‘Payment for Ecosystem Services’ Eyes Surveying Sage-Grouse in Future
SAN MIGUEL COUNTY – San Miguel County released an in-depth report describing the county’s unprecedented 2010 pilot Payment for Ecosystem Services, a project that pays private landowners in exchange for access for a field botanist to look for and tally targeted rare plant species on parcels across San Miguel County.
The PES project was the first of its kind to be carried out by a county government in the United States.
County Commissioner Art Goodtimes was inspired to spearhead a San Miguel County PES project after seeing a presentation on ecosystem services by Sally Collins, the founding director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Environmental Markets outlining PES as a new conservation strategy.
At the time of Collins’ presentation, according to the report, no PES project had been completedat the county level.
In 2010, Goodtimes received a fellowship from the Center for Collaborative Conservation at Colorado State University to initiate San Miguel County’s own PES pilot project. The San Miguel County Open Space Commission, working to protect open space by preserving county ranching and farming lands and the environment, also contributed a portion of its $1 million voter-approved mill levy fund.
Goodtimes immediately encountered problems in the preliminary planning phases. “Because there were no examples set by other county governments, we were, for the most part, operating in the dark,” he told The Watch.
“There were no contract templates, we didn’t know what species we wanted to count and we had no idea how much to compensate the landowners,” Goodtimes said. And so he helped create the PES Steering Committee, whose members organized the process of designing and implementing the pilot project, which sought input from Josh Goldstein, a CSU professor with PES expertise.
A first step was the committee’s identification of environmental targets for botanists. Goodtimes originally envisioned tallying wildlife populations, but with significant bureaucratic and environmental barriers, committee members decided targeting animals was too complicated, deciding instead to implement results from San Miguel County’s rare plant survey, completed on public land, onto private land, with payments to landowners who agreed to give botanists access. Private land accounts for more than one-third of all land in San Miguel County.
With assistance from the Colorado Natural Heritage Program’s regional botanist, the committee selected four rare plant species found in the county: Gypsum Valley Cat’s Eye, Cushion Bladderpod, Lone Mesa Snakeweed and Parish’s alkali-grass. Unlisted under the Endangered Species Act, the four plants and have no federal or state protection; they are, however, classified by the CNHP as imperiled. Further helped by the CNHP botanist, the committee identified several properties based on proximity to known populations of the targeted plants. Utilizing county tax records, the committee began outreach to the landowners.
“At first we conducted the outreach on a one-to-one basis,” said Goodtimes.
“But we realized that many landowners preferred to have handwritten details of the project to review before discussing their potential participation in the PES pilot.”
San Miguel County eventually signed seven contracts with landowners, whose identities were kept anonymous. Two properties were found to contain some targeted populations of the rare plant species.
In total, San Miguel County spent $9,750 from the Open Space Committee’s Mill Levy, making approximately $3,350 in payments to landowners and $6,400 for costs associated with the fieldwork and reporting.
Because of the unprecedented nature of the PES pilot, structuring the contracts with the landowners was one of the more challenging steps in the design steps for the committee.
“We’re hoping the contact templates we developed can serve as a springboard for future projects,” Goodtimes said.
The committee is currently planning another PES project, with hopes of targeting the Gunnison Sage-Grouse, an endangered species. While there are no reports of significant populations of the bird in the area, Goodtimes says there are satellite populations scattered throughout San Miguel County.