What is the Upper Green River Conservation Exchange?
The Upper Green River Conservation Exchange (UGRCE) is an innovative way to provide financial incentives to private landowners who engage in land stewardship activities that benefit the public. The UGRCE facilitates payments for work to improve and protect Greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) habitat, mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) habitat, and hydrologic services. The initial focus is greater sage-grouse habitat, but the UGRCE is currently developing credit-based trading for all three ecosystem services.
Landowners are the “sellers” in the UGRCE, who implement practices on their land to maintain or enhance high-quality sage-grouse habitat that generate measurable outcomes. The “buyers” in the UGRCE are, for example, energy companies seeking off-site mitigation of impact associated with their energy-development activities, or conservation groups interested in promoting conservation in the area.
What are the benefits of the Upper Green River Conservation Exchange?
The UGRCE creates profitable opportunities for private and public landowners and land managers to conserve and restore ecosystem services across Wyoming. The UGRCE provides habitat quantification and management tools, an accounting system, and an adaptive management process to track measurable outcomes and facilitate coordination among the conservation and mitigation activities of multiple projects and relevant policies throughout Wyoming.
By bringing together those who can supply high-quality habitat and those who have a demand for it, the UGRCE will help to ensure that the habitat conservation and mitigation needs of the Upper Green River Basin can be met. As the Wyoming Conservation Exchange (WCE) develops, the UGRCE will be one of the exchanges that is part of the WCE. Exchanges will work in combination with more traditional tools such as conservation easements and banks. The design of the UGRCE and the WCE builds on the conceptual and technical underpinnings of the conservation banking approach, and uses lessons from successful conservation exchanges that are being created and implemented around the country.
Why is the Upper Green River Conservation Exchange initially focused on Greater sage-grouse habitat?
Alteration and degradation of sagebrush habitat nationwide has reduced the amount of viable habitat for obligate species such as the Greater sage-grouse. The Greater sage-grouse now occupies approximately 56 percent of its historic range (FWS 2013). Wyoming is home to approximately one-third of the entire sage-grouse population, and a significant portion of that current range is in the Upper Green River Basin. The expansion of oil and natural gas facilities and other land use changes in Wyoming have the potential for further major impact on sagebrush habitat.
The Greater sage-grouse is a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that there is sufficient scientific evidence to warrant a listing for the Greater sage-grouse, but it has been precluded from doing so because other, higher priority species take precedence (USFWS 2012). The UWFWS has announced that it will make a listing decision on the Greater sage-grouse in 2015 (BLM 2011). A listing under the ESA would result in major limitations on many human activities in Wyoming and elsewhere in the Greater sage-grouse range. In 2008, the Wyoming Governor issued an Executive Order establishing a core area policy to conserve Greater sage-grouse in critical habitat areas. In 2011, Governor Matt Mead extended the policy (Wyoming Governor’s Office, 2011).
Innovative solutions that reduce the costs of reclamation and restoration and that engage private landowners are needed, if mitigation and conservation efforts to maintain and enhance Greater sage-grouse habitat are to be effectively implemented. The presence of operational conservation exchanges like the UGRCE in Wyoming may help influence the listing decision.
How does the Upper Green River Conservation Exchange work?
The UGRCE provides a performance-based mechanism for environmental impact mitigation and investment in conservation. The UGRCE uses a standardized science-based conservation “credit” to quantify conservation benefits. A key component of the overall infrastructure for the UGRCE is the habitat quantification approach, which measures habitat functionality on a project site and in the context of the surrounding area, both before and after a conservation project is undertaken. The same tool is used to assess a development site before and after development impact. Unlike most mitigation efforts, the UGRCE incorporates both the quantity and quality of environmental impact and uplift using this habitat quantification approach.
An Exchange Administrator will manage the day-to-day operations of the Exchange, including facilitating and overseeing all credit generation and transaction activities. The Exchange Administrator helps to connect Credit Buyers (entities that purchase credits for compensatory mitigation or to meet conservation objectives) and Credit Developers (landowners or land managers who produce, register, or sell credits through the Exchange). The Exchange Administrator also ensures consistency and transparency, issues credits, and reports results to all relevant Regulators. A formal stakeholder group – known as the Advisory Group – will include representatives from conservation interests, industry, agriculture, and government, and is responsible for overseeing the overall operations of the Exchange and making strategic management decisions. The Exchange is a private market, not a government regulatory scheme. Government agencies with responsibilities for wildlife like sage grouse, or for lands that they manage, are involved to the extent necessary for the Exchange to help its participants effectively address a variety of regulatory initiatives.
What is the current status of the Upper Green River Conservation Exchange?
In May 2014, the UGRCE (a regional affiliate of the WCE based in the Upper Green River Basin) submitted an application to the USFWS under the conservation banking review process. If the application is approved, conservation undertaken through the UGRCE to protect Greater sage-grouse habitat will be recognized by USFWS, and participants could seek regulatory assurances to accompany the purchase of credits. Updated documents describing the WCE were submitted in December of 2014 (see documents here). USFWS is scheduled to make a decision on whether to list the Greater sage-grouse in 2015. The presence of operational conservation exchanges like the UGRCE in Wyoming may help influence the listing decision.
UGRCE protocols and the Greater sage-grouse habitat quantification tool are in the final stages of development. This development is occurring in conjunction with the UGRCE conservation banking review process, as well as in consultation with stakeholders and other state and federal land management agencies.