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Climate Change: Where We Work

Dugout Ranch, Utah

“The Canyonlands Research Center has the potential to generate some of the world’s most important climate change science, enabling the Conservancy to make a major contribution to the global response to climate change.”

Joel Tuhy, Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy's Utah Program

In 1997, the Conservancy preserved an ecological treasure and an icon of the American West: the Dugout Ranch. Located at the doorstep of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, this historic cattle ranch encompasses more than 300,000 acres of private property and public land leases, and is known for spectacular scenery as well as critical plant and animal habitat.

Today, the Conservancy’s Dugout Ranch is providing the foundation for the Canyonlands Research Center, the first facility dedicated to climate change research within the heart of the Colorado Plateau. The Center will increase our understanding of the interactive effects of climate change and land-use, and arm decision-makers with new information to adapt to challenges such as diminished Colorado River water quantity and quality, grazing and recreation impacts, and invasive species.

“The Canyonlands Research Center has the potential to generate some of the world’s most important climate change science, enabling the Conservancy to make a major contribution to the global response to climate change," said Joel Tuhy, Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy's Utah Program.

The Colorado Plateau

The Colorado Plateau is one of our country’s most popular and conflicted regions—a coveted remnant of American wilderness, a hotbed of growing human pressures and a besieged home to unique species and systems.

Supporting two of the continent’s largest rivers, the Colorado and the Green, the Plateau provides resources for millions of people and sustains many of the West’s natural communities. Decades of change and use have taken their toll and mounting ecological problems are now compromising this region’s lands and waters.

The Need for Climate Change Answers

Natural and human communities that rely on the lands of the Colorado Plateau and waters of the Colorado River are facing a crisis. Climate change, coupled with increasing human impacts and demands, is already dramatically affecting this landscape and its resources. Yet scientists, policy makers and land managers lack adequate information to make decisions about how best to prepare for the looming ecological and water supply changes.

Scientists predict that the Upper Colorado River Basin is on track for severe drought, far worse than at any time in the last century. Higher temperatures, combined with cyclical droughts, will reduce soil moisture, causing a decrease in plant cover and soil stability, which is already compromised by activities such as grazing and recreation.

Loose soils lead to more wind-deposited dust on western snowpacks, accelerating snowmelt and decreasing runoff—threatening the quality and quantity of Colorado River water. Decreased soil moisture will also lead to a loss of native vegetation and wildlife habitat, as well as an explosion of invasive species such as cheatgrass.

The Canyonlands Research Center

At the Canyonlands Research Center, leading scientists from partner organizations such as the US Forest Service, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources,  the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Geological Survey, Utah State University and the National Park Service, will work with the Conservancy to fill the gaps in our knowledge about how the Plateau’s species and natural communities will respond to climate change.

The Center’s mission is twofold:

  1. Provide scientific answers about how interactions of climate change and land uses will affect our natural resources; and
  2. Develop land management solutions to help natural and human communities adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change.

For a variety of reasons, the Canyonlands Research Center is poised to become a world-class resource for climate change research and adaptation. Following are three key factors:

  • Ideal Location: With the Conservancy’s Dugout Ranch at its core, the Canyonlands Research Center site also spans ¾ million of acres of public lands, giving scientists the opportunity to study wide gradients of elevation, ecology and land-use histories. The Center is situated along the boundary of the Southwestern monsoon climate zone, making it particularly sensitive to climatic variation.
  • The Right Science: Scientists at the Center will study the relationships between climate and critical issues such as grazing, recreation, invasive species and water needs. This outdoor laboratory will help develop conservation strategies that inform both land management and climate change policy decisions, improve our use of water resources in the Colorado River Basin, and enhance other semi-arid grassland and shrubland regions worldwide.
  • Powerful Partnerships: The Conservancy is assembling a diverse and powerful group of local, regional and international partners to launch the Dugout Ranch Climate Change Initiative. Potential partners range from local stakeholders, state and federal agencies to major universities in Utah and Colorado, as well as climate science research stations in Africa, Mongolia and China.  
Global Conservation Benefits

The answers generated at the Canyonlands Research Center will not just benefit the Colorado Plateau, they will also be shared with climate change scientists and decision-makers in arid lands systems worldwide, where human communities in places like Mongolia and China are also struggling to save their landscapes and livelihoods in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

Next Steps

The Conservancy is currently building partnerships, defining scientific and policy goals, and finalizing research facility plans. Now in design phase, the Canyonlands Research Center is scheduled to officially launch in 2009.

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