Monday, June 18, 2012

User-generated natures? The Conservation Registry

Let's continue with the story of the rare red-bearded Jackson County song lark (an endangered bird I made up; see the last post.). As a landowner, USFWS has let you bank mitigation credits for having restored some of the bird's habitat. At first, you're of course happy with your work - you've helped save the endangered species! After a few months, though, you get to thinking, does it really matter? Isn't my farm and this habitat I've created just in a tumultuous sea of non-habitat for the bird? You slip into a deep depression...

Here comes the Conservation Registry to the rescue! On the Conservation Registry website, landowners, project managers, and agency staff can post and view details on all sorts of restoration projects. The idea is to help those concerned with the success of restoration work to understand the context of their work - does your song lark project link up with others in the landscape? Is it in a priority area?

As the website explains it, the Registry was started in 2008 and originally focused on the Pacific Northwest - Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. It seems that much of the early work and core partnerships grew out of Oregon specifically, i.e. Defenders of Wildlife, Institute for Natural Resources, TNC Oregon, and The Other Firm. Since 2008 the Registry has expanded nationwide and indeed, it now seems to be hosting a ton of projects. Open up the map and you'll see a huge orange blob spreading across the US (notably absent, though, in the SW). Zoom in and of course you see the orange blob disintegrate into individual markers and sometimes polygons. A very preliminary examination tells me that a lot of these are national crop conservation programs  - like the Wetland Reserve Program - that were probably plugged in from some big NRCS database. The WRP is important to have on there, but certainly it does not account for all the restoration work going on. The Registry has a lot of potential, but how to continue to get projects on the site is a big question.

Here's what I'm bringing it back to: what sort of nature are we making out there when we do restoration and conservation? I'd argue nature isn't just that new sine-wave stream, riparian planting, or protected prairie, but the portrayal of those projects online and in code. I don't want to be abstract about this; I think the digitality of restoration really really matters. The digital life of a given project allows it to be seen - by other landowners, by agencies, by potential credit purchasers - and seen in particular ways for various ends. A project's representation online - especially its geocoding onto a Google Map layer - allows it to be put in a landscape context for all these folks to see and ultimately to act upon - be it by, for example, choosing to add - or not - another riparian planting to the watershed or changing funding priorities.

The Conservation Registry targets not just big NRCS data but individual land managers, so the "we" in the question: what nature are we making? is important. What are the similarities and differences between your average joe tweeting about or in, say, Lexington, KY and an individual landowner uploading a Cane Run creek restoration report onto the Registry? A growing set of geographers, best represented by, might have some answers: they're taking long-standing concerns about cultural landscapes and thinking about the representation of place on and the spatiality of Twitter, Google Maps, Flickr, etc. (aside: perhaps something like the wild Bluegrass floating sheep would have made for a more interesting ESA example above...) Personally, I'm wondering not just about these user-generated spaces/places but user-generated natures. As Monica Stephens from Floating Sheep asks: what happens when men contribute disproportionately to Open Street Map? (hint: the picture of the world you get includes more stripclubs than daycare centers), we might ask: who is contributing to the Conservation Registry? NRCS staff with their WRP data? Local watershed councils? What kind of restoration is visible?

What's clear so far from the Conservation Registry is that the space of nature matters. Conservationists need to able to see watersheds and habitat corridors/fragments. Ultimately the line of inquiry suggested here is to look into the work going into coding nature/space. Red-bearded song larks and floating sheep are at stake.

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