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 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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.April 19, 2011