Through a cooperative agreement between the Arizona Association of Conservation Districts (AACD) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Timmons Group has partnered with AACD and NRCS to develop the ConserveAZ Portal, a system to assist Arizona’s conservation districts and NRCS to better identify resource conservation needs and concerns to develop conservation plans; monitor progress in priority areas and track problem areas; and measure how NRCS funding is used for on-the-ground conservation projects and to record qualitative results.
Phase One of the portal has been completed, which involved GIS analysis to highlight areas of greatest conservation need and the ability of resource professionals to identify those areas spatially and recommend on-the-ground practices.
“We wanted something live and visual, that enabled statewide tracking and visual dashboard reporting when creating conservation plans, so it was exciting when Timmons Group came on,” AACD Executive Director Deborrah Smith said.
For now, the focus is on mapping out the areas and acreage with specific conservation concerns and determining how many of those acres are utilizing which conservation practices. From there, individual districts can make decisions on priorities, what species to plant, and/or specific areas to burn or treat.
“There is a ton of great conservation work happening on the ground,” Timmons Group’s Director of Geospatial Solutions Lowell Ballard said. “It remains difficult to tell the stories… we don’t have metrics; we don’t have ways to drive stories. When you’re working across landscapes, it’s very hard for people to communicate without visuals.”
Of the 42 districts in Arizona, AACD identified 10 for the pilot efforts for Phase One. By the end of the year, an additional 15 districts are expected to be included. AACD is also working with 10 tribal districts to get them on board with the project.
Phase One of the ConserveAZ portal allows users to access and review inventory layers that include watersheds, land ownership, district boundaries, land use and soils. It also included the development of several landscape assessment data layers that identify areas of potential concern such as vegetation departure, salt cedar invasion and wildfire risk. Using both the inventory/reference layers and the spatial analysis layers, conservation districts can draw boundaries around a specific resource concern area or identify the entire district. In addition, the portal can help identify potentially overlapping projects, helping to identify where funding can be used to perhaps address two needs in one area or combine areas into one grant or funding application.
“I think we all struggle to prove we aren’t doing random acts of mitigation,” Ballard said. “People want to do a better job of shared stewardship, and there’s going to be overlapping priorities. Having a tool like ConserveAZ to better visualize focal areas, the specific resource concerns, and actions to remediate those concerns is critical.”
Arizona is the first state utilizing a model like ConserveAZ for prioritizing and tracking accomplishments on the ground based on resource concerns, spatial data and cross-boundary collaboration. Now, AACD is moving into Phase Two of the project. This year, AACD will have individual districts on the ground recording specific concerns within their district boundaries. That information will get placed into the system and used for statewide reporting.
“Leading this project at the local level is extremely important and the key to developing comprehensive conservation plans,” Smith said. “This portal is going to be one of the most impactful things to come from the conservation districts in the state of Arizona. We’ve learned a lot in developing this portal, and I think it will be a great example for other states.”