The Upper Green River Basin is the headwaters for the Colorado River System and home to many bird and wildlife species with environmental and recreational significance. In recent decades, the basin has experienced an energy boom from natural gas extraction and related residential growth. This activity has increased economic opportunities in the basin but has also placed development pressures on the natural resource base.
Landowners in the Upper Green, working with the Sublette County Conservation District (SCCD), began discussing the potential to place value on stewardship practices that provide social and natural resource benefits that extend beyond the ranching community. This local interest and leadership led an effort to explore the potential for Sublette County to support a payment for ecosystem services program that would, in effect, place value on the good stewardship common to this valley. As a result of this interest, the SCCD, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the University of Wyoming (UW) scoped the feasibility of establishing a conservation exchange in the Green River Basin (WY NRCS CIG, 2011-2013).
A conservation exchange is an innovative way to provide private-market financial incentives to private landholders for engaging in environmentally or socially beneficial activities that might not otherwise be undertaken or continued. Landowners could benefit by implementing practices on their land to maintain or enhance wildlife habitat and water resources that generate measurable outcomes. As such, agriculture producers would be the “sellers” in the exchange. This program is currently focused on three ecosystem services: Greater sage-grouse habitat, mule deer habitat, and hydrologic services (water quality and timing of flows). Examples of practices that increase provision of these services include grazing management and choice of irrigation practices and timing. The revenue that landowners receive can help them keep their ranches in operation. The “buyers” in the exchange would be energy companies seeking off-site mitigation for their energy-development activities as well as local/national conservation foundations and others looking for ways to support the high-quality recreational and environmental amenities that characterize the basin.
With partners Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Environmental Incentives (EI), we have made significant progress in developing market protocols and tools to quantify changes on the landscape that would result from conservation. This effort is currently called the Upper Green River Conservation Exchange (Exchange). The Exchange Manual (see here) describes our current thinking on how the Exchange could work for sage-grouse (e.g., organizational structure of the Exchange, what do buyers/sellers need to do to participate, interface with regulatory agencies). The Greater Sage-Grouse Habitat Quantification Tool (see here) describes how the Exchange will measure and assess pre- and post-conditions on both industrial development sites and habitat improvement sites.
In May 2014, we submitted an application to the USFWS under the conservation banking review process for the Exchange to be approved as a mitigation option for sage-grouse. If the application is approved, conservation undertaken through the Exchange to protect sage-grouse habitat will be recognized by USFWS, and participants could seek regulatory assurances to accompany the purchase of credits. Updated documents describing the Wyoming Conservation Exchange were submitted in December of 2014. USFWS is scheduled to make a decision on whether to list the sage-grouse in 2015. The Exchange may help influence the listing decision.
Efforts are also underway to expand the sage-grouse habitat portion of the Exchange to the state level, thereby providing greater protection for sage-grouse across their range in Wyoming. (Other ecosystem services could also eventually be included in a state-level exchange). This statewide effort, called the Wyoming Conservation Exchange, will build on the pilot transaction activities occurring in the Upper Green River Basin through the UGRCE. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WYSGA) and Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts (WACD) have both expressed interest in serving on the eventual board of the Wyoming Conservation Exchange and in contributing to its development in the meantime. Outreach with other stakeholders (potential buyers and sellers and state/federal regulatory agencies) for a statewide Exchange is ongoing. The Exchange Advisory Group submitted documents to the USFWS describing the Wyoming Conservation Exchange in December of 2014.
We now seek to operationalize the markets for sage-grouse habitat, mule deer habitat, and hydrologic services by developing pilot transactions. The UGRCE development team is currently focused on facilitating pilot projects for sage-grouse habitat, mule deer habitat, and hydrologic services on the ground in the Upper Green River Basin that could result in ecosystem services transactions in a market. These projects will demonstrate proof-of-concept for the Exchange. This activity is informed by our belief that demonstrating proof-of-concept by facilitating transactions between a few willing buyers and sellers—and using the results to better inform market design—is the best way to ensure that the market scales to the basin and state levels successfully. These projects will also assist the project team in implementing the Exchange Manual and quantification tools and making them as functional for stakeholders (potential buyers and sellers, and regulators) as possible.
For more information about the Upper Green River Conservation Exchange (or if you are a landowner or energy company interested in participating in pilots), please contact:
University of Wyoming
Sublette County Conservation District
The Nature Conservancy
Environmental Defense Fund