Our team at Upstream Tech is thrilled to see conservation at the heart of the Biden administration’s climate agenda. In particular, the recent executive order committing the U.S. to protecting 30% of our land and water resources by 2030, also known as “30x30”, sets a clear goal for the environmental community. Through this commitment, the U.S. adds its voice to a chorus of scientists, activists, communities, and legislators around the world advocating for 30x30.
We’re facing twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. Ambitious land protection is crucial for conserving ecosystems that provide us with wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, clean air and water, flood protection, and cultural benefits. As we rush to meet this goal, how can we ensure that the most important lands are not only protected, but also set up for long-term stewardship?
Technology can help organizations more efficiently acquire land and ensure ongoing, high-quality conservation. We’ve developed Lens to leverage innovations in remote sensing with the goal of democratizing access to this data for the conservation community. Lens uses aggregated satellite, aerial, and environmental data to enable users to remotely monitor conservation properties, target specific areas for field visits, and easily generate compliance reports. Our users include over 50 conservation organizations of all sizes, including land trusts, conservation NGOs, and federal and state agencies.
Yet it is clear we’ve only scratched the surface of the conservation benefits that technologies like Lens can provide. Here are three ways we see technology as crucial to achieving the 30x30 vision:
1. Informing High-Impact Conservation
Currently, 12% of U.S. land is protected. Tripling that number in nine years will require a massive coordinated effort across state and federal agencies, tribes, NGOs, and thousands of individual private landowners to build a sufficient pipeline of land conservation transactions.
But it’s not just a question of quantity. We need targeted interventions to protect lands that contain critical resources, even when they don’t substantially add to our acreage count. For example, a small wetland in an urban area may provide important flood mitigation services as well as outdoor recreation opportunities. Protecting a handful of acres that connect two larger protected areas could preserve crucial migration corridors.
Land trusts and conservation groups with local knowledge tend to know best where such indispensable resources are located - knowledge that they can pair with data and technology platforms to understand land use, water, and vegetation conditions at scale in order to prioritize the highest-value conservation targets. For instance, The Nature Conservancy, one of our partners, has been a lead innovator in this space, developing a range of conservation prioritization tools using geospatial data.
Remote sensing data amplifies the value of this data analysis by allowing for these kinds of data-driven prioritizations to be constantly updated with current ecological conditions, captured by satellites as often as every few days. In the diligence phase of land protection, we’ve seen our land trust partners use Lens to view both current as well as historical satellite data in order to understand what’s happening on parcels of interest and make the case for strategic acquisitions. With the prevalence of low-cost remote sensing data informing prioritizations, conservation organizations can have consistent, affordable access to up-to-date data on landscapes and the impact of other land uses around them.
2. Investing in Monitoring
In our work with land trusts, we often hear how costly monitoring obligations can be over the long term. As land trusts’ portfolios of protected lands grow, so do the annual costs of monitoring and reporting on the status of properties to ensure they remain in compliance with conservation standards. This financial burden can be a barrier for some land trusts taking on new easements or properties. If left unaddressed, these escalating management costs may prove to be stumbling blocks in reaching the 30% land protection goal.
This is an area where remote sensing can play a key role in alleviating some of the costs and time spent on annual monitoring - enabling organizations to monitor larger portfolios while lowering expenses. The Nature Conservancy California estimated that their remote monitoring via Lens saved 37% of staff time in 2020. With access to the most recent available imagery, land trusts are able to keep tabs on large, difficult-to-access, or disparate properties and fulfill their monitoring obligations - which the Land Trust Alliance allows four out of every five years for accredited land trusts. And if something seems amiss from the remote data, they are able to quickly respond and conduct a follow-up field visit.
3. Ensuring Accountability and Transparency
Many land trusts tell us that protecting a property is only the first step in ensuring long-term conservation. Land requires ongoing stewardship to ensure that its resources are conserved and managed sustainably. When protected areas are not properly managed to prevent illegal or unsustainable removal of resources, they risk becoming paper parks with minimal conservation value - and can even create legal liabilities for the conservation organizations charged with protecting them. Reaching 30x30 in name only - without a plan to track how the land will be managed in the long-term - could still mean failure for habitat protection, carbon sequestration, and clean air and water.
We believe that the transparency afforded by remote sensing data can improve the transparency of conservation monitoring. With access to an ever-increasing library of data from public and commercial satellite and aerial sources, we’re able to see how lands are changing with unprecedented frequency and clarity. Land trusts can use satellite and aerial data to support legal defense of their properties, providing critical documentation of conservation easement status over time. And by presenting that data in an easy-to-use way, more people are able to access this data and collaborate than ever before - meaning it’s possible to provide more transparency on how conservation dollars are being invested across the country.
Technology in the Hands of our Conservation Partners
As our Managing Director Marshall Moutenot recently said in an interview, “Our technology in isolation won’t protect the environment or address climate change - it’s only when put into the hands of our customers that we as a company are having the impact we strive for.”
This is the part we’re most excited about - that technology is reaching the hands of conservation organizations around the world, and facilitating an acceleration in the scale and pace of the critical work those organizations are doing to meet our 30x30 goals.
Title photo from an Upstream Tech team member of the Wind River Range in Wyoming