California is the leading agricultural state in the country and it’s agriculture generates more than $45 billion annually. About 10 million acres of the state is intensively cultivated land, using roughly 80 percent of the developed water supply. Only a small fraction of these lands are managed deliberately in ways that minimize impacts to nature and maximize the services that nature can provide back to the farm. This has come at a substantial price to nature and the future resilience of agriculture. 

Maintaining a mix of natural areas along farm fields and along waterways can provide vital habitat and movement corridors for wildlife, as well as important services like pollination and pest control from native insects, erosion control, and improved water quality. Sustainable management of soils and crops themselves can further reduce the ecological footprint of the land use, and indeed provide habitat for some native species. 

Conservancy scientists are investigating these co-benefits, to inform how policy and market incentives could promote food production practices that sustain nature as well as people.

Science in Action

Terrestrial | Science

Wildlife Friendly Agriculture

Can we modify agricultural landscapes to enhance habitat for wildlife, in ways that also benefit the farm?

Freshwater | Terrestrial | Technology | Economics | Science

BirdReturns

How can we get water in the right place at the right time to help migrating birds?

2018 | Terrestrial | Technology | Science | Publications & Reports

A test of desert shrub facilitation via radiotelemetric monitoring of a diurnal lizard

Michael F. Westphal, Taylor Noble, Harry Scott Butterfield, Christopher J. Lortie

Shrubs can play a key role in the structure of desert communities and can function as foundation species. Understanding desert shrub ecology is therefore an important task in desert conservation. In this study, the authors used radiotelemetry (technology used to track animals from a distance)…


2018 | Terrestrial | Economics | Science | Publications & Reports

Toward a Carbon Neutral California: Economic and Climate Benefits of Land Use Interventions

David C. Marvin, Dick Cameron, Erik Nelson, Andrew Plantinga, Justin Breck, Gokce Sencan, Michelle Passero

Ecosystems can increase carbon storage under alternative management techniques and land use patterns. But the magnitude, timing, and spatial heterogeneity is uncertain. Assessing the potential and cost of land management and conservation activities to reduce emissions or increase carbon sequestration is needed to help the…


2018 | Freshwater | Terrestrial | Science | Publications & Reports

The emergence of cannabis agricultural frontiers as environmental threats

Van Butsic, Jennifer K. Carah, Matthias Baumann, Connor Stephens, Jacob C. Brenner

While cannabis cultivation in California is known to sometimes have serious collateral impacts on the environment, those impacts and their extent are not well understood or described. In this paper, the authors quantify growth in the footprint of cannabis cultivation between 2012 and 2016 in…


2018 | Freshwater | Terrestrial | Science | Publications & Reports

Wetland Bird Conservation in California Rice Fields

Chris Elphick, T. Rodd Kelsey, Catherine Hickey, Khara Strum, Paul Buttner, Monica Iglecia

Wetland birds, especially Sandhill Cranes, are heavily dependent on irrigated farmlands in the Central Valley of California after widespread conversion of natural habitats. TNC and its partners have had great success working with farmers to design and implement compatible management practices that make sure farms,…


2018 | Freshwater | Terrestrial | Planning | Economics | Science | Publications & Reports

Groundwater sustainability in the San Joaquin Valley: Multiple benefits if agricultural lands are retired and restored strategically

Rodd Kelsey, Abby Hart, H. Scott Butterfield, Dan Vink

Restoring habitat in retired farmland could reduce water demand and provide ecosystem services for farmers and local communities. In some areas of California, as a result of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), it is likely that large amounts of agricultural land will need to…


2018 | Freshwater | Terrestrial | Marine | Planning | Science | Publications & Reports

Conserving California's Coastal Habitats: A Legacy and a Future with Sea Level Rise

Walter N. Heady, Brian S. Cohen, Mary G. Gleason, Joshua N. Morris, Sarah G. Newkirk, Kirk R. Klausmeyer, Hilary R. Walecka, Elizabeth Gagneron

Sea level rise presents a new challenge to coastal conservation. The authors quantified and mapped the vulnerability of habitats, imperiled species, and conservation lands to sea level rise throughout the entire California coast, where high biodiversity, high endemism, and 26.5 million people coincide. Combining habitat…


2018 | Freshwater | Terrestrial | Planning | Science | Publications & Reports

Better late than never: a synthesis of strategic land retirement and restoration in California

Chris Lortie, Alex Filazzola, Rodd Kelsey, Abigail Hart, Scott Butterfield

Over the past 100 years, California's Central Valley has undergone a massive transformation from desert to a mosaic of farmland and urban development. This transformation has also meant many desert species have lost habitat. Now, new groundwater regulations are calling for the retirement of more…


2018 | Freshwater | Terrestrial | Science | Publications & Reports

Impact of extreme drought and incentive programs on flooded agriculture and wetlands in California’s Central Valley

Matthew E. Reiter​, Nathan K. Elliott, Dennis Jongsomjit, Gregory H. Golet, Mark D. Reynolds

In the Central Valley of California, with 90% of the historic wetlands gone, waterbirds depend upon managed wetlands and seasonally flooded agriculture to meet their habitat needs. The 2013-2015 drought in the Central Valley was more severe than drought years during 2000-2011 and reduced waterbird…


2018 | Freshwater | Terrestrial | Marine | Planning | Science | Publications & Reports

