In the Vast West, Conservation Projects Require a Phased Approach

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Large-scale habitat projects on working lands get their best chance for success when tackled in steps

By Michael Peyton, Sage Grouse Initiative and Wildlife Conservationist 

When thinking about implementing conservation practices in the West, matters can quickly become overwhelming. 

The time and cost to implement conservation practices, implementing those practices on thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of acres, and the probability of having a new practice involved, are all real challenges. 

Because of those factors, I recommend breaking projects into multiple phases to help ease the stress and financial strain those projects can cause.
 
Most projects done in the West are completed on thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of acres that include both public and private lands. When trying to accomplish a project of that scale you will need to coordinate with different agencies such as Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to name a few. When working with multiple agencies you will also need extra time for them to coordinate work for cultural clearance, to meet National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) rules, and to find funding to assist in the project.

It can sometimes take over a year to get the proper clearance from each agency before work can commence. Most agencies have funding pools that will help landowners with a cost share incentive to complete wildlife habitat improvement projects, but the funding amount and timing varies year to year. Breaking projects into phases can help these agencies work through projects and allocate the appropriate amount of time and funding to each project. 

Western habitat projects are often broken into phases simply because of the size. Most projects are completed at a “landscape level,” meaning we’re physically changing the appearance of a landscape. Examples include removing pinyon juniper from a mountainside or seeding thousands of acres after a wildfire.

These projects take an immense amount of time to coordinate with the agencies involved. They also take a lot of funding, and most times one agency cannot completely fund a landscape level project, so we’re working with many partners and funding sources.

Most landscape level projects are contracted out to a private contractor and they have narrow work windows in which to complete the project. These windows are often due to wildfire restrictions and not disturbing wildlife during critical life stages such as nesting season. Breaking these projects into phases helps the agencies by giving them time to coordinate and giving the contractors enough time to complete the work. 

Another reason to break a project into phases is when trying something new. It is better to experiment with a smaller acreage verses larger acreage in case the project does not turn out how you planned.

For example, trying a new seeding, whether it’s a native seed mix or food plot, sometimes does not go as planned. That comes from many factors such as seeding rate, soil type, precipitate zones, and elevations. Perhaps you broadcast-seed a food plot your first year and later that fall the food plot isn’t as dense as you would like. Now you’ve learned to increase your seeding rate or change to drilling the seed. 

It is better to learn from mistakes when there is less time and money wrapped into the project. Once you’ve perfected your methods you can take that newfound knowledge and apply it to the second or third phase and have confidence that it will go as planned.

My most important habitat tip to landowners in the West (and really, most anywhere for that matter) would be to break your project into phases. This will help landowners, biologists and all the agencies involved. A phased approach will help streamline the planning and implementing process versus attempting a landscape level project all at once. Each agency has a limited amount of time, funding and resources to allocate toward projects. Every agency’s number one goal is to provide assistance to landowners for working lands conservation.