For many, planting trees has become synonymous with fighting climate change. But in the hot, arid desert, it’s not so simple.
However, desert landscapes can also serve as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and storing it in desert shrubs, soils, and geological features. Although this phenomenon is well known, researchers are only just beginning to examine how the desert landscapes of the Coachella Valley can best be used as a carbon sink.
A new project from the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of California, Riverside will assess how local land management agencies can best conserve land that uses the desert as a carbon sink. The Coachella Valley Desert Climate Resilience Initiative will result in a mapping tool that can be used to prioritize land acquisitions.
“When we look at the desert and the reasons for conserving places in the desert, in addition to conserving biodiversity and wildlife, we also need to think about how we are affecting carbon storage in the soil,” said Lynn Sweet. , searcher. ecologist at the Center for Conservation Biology.
“It’s really more of a global concern, it’s an example of thinking globally and acting locally, of us doing our part by protecting our carbon stocks in the desert,” Sweet continued.
CVMC’s ‘enhanced’ climate focus
The Coachella Valley Desert Climate Resilience Initiative was one of eight projects to recently receive funding through the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy’s new Climate Resilience and Community Access Grants Program.
CVMC, a state agency established in 1991, has long focused on preserving the habitats of endangered species. Guided by the Coachella Valley Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan, the agency has retained 106,000 acres since its inception. But the new grant program represents a new focus on climate change and promoting equity in outdoor access, which Executive Director Jim Karpiak calls an “enhancement” of the agency’s priorities.
“[The Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan] has guided all of our focus on the lands we acquire and the lands we restore, and climate change was not as well understood 25 years ago when planning for this plan began,” Karpiak said.
He continued: “Climate change is a bigger phenomenon than just tackling endangered species, and as we start to see the effects of climate change, there are other things we We can do more to protect endangered species that will help prevent climate change and help the valley adapt to climate change, which is here and will continue to happen.”
Funding for the grant program came from $2.5 million the Conservancy received last year through SB 170, a supplemental budget bill to provide local assistance grants that support climate resilience. , forest fire prevention, community access and protection of natural resources.
The eight projects that received funding from the CVMC “strengthen the desert’s resilience to climate change and promote the conservation of the desert as a carbon sink, promote equity in access to outdoor recreation across the valley or improve natural resource management on existing conservation lands”. according to a staff report on the grant program.
Projects focused on outdoor access include the Desert Recreation Foundation’s Outdoor Adventure Experiences for Underserved Youth program, which received $202,000 to provide free outdoor programs for youth. The Desert Recreation Foundation currently offers hiking and biking activities for youth ages 7-17, but families must pay a fee to participate. The grant will enable the Desert Recreation Foundation to provide these programs free of charge to more than 300 youth over the next two years.
Desert Hot Springs is also launching a program focused on outdoor access for young people. The city has received funding to create a Trails, Conservation Awareness and Education program, which will provide an outdoor hiking program for youth and include city-wide public outreach on outdoor recreation opportunities. local outdoors. The program will educate students at the Desert Hot Springs Recreation Center about outdoor hiking and education before taking them on a hike.
The city has concentrated in recent years to position itself as an outdoor leisure destination, both for residents and visitors. Desert Hot Springs is the “largest economically depressed area on the west side of the valley, while enjoying some of the most scenic and underutilized public lands.” notes the CVMC report.
Mapping the future desert landscape
UCR’s Center for Conservation Biology received the largest award, with $398,000 for the Desert Climate Resilience Initiative. As well as examining how land can be managed to best facilitate carbon storage, researchers will also look at topics such as the resilience of areas currently used for outdoor recreation by underserved communities in the face of change. climatic.
Examples of carbon storage in the desert include aboveground biomass, such as shrubs, and underground roots, fungi, and organic carbon in the soil.
Sweet’s work focuses on how certain species of vegetation might adapt to climate change, such as modeling what will happen to the Western Joshua Tree. But this new project will focus on changes across “entire landscapes and communities”.
“Suppose there is a landscape that is accessible to some underserved communities, how will that change with climate change? happen to them, and get a sense of how the valley could shift and change,” Sweet said.
The resulting mapping tool will have several components, including carbon storage information for certain landscapes and areas, what the future landscape will look like, and how accessible the area is to communities. The intention is to use the tool both to guide future preservation goals in terms of areas to be conserved and to show how currently preserved land might change in the face of climate change – for example, if there is a valley area that is more resilient to climate change and could become a future wildlife corridor.
“The idea is that this is information that we can use to manage the transition because we see that things could change… It gives land managers the information that ‘Hey, in 100 years, this particular area could be all this other type of vegetation, so what can we do about it if there is an endangered species there? said Sweet.
The mapping tool will be shared with community members at several climate resilience workshops, and researchers will also use community feedback to determine what they should look into.
“It’s a really unique opportunity to use community needs and values to inform science, so community values could be ‘What will this favorite trail look like in a community?’ Or “Are we going to see certain weed species occur in the valley in the future?” Sweet said.
Eight projects financed in the valley
Karpiak said the UCR project is one of many examples of “things that we have long seen as needs that we are able to meet with these funds.” Typically, the agency receives government bond funds, which are limited to financing investment projects such as land acquisition and restoration. The supplemental budget bill allowed the agency to fund things like additional program staff and community outreach efforts, with an emphasis on serving youth.
Other programs that have received funding include:
- The Kounkuey Design Initiative’s Juntos al Aires Libre project, which aims to “bridge the gap between residents of the eastern Coachella Valley and outdoor recreation spaces” through a Youth Leadership Academy and other programs.
- The Southern California Mountains Foundation’s Urban Conservation Corps Coachella Valley Project, which would launch a new conservation corps program that would train more than 30 youth from the eastern Coachella Valley to work on up to 50 conservation projects throughout The valley.
- Friends of the Desert Mountains will add three new positions to focus on the eastern Coachella Valley, including a full-time, bilingual employee who will help the organization reach out to Spanish-speaking residents. A second part-time position will be that of a specialist “with knowledge and understanding of Cahuilla culture and history” to assist with projects targeting tribal communities.
- The Native American Land Conservancy will receive funding to add two full-time positions, a director of development and a director of educational programs.
- The Council of Mexican Federations in North America will expand its Defensores de Tierras Públicas program by hiring a full-time two-year conservation fellow to expand educational programs, which include bilingual conservation workshops for youth and adults and camping trips.
Erin Rode covers the environment for the Desert Sun. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter at @RodeErin.