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Can Conservation Adapt?

Re-examining the Role of Private Land Conservation in the Climate Crisis

By Fiona Noonan

On April 9, 2019, most of Oregon flooded, following a historic winter that blanketed the state in snow from the Coast Range to the Blue Mountains. As spring temperatures rose, a series of rain-on-snow events melted off much of the snowpack, flushing into rivers across the state at a rate unseen for the last several years. The floods rampaged through the Deschutes River Basin, which comprises the Deschutes River and its tributaries and is bounded by the Columbia River to the north, the Cascade Range to the west, and the high desert to the south and east. 

Like many rivers in the American West, those in the Deschutes Basin have been diverted for irrigation, re-routed, straightened, polluted, stripped of their native fish, and relentlessly dammed over the past 175 years. These anthropogenic damages compound a newer existential threat to the basin’s streams and rivers: climate change.

At the Deschutes Land Trust, where I work, we aim to prevent and undo this kind of damage by conserving private lands to support ecosystems and communities throughout the Deschutes Basin. My job is to identify critical lands in our region and protect them forever, through a purchase or a conservation easement. Over 1,300 land trusts use these tools across the United States to address a conservation gap that state, local, and federal land management agencies cannot fill. Notably, this model is largely confined to the United States and Canada, although other nations have begun exploring ways to implement land trust-style conservation approaches as well.

The changes that land trusts traditionally combat — property subdivision, development, stream channelization, and other types of ecological degradation—are relatively manageable, and there’s a standard formula for solving these problems. A land trust can write specific easement terms and restrictions, purchase and steward the land, or design a restoration project to address typical conservation issues.

This formula falls short, however, when applied to climate change. Land trusts have only recently, slowly, and with trepidation begun to address the challenges of climate change, and it remains unclear what this should mean in practice. As organizations that necessarily operate on a local level, facing such a global problem can feel like a fraught pursuit at best, and entirely ineffectual at worst. 

But the time for caution in climate action has long since passed. This became more apparent than ever to me during the April 9 flooding in Oregon. The following day, as I watched a clip from local news coverage of the floods with my boss, the urgent need for climate responses in the affected areas — our backyard — came into stark relief. 

The footage focused on the chaos unfolding along the Crooked River, a tributary of the Deschutes River that runs east-west through Prineville, an agricultural town near the Ochoco Mountains, and joins the Deschutes at Lake Billy Chinook. Upstream of Prineville, the Crooked flows through at least a dozen ranches, hits the Bowman Dam, and forms the Prineville Reservoir, which stores up to 190,000,000 cubic meters of water for flood control, irrigation, and recreation. Human activity has deeply impacted the Crooked River, eroding stream banks, eliminating meanders, damaging fish habitat, and disconnecting the river from its floodplain.

In the video, rescuers throw lifelines to a woman stuck in the muddy torrent of the Crooked near Post, a tiny ranching community upstream of Prineville. She had fallen off her horse while trying to reach some cows stranded on a flood-formed island, and she’s safely towed to solid ground. 

My boss and I instantly recognized the landscape. For several years we’ve worked with a rancher to place a conservation easement on his cattle ranch in Post, right where the rescue happened.

We called him to ask if he was all right, and he described the intensity of the flood, telling us he hadn’t seen anything like it in decades. Water was gushing into the Prineville Reservoir at roughly 225 cubic metres per second (cms), overwhelming the Bowman Dam’s maximum outflow of 85 cms. He was worried. He hung up.  

At the time, the floods struck us as just an outcome of the big snow year that had followed an extremely dry, fire-filled 2018, but it launched what proved to be a wildly unpredictable spring, featuring unusually heavy rains, late frosts, and a growing season that disrupted almost all agricultural production in Central Oregon. Nearly every time I spoke to the rancher in Post this spring and summer, he gave me bad news; how many cows had died in the cold, that he barely scraped two cuttings of hay, fire management difficulties, that there was just too much rain.

Flooding, unpredictability, temperature fluctuations, rain — none of these are necessarily problematic in isolation. Taken together and over time, however, they create social and ecological instability with no clear fixes, begging two interconnected questions: what role does climate change play in this instability, and who is best suited to address climate change on private land?

At the Deschutes Land Trust, we have spent the past two and a half years trying to answer these questions within our conservation niche, and in 2017 we developed a climate change strategy that identifies possible responses to the impacts of climate change on private land in the Deschutes Basin. We have been slowly implementing the strategy since then, pushing ourselves to adjust our work given both the everyday and the extreme effects of climate change.

