Tag Archives: The Nature Conservancy

Q&A: Financing land conservation in the West

EcoWest recently had an opportunity to speak with Dee Frankfourth, Associate National Conservation Finance Director at The Trust for Public Land (TPL) and Eleanor Morris, Senior Policy Representative at The Nature Conservancy (TNC). We interviewed Frankfourth and Morris about trends they are observing in their conservation finance work to protect open space across the West.

 Both TNC and TPL, along with local land trusts and other partners, secure public funding for conservation in the West and elsewhere through open space ballots and legislative initiatives.

Conservation finance initiatives occur in two ways. First, the public can vote directly on a ballot measure to approve a new funding source (e.g., a bond, income tax, property tax, oil and gas revenues, or lottery proceeds). Second, legislatures can approve funding through a budget line item or general fund appropriation. You can learn more about conservation finance initiatives in this EcoWest post or on this dashboard (click the screen shot below to enlarge).

Ballot measure dashboardBelow is an edited Q&A with Frankfourth and Morris.

EcoWest: Can you highlight any conservation finance initiatives that have recently passed in the West?

Dee Frankfourth (TPL): Most measures in the West occurred in their primaries during May and August of this year, including:

  • Blaine County, Idaho: This county, located near Sun Valley, passed a $3.5 million property tax to reconstruct the 20-mile Wood River recreational trail. This is actually quite a significant amount for a rural county, and it passed overwhelmingly, with 83 percent approval.
  • Portland, Oregon: With 54% of the vote, the metro area of Portland that includes parts of three counties passed a $50 million property tax for stewardship of lands acquired during two previous bond measures, and to fund other open space acquisitions.
  • King County, Washington: This county surrounding Seattle, the 17th largest in the nation,  passed by 70% a six-year property tax that will start at $60 million in the first year and increase annually. The measure will help keep county parks and trails in good condition and also provide funding to protect new open spaces.

The graphic below, based on TPL’s LandVote database, shows that Western voters approved some $25 billion in conservation funding from 1988 to 2012.

Conservation funding in the West

EcoWest: Given that water is arguably the most precious natural resource in the West, have you observed a link between the public’s willingness to conserve land and their motivation to protect water resources?

Eleanor Morris (TNC): I’m constantly impressed that this connection is instantaneous for Americans. It’s a no-brainer—they intuitively understand, “If I protect this piece of land, then I protect my drinking water.” And this is not a new trend necessarily. Water has always been a huge driving force in conservation finance in the West. It consistently ranks as a top reason in polls as to why people are motivated to pay for land protection

EcoWest: Federal funding programs play a key role in making conservation finance initiatives possible. Have recent financial challenges in D.C. presented any threats to these funding sources?

Dee Frankfourth (TPL): The trendline in general for federal funding is definitely of concern. The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is slated to end in 2015, since it was initially designed as a 50-year dedicated funding source. TPL and our partners are currently working to build allies in Congress to ensure leadership for either a renewal of this fund or a new source that supplants it. The federal government provides an important value proposition to states: “We’ll give you [the state] 50 percent of funding if you put in the other half for a conservation project.”

The graphic below summarizes LWCF appropriations and receipts. Learn more about how the LWCF works in this report from the Congressional Research Service.

EcoWest LWCF graphic

EcoWest: Eleanor, can you tell us about the Montana Legacy Project, the nation’s largest private conservation purchase? Are there any key lessons learned from TNC’s efforts to protect those 310,000 acres?

Eleanor Morris (TNC): Yes, this project had an innovative and unprecedented funding package from the federal government, Montana state government, and private sources. On-the-ground support from the public was another important feature that made this deal possible. TNC and our partners worked in counties that were already 80 to 90 percent public land. It took concerted effort to work with communities in these counties and discuss how they envision their future land use.

EcoWest: Have you observed a trend of “conservation envy” in your work – where one county creates a dedicated source of conservation funding, and an adjacent county seeks to follow suit?

Dee Frankfourth (TPL): Yes, there is currently a county in southeastern Washington undertaking the process to create a dedicated pot of conservation funding. This is a great example of a county, in a very conservative part of the state, looking next door at Spokane, seeing how they are protecting their parks, open space, and natural areas with a dedicated fund  created  20 years ago, and thinking how it should do the same. After TPL presented to elected officials in the county last March, we performed feasibility research this summer and found that it would cost $11 per household annually (less than $1 per month) to create a dedicated conservation funding source. The next step is to conduct a public opinion survey of registered voters to see if there is sufficient support to warrant moving ahead with a ballot measure.

