes a wide array of programs that provide technical and financial assistance to agriculture and forest producers who are interested in improving soil, water, air and habitat quality on their land.

The most recent Farm Bill, signed into law by President Obama on February 7, 2014, makes a number of important changes to these programs. Defenders of Wildlife’s new white paper, “A Guide to the Farm Bill Conservation Programs,” provides an overview of the major programs and how they are changing under the new Farm Bill. We discuss both the “reserve” programs, which offer easements or rental contracts for long-term to permanent land retirements, and the “incentives” programs, which provide cost-share to improve practices on working lands. We also highlight how these can encourage multiple producers in a state or region to work together to accomplish priority conservation goals. Finally, we explore some of the challenges and opportunities that the new changes will likely bring.

Posted in Agriculture, Paying for Conservation, private lands0 Comments

New Defenders White Paper: “Targeting of Farm Bill Program Funding to Advance Conservation Priorities”

“In the past, much of our conservation efforts in the country have been, I would term it, ‘random acts of conservation.’ Instead of focusing on the hot spots — focusing on areas where we can get the greatest ecological benefit — we have instead had a series of disjointed actions.”
— Harris Sherman, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at USDA

Conservation programs have been an important part of U.S. farm policy since the Dust Bowl prompted the formation of the Soil Conservation Service in 1935. Public investment in natural resource conservation has expanded tremendously in the past three decades, with a proliferation of Farm Bill programs to address a wide range of issues: erosion, water quality, air quality, wildlife habitat, and more. While these programs have had tremendous benefits, enrollment in conservation programs was initially driven by interest on the part of individual producers, rather than being targeted to the places of greatest need or potential benefit. This “random acts of conservation” approach is beginning to change, however, with the advent of a number of new initiatives aimed at matching program funding to state, regional and national priorities. Defenders of Wildlife’s new white paper highlights the good work of a number of these initiatives, with emphasis on:
• Regional and multi-state wildlife and habitat initiatives
• Regional priority programs for water quality
• Targeting and evaluation mechanisms within individual programs

We also provide recommendations to maximize the benefits of program targeting given the major changes and program consolidations in the new Farm Bill, including urging USDA to:
• Reaffirm its commitment the Working Lands for Wildlife initiative
• Ensure that important conservation goals are not lost under the easement program consolidation
• Think strategically and across programs about how targeting can better be used for maximum benefits
• Balance attention to important existing priorities and novel opportunities under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program
• Incorporate climate change resilience into conservation program delivery
• Fully fund all conservation programs

Posted in Agriculture, Paying for Conservation, private lands0 Comments

Bringing Climate Change Home: The Third National Climate Assessment

The world is a big place, and when a group called the “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” puts out a report on the global effects of climate warming, a natural question is: “So, what does this mean for me?” This week brings us an answer, in the form of the no less ambitious but decidedly more local “National Climate Assessment.”

Thirteen federal agencies and over 300 authors teamed up to produce the Third National Climate Assessment (NCA), as mandated by a 1990 law called the Global Change Research Act. While its methodologies and conclusions are similar to that of the IPCC’s work, it also comes with an important difference, namely, its focus is entirely on what the warming climate means for the United States. Even more importantly, the NCA delivers its information in a manner more relevant to American decision-makers, by breaking its results down by region and by sector (agriculture, infrastructure, health, etc.). The new web interface also allows users to either download and read the full report, or explore individual topics of interest.

The NCA is pretty blunt in its main findings: “Global climate is changing and this change is apparent across a wide range of observations. The global warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human activities. Global climate is projected to continue to change over this century and beyond. The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades depends primarily on the amount of heat-trapping gases emitted globally, and how sensitive the Earth’s climate is to those emissions.”

Some of the NCA’s a key findings include important warnings about the effect of climate change on ecosystems and biodiversity: “In addition to climate changes that directly affect habitats, events such as droughts, floods, wildfires, and pest outbreaks associated with climate change are already disrupting ecosystem structures and functions in a variety of direct and indirect ways. These changes limit the capacity of ecosystems such as forests, barrier beaches, and coastal- and freshwater- wetlands to adapt and continue to play important roles in reducing the impacts of these extreme events on infrastructure, human communities, and other valued resources.”

In its chapter on Ecosystems and Biodiversity, the NCA found that:

1. “Climate change impacts on ecosystems reduce their ability to improve water quality and regulate water flows.”  Warmer air and water temperatures, changing precipitation patterns and decreased snowpack all exacerbate water pollution problems—resulting in higher levels of nutrients that lead to toxic algal blooms and pathogen outbreaks, and lower levels of oxygen. The result could be loss of aquatic ecosystems and species, like the iconic trout streams of the West.

2. “Climate change, combined with other stressors, is overwhelming the capacity of ecosystems to buffer the impacts from extreme events like fires, floods, and storms.” For instance, as rising sea levels chip away at coastal salt marshes, mangroves and barrier islands, communities inland become more vulnerable to hurricanes and other storms. And stress to forests from heat, drought and insect outbreaks means that houses near the urban-wildland interface are more at risk from major fires.

3. “Landscapes and seascapes are changing rapidly, and species, including many iconicspecies, may disappear from regions where they have been prevalent or become extinct, changingsome regions so much that their mix of plant and animal life will become almostunrecognizable.”  From wildfires burning on previously frozen Arctic tundra, to species shifting their ranges northward and upward, to a proliferation of invasive species, our ecological communities are changing, and fast. If species and communities can’t keep pace with the rate of change, species declines and even extinctions will result.

4. “Timing of critical biological events, such as spring bud burst, emergence fromoverwintering, and the start of migrations, has shifted, leading to important impactson species and habitats.” In many places, the signs of spring are coming earlier—the budding of trees, blossoming of flowers, or the emergence of animals from migration. Since some aspects of life cycles are governed by day length and others by temperature, the shifting of some temperature-governed spring events earlier may lead to “mismatches” between predators and prey, or flower and pollinator, that could negatively affect survival.

5. “Whole system management is often more effective than focusing on one species at a time, and can help reduce the harm to wildlife, natural assets, and human well-being that climate disruption might cause.” Key to protecting both wildlife and human communities will be a suite of approaches, like being ready to respond to new threats, and protection and restoration of ecosystems, especially coastal and riparian habitats and corridors for species movement.

Additional chapters are dedicated to impacts on Coasts, Oceans, Forests, and Land Use.

Communities, wildlife managers, and other decision-makers need accurate, relevant, local-scale information in order to make the right choices to reduce our vulnerability to climate change. The National Climate Assessment is the tool that many have been waiting for.

Posted in Climate Change, Uncategorized0 Comments

dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.