Wyoming – An Ecosystem Marketplace
“Ecosystem marketplace” are not words we commonly use around our state, but that may be changing. As Wyoming is the headwaters of numerous river systems, what we do in Wyoming may affect water quality downstream. If we are doing a good job managing our resources, should we receive recognition and monetary payments?
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a forum on Conservation Finance that looked at creative approaches to sustain land and water. I always thought if one wanted to sustain land and water, you just turned a good rancher or farmer loose on the land, but I soon realized it is much more than that. The event was hosted by the University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources and Stroock Forum on Wyoming Lands and People and the Wyoming Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. The audience was somewhat familiar with the topic, so nothing said was controversial to them, and other than myself, I think there were only a few other persons from agriculture attending, but a couple of the speakers had ties to agriculture and represented ag well. It was a great start on a subject that agriculture will soon become familiar with.
Conservation financing is ongoing all over the world, including in the U.S. The best way to explain it is to use the model that was explained at the forum. New York City was at the point where they would have to build water treatment plants to clean up the water for their systems, and it was going to be expensive – really expensive. They decided to work with landowners in the watershed upstream to ensure the water quality was in a good condition. The landowners received payments not to develop their lands in ways that would degrade the water quality. Also, best management practices like buffer zones along streams and other practices that wouldn’t stop agriculture were used. I understand it was voluntary and incentive driven. Now New York City only treats their water with fluoride and chlorine, and it is a heck of a lot cheaper than building expensive water treatment plants.
Closer to home, Sheridan County has voted to spend dollars on water quality, and in Sublette County, local ranchers and the Sublette County Conservation District are working to develop a program. The Pathfinder Ranch southwest of Casper is in the process of developing a conservation or mitigation bank and credit trading for industry and others to use. It is called the Sweetwater River Conservancy, and so far, it is the only one of its kind in the state. For example, if an energy company or the Wyoming Department of Transportation needed to develop along a wetlands or stream, they could buy credits from the conservancy, and this would allow their development of the project.
This concept will work as long as it is voluntary and no one takes a large club to agriculture, and it could provide added income to the landowner while still allowing them to farm or ranch. People and municipalities are realizing that the public benefit of having good agriculture upstream in the watershed is a real cost saver.