EcoWest: How might growing concern about fire and drought as threats to local water supplies influence TNC’s work going forward?

Eleanor Morris (TNC): Last year, the City of Flagstaff, Arizona approved a $10 million bond to protect nearly 15,000 acres of forest land outside the city’s limits. This was an important measure showing that voters were willing to tax themselves to protect national forest land for watershed services. TNC is now developing strategies to look at whole watersheds, whole ecosystems, whole landscapes. We’re looking at the entire state of Oregon, and the bulk of the state of New Mexico. The aim is to protect lands beyond the reach of one individual city, in order to safeguard all water resources that might be connected to an area’s water supply.

Editor’s note: The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which supports EcoWest.org, has funded TPL, TNC, and the Montana Legacy Project, but the foundation does not exert editorial control over this website.


EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.

Viewing biodiversity through the ecoregional lens

The Nature Conservancy’s Atlas of Global Conservation is a fabulous resource for understanding biological diversity. Scientists have divided up the world into more than 1,000 ecoregions and analyzed how they compare across dozens of measures.

I’ve used data from TNC’s atlas to create a slide deck that illustrates patterns in species richness and threats to biodiversity, with a focus on the United States and American West. Below is a video of the PowerPoint, which you can download at the bottom of this post.

Visualizing biodiversity through the lens of ecoregions from EcoWest on Vimeo.

Biome basics

Before we get to ecoregions, let me first note a broader way that TNC and others classify the natural world: biomes. An area’s climate more or less determines what types of plants can grow, and at the highest level we can classify the planet’s land masses according to the predominant vegetation, or lack thereof. There are 16 terrestrial biomes, ranging from snow and tundra to tropical forests.

The map below (click to enlarge) shows the biomes found in the United States. Much of the interior West is dominated by desert and xeric (dry) shrublands, but the higher elevations support temperate conifer forests. California has Mediterranean forests along much of its coast and the Sierra Foothills. There’s a bit of subtropical forest in the mountains of Southeast Arizona and temperate broadleaf forest in Oregon’s Coastal Range.

United States biomes

As with temperature, rainfall, and elevation, there is more uniformity in the biomes found in the East than the West. Look, for example, at how many different types of communities are found in California, or how isolated mountains in the Great Basin create little biome islands.

The United States actually leads the world in the number of biomes and smaller ecoregions within its borders, even exceeding countries that are much larger in size, as shown in the graphic below.

United States biomes and ecoregions

So it’s no surprise that the United States also ranks high in species diversity. In the graphic below, blue bars show the number of species by type. Orange diamonds show what percent of the world’s species are found in the United States and the number in parenthesis in the labels indicate the U.S. ranking worldwide. The highest levels of diversity for several groups are found in the United States, including freshwater mussels, freshwater snails, and crayfishes; several other groups, such as freshwater fishes and gymnosperms, are also well represented here.

United States ranks high in species diversity

Analyzing ecoregions

A more fine-grained view than biomes classifies the terrestrial world into 825 unique ecoregions. These areas are sort of like ecological neighborhoods with similar habitat. Below is a close-up of the American West. If you were to drive through several ecoregions on an interstate road trip, you’d notice the differences simply by looking out the window.

Ecoregions of the American West

TNC’s atlas also analyzes the planet according to its 426 freshwater ecoregions. Each of the regions has a unique collection of aquatic species and freshwater habitats. The map below shows the West’s two-dozen or so freshwater ecoregions, which generally correspond to the boundaries of important river basins.

Freshwater ecoregions of the American West

Dozens of biodiversity metrics

TNC’s atlas offers dozens and dozens of layers of geographic information by terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecoregion. The deck that you can download at the bottom of this post has 71 slides, with views of both the world and United States.

To give you a taste of what’s available, here’s a summary of three slides.

