Saving the Great Basin through collaboration

11/4/2011 - By: John Trent
Walker Lake

Nevada research is at the forefront of the Great Basin conference

Kim Rollins has a simple explanation for why researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno need to play an important role in the future of the health of lands in the Great Basin.

"Why is it important that research be done here?" Rollins, an associate professor of resource economics at the University, asked. "Take a look at a map of the Great Basin. See how much of it is in Nevada. In terms of the proportion of private and public lands, and the impacts to people and the economy, the state of Nevada has an enormous stake in how these lands are managed."

Kim Rollins and her team

Kim Rollins, associate professor of resource economics, as well as members of her research team, Michael Taylor and Mimako Kobayashi, will be among the presenters during the first annual Great Basin Consortium conference at the Joe Crowley Student Union, Nov. 7-9.

For a schedule of events and description of speakers for the first annual Great Basin Consortium, visit the Academy for the Environment website.

Beginning Monday, Nov. 7 and running through Wednesday, Nov. 9, the work of Rollins and several more of her University colleagues will be at the forefront of the first Great Basin Consortium (GBC) conference on the fourth floor of the Joe Crowley Student Union. The meeting will bring together researchers, public resource managers and other key players from five different organizations that are devoted to restoring, conserving and planning future uses for Great Basin ecosystems.

The groups represented include the Great Basin Landscape Conservation Cooperative, the Great Basin Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit, the Great Basin Research and Management Partnership, the Great Basin Environmental Program and the Great Basin Restoration Initiative.

The conference will be an opportunity for researchers such as Rollins to share current research and outreach efforts and to discuss emerging natural resource management issues and initiatives.

"We're at a critical point in the history of the Great Basin," said Mike Collopy, assistant vice president for research at the University, and one of the organizers of the conference. "Through coordination and collaboration, universities, federal agencies and stakeholder groups have the potential to create long-lasting, science-based strategies that can sustain and revitalize Great Basin ecosystems, as well as the human communities that live, work and depend on them.

"The conference will be a chance for a number of different researchers and resource managers to learn, share ideas and coordinate effort in the delivery of good science to the Great Basin's key decision-makers and stakeholders."

Rollins and her team of researchers, including Michael Taylor and Mimako Kobayashi, have developed integrated environmental-economic models that help to establish a viable framework for simulating and measuring interrelationships between management actions, ecological responses, changes in the values of ecosystem services and economic viability of landscape treatments in the Great Basin. They will present their findings on Tuesday during the conference.

Rollins and her team have worked extensively with natural science researchers to build models that have been used to evaluate expected benefits and costs to society for areas that have been treated and have not been treated prior to wildfire. They have found that benefits from ecologically-based rangeland weed management include net gains to ranching, wildfire suppression costs avoided, and the value of ecosystem service losses averted. They've found that, in general, returns to society as a whole on investments in preventative treatments on healthier lands are the greatest, and that there is a drop off in returns once lands have passed through ecological thresholds. They point out that economic thresholds are not the same as the ecological thresholds, and their models show the importance of time in averting future losses.

For Rollins, such findings are a key component in developing the best management strategies for the Great Basin, both for public and private land holders. It's particularly important for helping land use managers prioritize the best uses of the Great Basin in a time of dwindling environmental federal and state funding. She points out that it is only through integrated research programs that these findings are possible.

"If you choose not to do anything about the drivers of ecosystem losses on this landscape, such as invasive annual grasses and accelerating wildfire regimes, the losses will continue to accumulate," Rollins said. "That's our situation in the Great Basin, and it's not good. We have limited resources with which to manage serious problems on a landscape scale affecting diverse stakeholder groups. Yes, the costs of managing these problems are high, but the costs of not managing them are likely higher as ecosystem benefits are declining and changing, with impacts that differ by stakeholder group. Using the best science available to predict, measure and track how flows of values change with respect to policies and human activity is necessary for understanding trade-offs in such complex interactions. For example, income from renewable energy generation and mining is important to the state. But what are the costs of habitat loss, and what would it cost to mitigate those losses? Who should pay and how? What are the key elements of effective policies that direct the flows of costs and benefits of public land uses in ways that can create win-win scenarios?"

Very few variables have been left to chance. Kobayashi, for example, has brought prior experience in studying the impact of sheep grazing on land in Kazakhstan and adapting the model she used there to better understand the costs associated with cattle grazing in the Great Basin.

As complicated as such modeling sounds, however, Kobayashi says that its essence, the goal of the work is very simple.

"Understanding what motivates people to do certain things ... that's the basic principle in our work," she said. "We're understanding how resources are used and how to protect them, but it's also about how people behave."

The team has taken a decidedly interdisciplinary approach, working closely with other University of Nevada, Reno researchers in areas such as ecology.

"It's been fun working with the natural scientists," Kobayashi said. "You learn a lot from that interaction."

Taylor, who has been at the University for three years through a cooperative agreement with the Agricultural Resource Service, said he, too, has enjoyed "the diverse interactions from involvement with so many different research projects."

He said a good example of the collaborative nature of the work is a model that has been developed to estimate the benefits of fuel management treatments on western rangelands.

"To really understand the value of the treatment, you have to capture how the landscape would evolve with or without the treatment taking place," he said. "The effects of a treatment can play out over long periods of time, even centuries. We needed the ecologists to provide us with a framework of how the land would evolve, with or without treatment. Then we're able to ask, 'OK, how much less money are you going to have to spend on wildfire suppression if you treat in a given year?'"

"It's a great way to come at this problem. Even for an issue that is primarily an environmental problem, you still need an economic analysis. In particular, economic models allow you to analyze the benefits and costs of changes in agricultural or environmental regulation. This is important because there is no practical way to analyze these changes experimentally."

"We study people's behavior," added Kobayashi, "which is not usually detailed in natural science models, and we include that layer in our economics modeling."

Rollins said that such a melding of scientific methods is what helps bring her chosen field of economics to life.

She said she's hopeful that the work of her team will be noticed by more of the University's students, who she said could enjoy mixing the statistics and numbers of economics with so many different environmental and natural science fields.

"I'd like to hear lots of students say, 'This is an amazing laboratory ... I'd like to do work here,'" she said.

Rollins said the work of her team, as well as the work of all the researchers who will be presenting their findings from Nov. 7-9, is a clear example of the University's strength in environmental fields. The fact that the University will be hosting the coming together of more than 150 individuals from throughout the West, all with varying agendas but with one common purpose, is simply icing on the cake, she said.

"Because the University is situated as the land-grant institution for the state of Nevada, and we've got all these public lands, we're in a perfect position," she said. "We've already got an active research community on our campus to build on. There is a definite need for this work, as we look at ways to diversify the state of Nevada's economy in new ways, like solar energy, or wind, or geothermal. We're really quite specialized. With the conference, I'm hoping that we're going to see even more consolidation of effort.

"To make a difference, working together on these issues is going to become increasingly important. It's exciting to be a part of this effort."


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