Climate lens for conservation

farm field with tall green crops and some cut crops

(Cover crops on a farm field help capture carbon and retain nutrients in the soil.)

West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District is currently developing a ‘climate lens’ for conservation with the help of our Climate Change Intern, Emma Russell. The Climate Change Strategic Direction included in the District’s 2021-2025 Long Range Business Plan is to ‘promote resilient environments and communities in the face of climate change.’ The completed lens will help us achieve this strategy by informing and guiding how we develop future conservation plans.

We are following three main steps to develop this ‘climate lens.’ The first step involves gathering information regarding climate change impacts and the vulnerability of different ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest. This information prompts questions about how to address these impacts and what adaptations, mitigation strategies, and management practices we can include in conservation plans to reduce climate change impacts. Secondly, we are compiling online tools and resources into the lens to help conservation staff incorporate ‘best management practices’ – the most effective and practical ways to manage land – into conservation plans. The resources will also help our staff and land managers measure the effectiveness of these practices. Lastly, through the project, we aim to develop relationships with local partners and organizations participating in climate mitigation and adaptation and increase collaboration around these efforts.

Through the research portion of the project, we learned of several ecosystem changes to be expected due to climate change. In the Pacific Northwest, temperatures will rise, with drier summers and wetter winters with less snowpack. Drier summers will lead to longer and more intense wildfire seasons and more severe drought. These changes will increasingly stress ecosystems and change where plants currently grow, shifting their ranges. Seedlings and juvenile plants will be most impacted by these changes, making it more difficult for new plants to survive. Drier conditions will lead to drought stress, which makes ecosystems more prone to insect infestation, disease, and invasive species. Agricultural crops will also suffer in the summer, with less water availability and increased risk of erosion and low crop yields. Wetlands and riparian areas are also expected to experience shifts in their hydrological cycles and are at increased risk of drying out.

The effects of climate change are widespread, leading to an overall reduction in ecosystem resilience and increasing disturbances – short-term events that have a significant impact on an ecosystem, like wildfire or drought. Both mitigation and adaptation strategies can be integrated into conservation projects to reduce the impacts climate change will have on ecosystems.

One of the most significant ways to adjust land management practices to mitigate climate change is to change conventional agricultural practices. Keeping soil structure intact by reducing tillage increases the amount of carbon stored in soil and reduces the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. Other ways to increase soil-stored carbon include adding biochar or manure to soils, using organic fertilizers, and incorporating cover cropping and crop rotations into planting strategies. It is also extremely important to protect and restore high carbon-storing ecosystems like wetlands, riparian areas, and old-growth forests.

Adapting to climate change in the context of land management can mean adjusting the way we do our work, what we prioritize, and what practices we recommend to land managers. To increase ecosystem resilience, this could mean reducing soil disturbance in agricultural areas and forests, as described above, as well as taking steps to increase biodiversity and habitat connectivity. Each of these practices increases ecosystem health and promotes evolutionary adaptation and migration – and therefore survival — of plants and animals. Wildlife will shift with plant communities, especially those important to food and shelter along with water sources, as droughts worsen.

Another focus of the project is to identify which communities within our district are most at risk from the effects of climate change. Extreme heat events are expected to occur more frequently with climate change. These will intensify the Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect in urban areas.

Within our district, downtown and the Northwest Industrial areas are most impacted by high temperatures and are identified as high risk communities. Efforts to reduce the UHI effect in these areas include protecting existing trees, removing pavement, and promoting light-colored roofing materials. Introducing emergency preparedness and neighborhood response plans can also increase resilience of frontline communities. Lastly, we aim to incorporate Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Indigenous communities into our conservation planning and the ‘climate lens’ in order to learn from and build on Indigenous communities’ long-term and extensive experience managing and living with the land.

With the reality of a changing climate, it is critically important that we use and incorporate a ‘climate lens’ perspective into local conservation practices. Our goal is to develop well-designed and carefully constructed conservation plans, programming, and partnerships that act as instruments in reducing climate change impacts in our local ecosystems.