Conserving Precious Landscapes During the Anthropocene Era

November 20, 2019
Alexandra James Highlight

How MES Grads Alexandra James & Albert McConathy are using what they learned at Evergreen to understand & protect cherished ecosystems

A hot milky haze filtered the sunlight over the Hanford Reach, as a plush tour bus drove through the sagebrush steppe and pulled up to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).

Stepping out of the bus, Alexandra James MES ’19, absorbed the shock of moving from air-conditioning to the dry, 100-degree heat of the Columbia River Basin. She then turned to escort a group of visitors as they disembarked.

They were members of the Blue Mountain Land Trust, on a midsummer field trip to the National Science Foundation observatory to learn about gravitational wave astronomy. And as the Trust’s resident environmental educator, James was leading the way.

About 1.3 billion years ago, two neutron stars collided in a galaxy 140 million light-years away, in the Hydra constellation. The cataclysm emitted gravitational waves, which Einstein had predicted in his theory of relativity, but believed could never be tracked.

That was until the advent of the world’s most sensitive measuring instruments, one of which is ensconced at Hanford. From that ancient collision, LIGO picked up weak but detectable waves in 2015.

Although the Trust’s main mission is to protect local landscapes, environmental and science exploration is a way to connect people with the land. Hence the field trip, which James hopes will bring these members closer together as a conservation community.

Growing up in Colorado in a small mountain community, from her earliest consciousness James felt deeply connected to nature. She went to study ecology and biology at the University of Montana. By the time she arrived at Evergreen in 2017 to begin her Master of Environmental Studies (MES), James knew she wanted to focus on land management and conservation. She began to explore land trusts, which acquire or steward land to protect natural habitat, water quality, and agricultural, forestry, or recreation landscapes.

The Importance of Trusts

Trusts can be behemoth organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, which has more than a million members and 119,000,000 acres under protection around the world. But they can also be small, nimble, and community-centered groups who are focused on conserving local landscapes.

Closer to home in Olympia, the Capitol Land Trust (CLT) has about 1,100 members and is currently conserving 6,124 acres of wetlands, prairies, and forests in and around Thurston County. When the board of CLT realized their mission could be strengthened with a college student’s perspective, James was ready for the call. “CLT has a very serious application and interview process for prospective board members,” James recalled. “I wasn’t sure I would succeed, but I had great support from Evergreen’s MES program.” She passed muster and took her place on the board from September 2018 to September 2019, alongside members with professional conservation, natural resource, and agricultural backgrounds.

James made the most of her CLT tenure, engaging in debate and discussion on board-level decisions, and meeting one-on-one with each member of the board to learn more about their approach to conservation. She paired her board service with research for her master’s thesis, which evaluated how different Washington state land trusts are trying to plan for and mitigate climate change on precious local landscapes.

“That experience as a board member was key to landing my job as recreation and education specialist for the Blue Mountain Land Trust,” said James. “It gave me a unique perspective. And it was a wonderful example of the unmatched opportunities the Evergreen MES program offers to connect with groups and professionals who are doing important environmental work.”

Conservation in the Time of Climate Change

This work now takes place under the long shadow of human-influenced climate change. Many scientists believe human beings have permanently changed the planet, and argue that a new geological epoch has commenced: the Anthropocene. And as conservation organizations struggle to make good choices about where and how to plan for a hotter and drier future, they are turning to the environmental analysis of people like Albert McConathy MES ’19.

Albert McConathy

McConathy uses geodesign, a discipline that integrates data from the built and natural world, to advise CLT on the likely climate resilience of prospective conservation landscapes. Using geographic information systems (GIS) technology to map local climate, sea-level rise, tree inventories, and other site-specific data, McConathy gives the Trust’s land planners a way to anticipate changes and make wise decisions for ecological restoration and management.

Before attending Evergreen, mastery of GIS technology was not a skill McConathy ever imagined possessing.

“I was afraid of science,” said McConathy. “But my experience in Evergreen faculty Mike Ruth’s GIS class really inspired me. I could see what incredible power this mapping software could offer, and I thought, I want to do that!”

McConathy went on to develop his GIS skills under Ruth’s mentorship, and built his thesis, “Applying Geodesign Principles for Climate Change Adaptation,” around his work with the CLT lands committee.

“Albert’s work has helped us understand what properties are vulnerable to sea-level rise, and helped to prioritize areas of South Puget Sound that may be the focus of conservation and restoration,” said Barb Morson, a CLT board member who chairs the Trust’s lands committee. “It has been incredibly valuable to the future of our work to conserve and restore these remarkable landscapes.”

McConathy, who was selected as Evergreen’s graduate speaker at the 2019 commencement ceremony, is now also doing pro-bono work for the Jane Goodall Institute as he looks for a position as a GIS spatial analyst. The institute is working with the Democratic Republic of Congo to help maintain gorilla preserves and support those who fight to preserve them.

“It turns out that game rangers in the DRC have a high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder,” said McConathy. He is helping the institute map information related to this trauma in hopes of concentrating help where it is most needed.

Scientists confronting climate change are now using the term “ecological renovation” to describe forward-looking conservation strategies and goals. Some compare the work to a historic home renovation, where cherished character is maintained while accommodating modern plumbing and electrical wiring.

“It’s not possible to reach the baseline of the past,” said McConathy. “But there is a lot we can do. Climate scientists need to be part of the discussion with land trusts, to preserve more resilient landscapes, and adapt where we can.”