Improving multi-objective ecological flow management with flexible priorities and turn-taking: a case study from the Sacramento River and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

Alexander C.A.D., F. Poulsen, D.C.E. Robinson, B.O. Ma , R.A. Luster

Management of the Sacramento River and Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta is one of California’s greatest challenges, requiring trade-offs between valued components that serve a multiplicity of conflicting purposes. This paper demonstrates an improved method for multiple-objective allocation of water based on a “turn-taking” optimization model. The…


2018 | Freshwater | Terrestrial | Science | Publications & Reports

Using ricelands to provide temporary shorebird habitat during migration

Gregory H. Golet, Candace Low, Simon Avery, Katie Andrews, Christopher J. McColl, Rheyna Laney, Mark D. Reynolds

Migratory birds face great challenges due to the climate change, conversion of historical stopover sites, and other factors. To help address these challenges, the Conservancy launched a dynamic conservation incentive program to create temporary wetland habitats in harvested and fallow rice fields for shorebirds…


2017 | Freshwater | Terrestrial | Planning | Publications & Reports

Identification of potentially suitable habitat for strategic land retirement and restoration in the San Joaquin Desert

H. Scott Butterfield, Rodd Kelsey, Abigail Hart, Tanushree Biswas, Mark Kramer, Dick Cameron, Laura Crane, Erica Brand

California's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) established a framework for sustainable, local groundwater management. SGMA requires groundwater-dependent regions to halt overdraft and bring basins into balanced levels of pumping and recharge. As a result, agricultural land retirement is on the rise in the San Joaquin Valley, California’s largest agricultural region and home to…


2017 | Freshwater | Terrestrial | Planning | Publications & Reports

Rethinking the Grid: Optimizing California’s Transmission System For Renewable Energy

Energy+Environmental Economics for The Nature Conservancy, Arne Olson, Doug Allen, Vivian Li, Emily Leslie

California leads the nation in the transition to a clean energy economy. However, current transmission planning processes limit development of new renewable resources. This report (slide deck), produced for the Conservancy by Energy+Environmental Economics, analyzes an alternative transmission planning framework (Energy-Only) using the San Joaquin Valley as…


2017 | Terrestrial | Science | Publications & Reports

Ecosystem management and land conservation can substantially contribute to California’s climate mitigation goals

D. Richard Cameron, David C. Marvin, Jonathan M. Remucal, Michelle C. Passero

Combatting climate change will require using all available tools, especially those that contribute to other societal and economic goals, such as natural resource protection and energy security. Conserving and managing natural and agricultural lands to retain and absorb greenhouse gasses (GHGs) are tools that have…


2017 | Terrestrial | Science | Publications & Reports

A bustle in the hedgerow: Woody field margins boost on farm avian diversity and abundance in an intensive agricultural landscape

Sacha K. Heath, Candan U. Soykan, Karen L. Velas, Rodd Kelsey, Sara M. Kross

This paper discusses the potential for on-farm habitats along field margins as a conservation strategy within intensively cultivated landscapes. Specifically, the study examined the effects of woody field margin vegetation on winter and breeding season avian communities within diverse farm fields of California's Central Valley,…


2017 | Terrestrial | Planning | Publications & Reports

Quantifying Trade-Offs Among Ecosystem Services, Biodiversity, and Agricultural Returns in an Agriculturally Dominated Landscape Under Future Land‑Management Scenarios

Emma C. Underwood, Rachel A. Hutchinson, Joshua H. Viers, T. Rodd Kelsey, Trisha Distler, Jaymee Marty

This paper discusses and provides modeled estimates of the biodiversity and ecosystem service outcomes of three different future land use scenarios, compared to current land uses, in a cultivated landscape of the Central Valley in California. Specifically, it quantifies the impacts to greenhouse gas emissions,…


2017 | Terrestrial | Planning | Microsite

The Bay Area Greenprint

Carrie Schloss, Elizabeth O'Donoghue, Christa Cassidy, Tom Robinson, Serena Unger, Adam Garcia, Dan Rademacher

The Bay Area Greenprint tool provides land use and infrastructure agencies, consultants, and advocates easily accessible, interpretable, and scientifically robust information on habitat and ecosystem service values in the Bay Area. Currently, natural and agricultural lands are not considered early enough in planning processes leading…


2017 | Terrestrial | Planning | Science | Publications & Reports

A General Framework for Setting Quantitative Population Objectives for Wildlife Conservation

Kristen E. Dybala, Neil Clipperton, Thomas Gardali, Gregory H. Golet, Rodd Kelsey, Stefan Lorenzato, Ronald Melcer, Jr., Nathaniel Seavy, Joseph G. Silveira, Gregory S. Yarris

Quantitative population objectives are necessary to achieve conservation goals of secure or robust wildlife populations, however, existing methods for setting them often require extensive species population viability data, which are often unavailable. This paper presents an alternative method that uses key milestones a population would be expected to…


2016 | Terrestrial | Science | Publications & Reports

Inconsistent food safety pressures complicate environmental conservation for California produce growers

Patrick Baur, Laura Driscoll, Sasha Gennet, Daniel Karp

Since a deadly outbreak of pathogenic E. coli in California spinach in 2006, produce growers have been pressured to implement on-farm practices, such as native vegetation removal, in the name of food safety. These practices are damaging to the environment and may conflict with existing laws.…