Partner Spotlight: Lens Helps Colorado Open Lands Scale Up its Stewardship Program

By Allegra Wrocklage on June 10, 2021

As a statewide land trust, Colorado Open Lands (COL) was looking for ways to make monitoring more efficient across their growing portfolio of conservation lands. We talked with Joel Nystrom, stewardship program manager at COL, to learn more about the land trust’s experience incorporating Lens - from their urgent need to adopt remote monitoring in 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to unexpected opportunities that have emerged over their past year of using Lens.

COL staff monitoring a particularly rugged property (photo credit: COL).
COL staff monitoring a particularly rugged property (photo credit: COL).

A Statewide Stewardship Mission

Colorado’s population has grown by 15% over the past decade, as residents flock to the state for its economic opportunities and natural beauty. Such rapid growth requires proactive land use planning to ensure critical conservation lands are protected from development pressures.

COL is a statewide land trust and leader in land protection across Colorado. Founded in 1981, they have conserved 551 properties in 48 Colorado counties and have played a critical role in protecting over 580,000 acres in the state. They recently merged with several land trusts, and have a quickly growing stewardship portfolio.

Because COL works statewide, their stewardship work requires significant investment of funding and staff time. Annual monitoring visits to far flung and hard-to-access properties involve long drives and overnight stays, but can be unexpectedly derailed by poor weather or adverse conditions.

Colorado’s diverse geography also means that the land trust’s properties require different monitoring techniques. For example, the management of properties in the eastern, agricultural region of Colorado tends to be very different from properties in the state’s mountainous areas.

“We’re fortunate to be conserving many new acres each year, but stewardship capacity is pushed to the limit sometimes,” said Nystrom. The land trust needed a way to ramp up its stewardship work while ensuring quality monitoring.

Lens: Tailored to Land Trusts

COL had been interested in remote monitoring for some time, but had to speed up their timeline for adoption due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions in 2020. The team evaluated a range of imagery providers and remote monitoring options. Lens rose to the top of the list due to its easy set-up and support system tailored to land trusts’ needs. 

Lens 3D view shows one of the rugged properties that COL monitors (imagery credit: USDA NAIP).
Lens 3D view shows one of the rugged properties that COL monitors (imagery credit: USDA NAIP).

“Rather than going with a specific [imagery] provider, we chose Lens because we really value the one-stop shop approach of having a compilation of different imagery providers in one space,” said Nystrom. After providing Upstream Tech with a shapefile of their properties, COL staff were able to quickly get set up with Lens. Staff then selected high-resolution imagery needed for each property from Upstream Tech’s catalogue of providers. 

Even though their stewardship team had some tech expertise, COL was faced with the challenge of learning a new remote monitoring system in a very short period of time. Upstream Tech staff provide personalized onboarding and set-up guidance to all new Lens users, as well as ongoing customer support with a quick response time. 

“The ability to have a regular dialogue between our land trust and the Upstream Tech team was huge,” said Nystrom. 

More Insights at a Lower Cost

In the midst of a hectic and uncertain time, the ease of Lens set-up allowed COL to quickly adjust their stewardship program to include remote monitoring. Within weeks of making the decision to use Lens, staff were able to view and manage all of their properties through the land trust’s Lens account.

Over the past year of using Lens, several other benefits also emerged. First, the new vantage point offered by aerial imagery allowed their stewardship staff to see new areas that they would never be able to access on the ground. 

“There’s a big 3,000 acre parcel and the terrain was so rugged and remote, I couldn't get in there. With satellites, I could see the whole thing just like that,” said Nystrom. Lens allows COL to not only search for signs of human disturbance, but also track forest degradation trends such as the effect of beetle outbreaks.

The right image uses Lens' vegetation layer (which monitors photosynthetic activity) to help illustrate tree damage caused by beetles on one of COL’s properties (imagery credit: USDA NAIP).
The right image uses Lens' vegetation layer (which monitors photosynthetic activity) to help illustrate tree damage caused by beetles on one of COL’s properties (imagery credit: USDA NAIP).

COL also found significant cost savings from using Lens, particularly because it allowed stewardship staff to use their time more efficiently. Monitoring time per easement dropped substantially. As a result, COL estimated that they saved about $30,000 in 2020 by using Lens instead of contracting for on-the-ground monitoring.

“We were able to completely monitor an easement in about an hour from start to finish, on average. An on-the-ground site visit might take 3-6 hours or more, depending on the distance from the office,” said Nystrom.

Further, Lens gave COL staff substantial new flexibility in their schedules. Staff could monitor properties across the state on a more consistent basis without worrying about weather conditions or scheduling with landowners. Access to Lens also proved to be a professional development opportunity for staff to build skills in remote monitoring.

New Opportunities with Lens 

While their adoption of remote monitoring was an unexpected outcome of a tumultuous year, COL is excited to continue using Lens to complement their field monitoring efforts. The team is dedicated to connecting people to protected land, and they consider on-the-ground work to be a core feature of their stewardship program. The cost savings and benefits to staff provided by remote monitoring through Lens have opened up new ways for them to more effectively steward Colorado’s critical conservation lands.

“Nonprofits are often tasked with doing more with less, and remote monitoring with Lens is a great tool for doing just that,” said Nystrom.

Interested in learning more about how Lens might work for your organization? We’d like to hear from you! Please send any questions or comments to lens@upstream.tech.

Colorado Open Lands is a private, nonprofit land trust that works to enhance Colorado’s quality of life by protecting its most treasured asset: open lands. Since 1981, COL has helped landowners conserve more than 580,000 acres around the state and fostered partnerships responsible for critical innovations in conservation funding, conservation easement defense and more. In 2015, COL adopted an ambitious strategic plan to help interested landowners protect a total of 800,000 acres across Colorado by 2025. Learn more at www.coloradoopenlands.org