New program will focus on climate resilience, carbon storage in the desert

By Erin Rode | Palm Springs Desert Sun |

PALM SPRINGS DESERT SUN - For many, planting trees has become synonymous with fighting climate change. But in the hot and arid desert, it isn't that simple.

However, desert landscapes can also serve as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and storing it in desert shrubbery, soils, and geological features. While this phenomenon is well known, researchers are just beginning to examine how the Coachella Valley's desert landscapes can best be used as carbon sinks.

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're looking at the desert and reasons to conserve places in the desert, in addition to conserving for biodiversity and wildlife, we also have to think about how we are affecting the carbon storage in the soil," said Lynn Sweet, research ecologist with 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' focus on climate

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 grant program.

CVMC, a state agency established in 1991, has long focused on preserving habitats for endangered species. Guided by the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, the agency has conserved 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 our whole focus on what lands we acquire and the lands we restore, and climate change was not as well understood 25 years ago when the planning for that plan began," said Karpiak.

He continued, "Climate change is a larger phenomenon than just addressing the endangered species, and as we start seeing the effects of climate change, there are other things that we can do other than protecting endangered species that will help prevent climate change and help the valley adapt to climate change, which is here and is going to continue to happen."

Funding for the grant program came from $2.5 million the Conservancy received last year under SB 170, a supplemental budget bill to provide local assistance grants that support climate resilience, wildfire prevention, community access and natural resources protection.

The eight projects that received funding from CVMC "enhance desert resilience to climate change and foster conservation of the desert as a carbon sink, promote equity in access to outdoor recreation throughout the Valley or improve natural resources 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 outdoors programs for youth. 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 allow Desert Recreation Foundation to offer these programs for free for over 300 youth over the next two years.

Desert Hot Springs is also launching a program focused on outdoor access for young people. The city received funding to create a Trails, Conservation Outreach and Education program, which will offer a youth recreation outdoor hiking program and include citywide public outreach about local outdoor recreation opportunities. The program will educate students from the Desert Hot Springs Recreation Center on outdoor hiking and education before taking them on hikes.

The city has focused in recent years on positioning itself as a destination for outdoor recreation, both for local residents and visitors. Desert Hot Springs is the "largest economically disadvantaged area on the western side of the Valley, while at the same time enjoying some of the most scenic and underutilized public lands," the CVMC report notes.

Mapping the future desert landscape

UCR's Center for Conservation Biology received the largest award, with $398,000 for the Desert Climate Resilience Initiative. In addition to considering how land can be managed to best facilitate carbon storage, researchers will also look into topics like whether areas currently used for outdoor recreation by underserved communities are resilient to climate change.

Examples of carbon storage in the desert include above-ground biomass, like shrubs, and the below-ground roots, fungus and organic carbon in the soil.

Sweet's work focuses on how particular species of vegetation might fare with climate change, like modeling what will happen to the western Joshua tree. But this new project will focus on changes across "whole landscapes and communities."

"Say there's a landscape that's accessible to certain underserved communities, how will that fare with climate change? Or say there's a very culturally relevant species for tribes, how will that fare? So we can pick out different components of the landscape and model what will happen to them, and have an idea of how the valley might change and shift," said Sweet.

The resulting mapping tool will have several components, including information on carbon storage for certain landscapes and areas, what the future landscape will look like, and how accessible the area is for communities. The intention is to use the tool to both guide future preservation goals in terms of what areas should be conserved, and show how currently preserved land might change in the face of climate change — for example, if there's an area of the valley that is more resilient to climate change and could become a future corridor for wildlife.

"The idea is it's information we can use to manage for transition because we see things might be changing... It's giving land managers the information that 'Hey, in 100 years this particular area might be all this other type of vegetation, so what can we do about it if there's a threatened species there?'" said Sweet.

The mapping tool will be shared with community members at several climate resilience workshops, and researchers will also use community input to determine what they should look at.

"This is a really unique opportunity to use community needs and values to inform science, so the community values could be 'What is that favorite trail in one community going to look like?' Or 'Are we going to see this certain weed species occur in the valley in the future?'" said Sweet.

The mapping tool will be shared with community members at several climate resilience workshops, and researchers will also use community input to determine what they should look at.

"This is a really unique opportunity to use community needs and values to inform science, so the community values could be 'What is that favorite trail in one community going to look like?' Or 'Are we going to see this certain weed species occur in the valley in the future?'" said Sweet.

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