1) Species diversity is greatest around the equator

One way to describe biodiversity is to look at the evolutionary distinctiveness of species in a given location. The map below shows the phylogenetic diversity of terrestrial vertebrate species (animals with a backbone). Phylogenetics is a measure of how closely related a group of species is. An ecoregion with high phylogenetic diversity has species that are more distinct from one another (see this summary and this paper for more on the measure).

In general, measures of species diversity are greater at lower latitudes due to the past effects of Ice Age glaciation at higher latitudes and the configuration of islands and other landforms on the Earth, both past and present. In the West, phylogenetic diversity of vertebrate species tends to be highest in the desert Southwest.

Phylogenetic diversity of species

2) Hotspots for threatened animals 

The analysis and conservation of biodiversity often focuses on those species most at risk of extinction. The map below shows the number of globally threatened animals by terrestrial ecoregion. Threatened species are those listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. Globally, some of the greatest concentrations of threatened vertebrates are in South America and Southeast Asia. About half of the threatened animals are reptiles and amphibians, one quarter are mammals, and one quarter are birds. In the United States, the Southwest, the foothills around California’s Central Valley, the Southeast, and the Appalachians have the most threatened animals.

Number of globally threatened animals

3) Plenty of plants in arid American West

The map below shows the number of plant species by terrestrial ecoregion. Worldwide, there are more than 420,000 of the so-called higher order plants: trees, vines, grasses, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Deserts and arid lands typically have fewer plant species, while tropical rainforests have the most. But in North America, some drier parts of the inland West actually have more plant species than wetter climes along the coast. Compare, for example, the Great Basin in Nevada to Washington.

Number of plant species

Those are just a few of the slides that I found most interesting. I’d be curious to hear from readers if they spot other patterns.

Data sources

To create the maps, I downloaded the GIS data from Data Basin (a search query for “Hoekstra,” as in atlas lead author and EcoWest advisor Jon Hoekstra, will return all the layers).

I highly recommend the book form of TNC’s atlas, which taught me a ton about biodiversity around the globe.

See this page for more background on ecoregions from WWF.


EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.

Hawaii, West and South have most at-risk species

The United States boasts the greatest diversity of ecosystems of any country and it’s home to more than 200,000 species. But about one-third of U.S. plants and animals are considered at risk by biologists, and at least 500 U.S. species are already extinct or missing.

How do the 50 states compare in terms of number of species—and their imperilment? I’ve created some simple dashboards that illustrate the state-by-state tallies. These graphics, which you can sort, print, and customize, show the number of various types of species found in each state and the fraction of those species that are imperiled.

Percent of species at risk

The data comes from Precious Heritage: The Status of Biodiversity in the United States, a great book produced by The Nature Conservancy and NatureServe in 2000. At-risk species have elevated risks of extinction, according to the system developed by the project, and therefore have the greatest conservation concern.

Here are some of the patterns I noticed in the dashboards:

  • Despite their aridity, many Western states have tons of species. Arizona and New Mexico, neither of which have any coastal habitat, rank third and fourth in total number of species.
  • Hawaii has by far the greatest percent of species at risk. The native biodiversity of this isolated archipelago has been devastated by the introduction of non-native species.
  • States in the West, especially the Southwest, also have many imperiled species. California, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada round out the top 5 states.
  • Freshwater fish are doing very poorly, especially in the West, where Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, California, and Oregon all have at least 25 percent at risk.
  • Outside of Hawaii, birds tend to be doing better than many other types of species.

Using the dashboard

A couple of notes about the dashboards:

  • You can sort by state name or by any of the variables at the bottom.
  • Because Hawaii is such an outlier, I can be helpful to examine the dashboard by excluding that state (just click on the name and the option will pop up).
  • The toolbar at the bottom allows you to create an image or PDF, plus download the underlying data.
  • This dashboard reports the percent of a state’s species at risk, not the actual number, but that data is also provided in Precious Heritage.

Learn more in our biodiversity deck

These dashboards focus on the state level, but in our biodiversity slide deck we offer a slew of maps and graphics summarizing the national picture. The one below shows that many freshwater species are in jeopardy, whereas some of the best known types of species, such as birds and mammals, are doing comparatively better.

National species at risk

Data sources

Anyone doing research on U.S biodiversity should definitely check out the Precious Heritage book. It contains a wealth of information on the status of U.S. species and many of the graphics in the book are available for free download on this page.

EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.