Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Proposal to the Nature Conservancy, San Pedro River Preserve, AZ

I owe the San Pedro river a special debt of gratitude and would enjoy taking responsibility for its protection. I have also been impressed by the scope and professionalism of The Nature Conservancy, and surely your work on the San Pedro should count among its most important.

As you know, the future of your preserves on the San Pedro is far from certain. Congratulations on diverting AZDOT's attention from the San Pedro valley: that kind of preemptive vigilance will have to be sustained and expanded to other threats such as climate change. Continued aquifer drawdown will decrease perennial flow and in turn decrease biotic integrity by weakening native riparian forest growth and establishment, while boosting nonnative invasives. Flooding from increasingly impermeable rangeland and urban sprawl could change hydrology, bringing 100-year floods every decade.

With preparations today, many of these challenges can be anticipated and mitigated. Ecological integrity assessments can be developed and used to plan and measure the performance of restoration work. Neither assessment nor restoration efforts should be limited to TNC's preserves; it takes a whole watershed to raise a river, and non-point interventions are a key part of any restoration strategy. Whether working to secure water rights or educate and motivate water conservation in Sierra Vista, TNC cannot manage its San Pedro preserves without engaging diverse local stakeholders.

I am inspired by a desire to find creative solutions to problems that society is just beginning to acknowledge, but which TNC's San Pedro Preserves immediately face. The San Pedro river, especially in contrast to the Santa Cruz river, served as my ecological "wake-up call," and, in 2007, I decided to leave my position as lab manager for Dr. Hildebrand's neuro-ecology lab at the University of Arizona to pursue a career that combines science with conservation. Since then I have worked on wetlands ecology and restoration projects in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. My restoration philosophy is inspired by principles I learned at DAWN/SW's Permaculture Design Course, by association with Brad Lancaster and his Rainwater Harvesting ideas, and by working closely on several restoration projects with Bill Zeedyk.

I am familiar with Natural Heritage methodology after working to develop an Ecological Integrity Assessment with Colorado Natural Heritage Program. I am on the Advisory Committee for NMNHP's EIA development, and would like to see AZ begin to take advantage of this EPA funding source. Since Arizona's Heritage Program isn't funded to take on work like this, perhaps TNC could step in. Just as TNC developed the Heritage Programs before spinning them off to state agencies, TNC AZ could develop an EPA-funded EIA program until the state can take it on. I argued in my final report to CNHP that EIAs, to address the kind of mitigation EPA is interested in, should be geared toward restoration objectives; another benefit of developing these metrics in-house would be increased specificity to San Pedro Preserve restoration and conservation needs.

My on-the-ground experience with restoration, as practiced in the SW, informs my appraisal of EIAs, and ecology and conservation biology in general. Restoration is also built into Heritage methodology where, in the scaling A-B-C-D, the line between C and D is crossed when an element occurrence is "no longer restorable". I believe that putting numbers on B and C occurences based on the monetary cost and time required to restore them to A will help managers more efficiently prioritize conservation and restoration work. A-occurences could be informed by the work of Dr. Betancourt at UA and Dr. Van Devender at the Sonoran desert museum, among others, whose paleoecology is helping redefine natural ranges of variation. Historic research, such as that by Diana Hadley, Arizona State Museum, is also invaluable. A better understanding of both historic and prehistoric ranges of variation can guide restoration work to dampen stressors and strengthen natural integrity.

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