Lael Gilbert, SJ & Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University
It’s easy to think that the vast deserts of southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado are mostly barren, but in reality, the sagebrush-filled Colorado Plateau is teeming with treasure.
On the ground, rare plants such as milk vetch, mustache penstemon, and sclerocactus survive under the harshest ecological conditions, each an ecologically niche miracle. Meanwhile, the region, located far below the surface, offers abundant oil, gas and alternative energy potential scattered across a patchwork of landholdings.
In a newly published study, Joshua Carrell, Edd Hammill, and Thomas Edwards of the Quinney College of Natural Resources correlate new demand for proposed energy development projects with the survival of rare plant populations on the Colorado Plateau. We have strategies in place to ensure you don’t have to. exclusive effort.
With global oil demand projected to grow by 50% between 2007 and 2030, the energy potential is being actively exploited on both public and private lands in the highlands. Oil drilling is no easy task. For example, a recent project proposed hundreds of miles of new roads and pipelines involving hundreds of thousands of acres of land that will be heavily impacted to house 4,000 new wells.
Building unpaved roads or excavating excavation pads can damage plant communities due to direct habitat loss. However, roads across the landscape impede seed dispersal, introduce alien species (such as cheat grass) that crowd out native plants, increase dust covering plant leaves and stems, and reduce the ability to photosynthesize sunlight. Let The dust, noise and turbulence associated with large projects also affect pollinators such as bees and moths that plants depend on for reproduction.
With this kind of devastating impact looming, the team hopes to find ways to keep rare native plants alive on the Colorado Plateau. Previous science suggests that if at least 30% of endangered plants can be conserved, communities can retain their long-term viability. Below that number, the plant’s fate becomes more sparse.
The team developed a new method to model how rare plants are distributed across the Colorado Plateau. This includes strategies for structuring energy projects to optimize space use and minimize impact. This model does not work in ecological blanks. Factors such as land tenure, potential for energy extraction at the site, and biodiversity are considered.
“The key to finding viable solutions in this kind of situation is to think like both an ecologist and an energy developer and work within that space,” Edwards said. The framework does not always incorporate real-world constraints such as economic considerations, business risks, land tenure, etc. However, these considerations should be used to find viable solutions. A reality-based strategy should consider all of these things.”
The key to this strategy, says Carrell, is to use space wisely. No solution perfectly satisfies both plant protection and energy extraction objectives. But where there are direct conflicts, the model can help land managers find some balance, he said.
The team identified and mapped specific locations where conservation action would be most cost-effective to protect plant communities. They found the minimum number of sites needed to cover 30% of each species at the lowest economic cost to the developer. By optimizing and minimizing the amount of land units destined for conservation, we were able to allow more areas open for energy development and exploration.
In this approach, developers move planned roads, build around specific protected areas, or drill horizontally at several locations to protect high-priority sites. However, the model acknowledges and responds to the inevitable direction of energy development in the region.
“It’s not a perfect scenario, but this approach offers an opportunity for the best possible scenario given the realities of the situation,” Edwards said.
Joshua Carrell is a recent MS graduate in the Wildland Resources department. Edd Hammill is Associate Professor at Watershed Sciences and the Ecology Center, and Thomas Edwards is a former USGS scientist and Professor Emeritus at Wildland Resources.
The research is published in the journal land.
For more information:
Joshua D. Carrell et al, Balancing Conservation of Rare Species and Extractive Industries, land (2022). DOI: 10.3390/land11112012
Courtesy of SJ & Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University
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