Although we, as a land trust, have limited ability to address climate change at its global scale, major flooding is exactly the kind of climate-exacerbated disruption that we must increasingly expect. Watching that video of the Crooked River spilling over its banks, I wondered how the Deschutes Land Trust might begin to mitigate flood impacts through conservation and restoration, knowing that floods are one expected outcome of climate change in our area. What might have happened on April 9 if we had previously worked with landowners to restore, re-meander, and re-connect the river to the floodplain, allowing it to slow itself down? In other words, what if our land trust could have increased the river’s ability to adapt to the effects of climate change-induced natural disasters?

We know that targeted restoration is one way land trusts can facilitate climate adaptation on a small scale, but actually preparing for and responding to climate change impacts on the ground has proven practically and philosophically difficult. Beyond requiring us to rethink how we acquire properties, climate change has forced us to reexamine the fundamental assumptions at the center of our work, reimagine the future of the landscapes we seek to protect, and reconsider what conservation means in a changing climate. 

Notwithstanding these challenges, private land conservation can play a critical role in combating climate change. The Nature Conservancy has taken particular leadership on this issue by creating two paradigms for climate-responsive conservation on a local level: Conserving Nature’s Stage and natural climate solutions, both of which offer potential for land trusts to facilitate mitigation and adaptation on the ground. 

The idea behind Conserving Nature’s Stage is that while climate change will alter biodiversity and species distribution, it will not drastically change the underlying topography and geology — soils, rock formations, elevation, aspect — that support various life forms. This approach posits that landscapes that remain well-connected, easy for species to move through, and also contain diverse geophysical features have the highest “terrestrial resilience.” Theoretically, resilient areas will retain their biodiversity (though likely of different species than in the present) and facilitate species adaptation and migration in the face of climate change.      

To accompany this theory, The Nature Conservancy has produced extensive data that land trusts can use to identify resilient landscapes. When we combine terrestrial resilience with a metric for the extent to which a landscape will experience climate change, it becomes easier to see places that might be more worth conserving for the future than others, simply because they are less likely to dramatically change and better suited to adaptation. 

Natural climate solutions complement Conserving Nature’s Stage by mitigating global warming through reforestation, climate-smart agriculture, preventing grasslands conversion, and other conservation approaches which enable landscapes to store carbon. In a 2018 paper, researchers estimated that a suite of conservation and land management actions could store or avoid up to 21 percent of the United States’ total annual greenhouse gas emissions. If implemented on a global scale, similar research indicates that natural climate solutions could provide close to a third of the mitigation required to hold warming under 2 ºC. Land trusts already deploy many of these solutions by preserving and restoring habitat, even if carbon storage hasn’t been their primary motivation.

In theory, Conserving Nature’s Stage and natural climate solutions could be the only two frameworks land trusts need to spur climate action. We could use the former to identify the most resilient lands in our area, and then steward the lands with the singular goal of implementing natural climate solutions. This approach forms the basis of the Deschutes Land Trust’s climate change strategy.

Reality, of course, is less simple. To conserve nature’s stage and go all-in on natural climate solutions would require releasing two long-standing American conservation traditions that have also taken root across much of the rest of the planet: a species-specific focus and a set of restoration ideals that covet the “pristine” ecological past. These traditions permeate the land trust world — from donors, to educators, to practitioners — and represent arguably the biggest barriers to climate action in field of conservation.

The first of these barriers, species-specificity, has led to significant conservation successes for nonprofits and government agencies, and has been institutionalized in American law and culture by the Endangered Species Act. Species-specificity often favors species known as charismatic megafauna — grizzly bears, wolves, bald eagles — while neglecting the broader functions of ecosystems, including plant-animal interactions, soil productivity, and other less visible indicators of ecosystem health. It does, however, capture the imaginations of funders, volunteers, researchers, and the public.

Unsurprisingly, this tendency to narrowly focus on individual species also connects to how people register the local impacts of climate change. I’ve found that people often want to “see” climate change — to be able to touch it, grasp it, and capture it on a visceral level. 

While it would be deeply, perversely, satisfying to point to a resource-starved aspen colony or sub-average streamflow and say, “Look, climate change is happening here,” the insidiousness of the problem doesn’t usually lend itself to easy demonstration. An entire Ponderosa pine forest dying by bark beetle infestation is not the direct result of climate change, per se, but climate change enables the conditions that allow beetles to survive through the warmer winter, which leads to increased tree mortality. Similarly, climate change did not create the massive flooding on the Crooked River in April, but it exacerbated certain existing weather patterns and human modifications to the river.

This need for tangible, causational evidence of climate change impacts comes not from denial or disbelief, but, I suspect, from a pervasive desire to “fix” things, which is itself a second barrier to climate change-responsive conservation. Restoring an ecosystem, habitat, river, or even species assumes an understanding of reference conditions—a past state of ecological functionality—and requires the ability to re-establish this past state. There is a comforting allure to the familiarity of reference conditions, which depend on a Western, anthropogenic expectation of the landscape’s “correct” aesthetic and function. All too often, this expectation mirrors the myths surrounding wilderness, implying that we can return nature to a point of function uninfluenced by humans.

But “fixing things” is an intangible, meaningless concept when climate change makes past reference conditions impossible. Even the Nature Conservancy describes the goal of Conserving Nature’s Stage as creating “arenas for evolution, not museums of the past,” but that oftentimes feels anathema to land trusts’ core mission of protecting land forever. Do we care more about protecting land, or about preserving it in a certain state?

Indeed, land trusts’ collective struggle to “do something” about climate change might have less to do with lacking tools, time, and funding, and more to do with our organizational identities. Historically, the premise of land trusts has been relatively simple: to ensure that land remains undivided and undeveloped. A land trust’s most basic pursuit, as the term “conservation” suggests, is to prevent change, at least on a property scale. When accepting and adapting to change — whether increased flooding, fires, or drought — becomes the best course of action, the premise of land trusts begins to wobble fast unless we first redefine “conservation.”

As land trusts become increasingly aware that they must act on climate change, I see the decades-old ideological conflict between preservation and conservation re-emerging in a new way. The binary that characterized the debate among (white, male) land managers and scientists in the United States in the early 20th century focused primarily on whether and how to use natural resources such as timber, rangeland, and minerals, reflecting the social — and, to a lesser extent, ecological — concerns of the day. The preservationists — including John Muir and, ultimately, the National Park Service — advocated for keeping lands untouched by industry and other extractive uses, while the conservationists — the likes of Gifford Pinchot and other early proponents of the U.S. Forest Service — promoted harnessing natural resources for sustained human benefit. 

This dual preservation-conservation ethos has guided various American environmental movements — including a unique conception of public lands — for the past century, and has become internationalized through international conservation NGOs, industries, and governments. Troublingly, these two paradigms have also historically erased, ignored, or actively destroyed indigenous relationships with the land in favor of resource commodification.

The current iteration of the preservation vs. conservation debate pits maintaining the status quo against accepting and adapting to change. Now, the conflict is between restoring landscapes to a reference condition that may no longer exist in several decades and adaptively managing lands for their future ecological function. It is between preventing damage when the Crooked River floods and improving the entire river valley’s resilience to increased flood frequency.

Land trusts, including mine, must urgently decide between these two approaches: pursuing increasingly infeasible reference conditions or seeking pathways toward adaptive management and resilience. The former can feel temporarily productive, but only by choosing the latter will we prepare ourselves and the places we love for a warmer, ecologically different future.

Even in making the choice to collectively adapt, aided by frameworks like Conserving Nature’s Stage and natural climate solutions, responding to climate change still feels riddled with frustration and uncertainty. The despairing question, “But what can we actually do?” echoes behind every climate discussion, conference, model, and strategy. Land trusts can talk, write, collect data, and create models endlessly, but until we change how we work on the ground, we have not “done” anything.

There is despair in the immediate damage of a flood that endangers property, livestock, and human life. There is despair in not knowing whether the next climate change-induced natural disaster will alter a landscape beyond recognition. There is despair in the destabilizing effect of climate change on one’s sense of place — the feeling that one understands the world around them. 

Yet, that core work of land trusts — conserving land forever — is still deeply relevant to combating climate change, even if we hesitate to embrace the fact that the land won’t always look the way our own lived experiences suggest. This reframing preserves some optimism for land trusts and orients us toward consistently acting, rather than wallowing in the unknowns and uncertainty that climate change causes at every scale. 

My organization cannot halt or reverse climate change, and perhaps we can’t even “do something” about it on any meaningful scale. But to the extent that we can offer a lifeline for local ecosystems, communities, and landscapes, I feel empowered and compelled to continue wading through the uncertainty.


Fiona Noonan works on land protection and climate change planning at the Deschutes Land Trust in Bend, Oregon. She graduated from Stanford University with a B.S. in Earth Systems in 2017.

Photographs by Karl Dudman


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