2012 Project of the Year: Desert Tortoise Monitoring


Winner: Nevada Conservation Corps / Great Basin Institute

In response to the federal listing of desert tortoises (Mojave population) as a threatened species, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) instituted a Desert Tortoise Range-Wide Monitoring Program to track the population density of tortoises throughout their range.

In 2011, the Great Basin Institute (GBI) coordinated with the FWS to implement line distance sampling (LDS) to monitor desert tortoise populations in the eastern Mojave Desert of southern Nevada, northwest Arizona and southwest Utah. By collaborating with GBI and the Nevada Conservation Corps (NCC), the USFWS is implementing their study at a cost savings of approximately three times less than utilizing private consulting firms and simultaneously training the next generation of field biologists.

The desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) is federally listed as a threatened species north and west of the Colorado River under the Endangered Species Act. The species was listed as threatened due to the loss of habitat in CA and NV from the increase in development of land to meet the needs of growing populations; when listed, Las Vegas was the fastest growing city in the US with 4-5 thousand new residents every month. The desert tortoise is considered a “key stone” species of the desert southwest. Population density data is used to inform land managers of the current state of the desert environment.

The focus of the desert tortoise LDS monitoring program is to collect data, over 25 years, which will allow researchers to estimate population density of these animals in the eastern portion of their range. Ultimately the data collected will be used by the USFWS to inform future management of the desert tortoise, including the delisting of the species, continual listing as threatened, or escalation to an endangered species. LDS monitoring occurs during April and May to coincide with the peak in the activity season of tortoises.

The Great Basin Institute, in collaboration with the FWS, provided desert tortoise handling and field training, field data collection, logistical support, quality assurance and control data checks, and GIS mapping for the LDS program. Field training required Corpsmembers to participate in a rigorous 4 week program during which they were required to demonstrate proficiency in backcountry navigation and wilderness field skills, including 4WD vehicle operation, the use of GPS units, the ability to read topographic maps, and PDA technology. Corpsmembers were also trained in wilderness first aid as well as emergency procedures and protocols. In addition, members were field tested on their ability to follow monitoring protocols thoroughly and precisely.

Twenty three LDS field survey technicians were hired to collect data on 6km and 12km transects and to monitor 33 radiotelemetered tortoises. This season, 11 LDS field technician teams collected data on a total of 380 transects (~4000km walked), detecting a total of 238 tortoises. Four telemetry technicians monitored 33 radio-telemetered tortoises for a combined total of 2,184 observations. As mentioned previously, the data collected in the 2011 field season will be compiled with additional data spanning the 25 year research period and will ultimately inform USFWS next steps in the management of the desert tortoise.

The Nevada Conservation Corps (NCC) has historically focused on hands-on conservation efforts, including recreational trail construction/maintenance, hazardous fuels reduction, and habitat restoration. The desert tortoise LDS project is a different style of project for the Corps, because the service the Corps is providing shifts away from the traditional land management manual labor efforts and engages Corpsmembers in a long term US Fish and Wildlife conservation project to protect a threatened species through data collection and research efforts.

In addition, unlike the majority of NCC projects, the US Fish and Wildlife service provides detailed protocols and extensive training to ensure Corpsmembers have the skill set to collect the necessary data and have met the requirements to be federally permitted to handle a threatened species. Because the desert tortoise is a protected species, all development in southern Nevada and the desert southwest is impacted by the presence of the species. Over the past several years, renewable energy development has greatly increased in the desert southwest. With the increasing focus on renewable energy, the demand for qualified desert tortoise monitors has also increased. Corpsmembers had the opportunity to gain experience with and become permitted (both state and federal) to handle desert tortoises, and to gain perspectives in issues of public land management. This project has provided well trained individuals to work in the field and provide compliance with permits for development as the renewable energy industry grows in southern Nevada and throughout the west. Ten Corpsmembers from the 2011 LDS field monitoring team are currently employed in the renewable energy industry, working for private environmental consulting firms. Through their experiences with the LDS project, Corpsmembers who successfully complete the program come away with valuable technical skills that will make them very marketable when seeking additional employment opportunities.

Due to the level of training and overall experience provided by the LDS project, individuals are contacting GBI to inquire about becoming a part of the NCC desert tortoise team, increasing the quality of applicants we receive each year. In addition, through the LDS project, the NCC has continued to strengthen our partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as diversify its service offerings for other land managers.

2012 Project of the Year: Military Posts to Park Program


Winner: Mile High Youth Corps

The “Post to Parks Program” was a unique collaboration between a local youth conservation corps (Mile High Youth Corps – Colorado Springs), a local military installation (Fort Lewis Army Base) and a National Park (Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument). Conducted during the Summer of Service Program 2011, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, it served a relatively small number of young people (26) with the potential to serve hundreds more. “Post to Parks” engages Corpsmembers and potential future Corpsmembers for their own benefit and that of our National Parks.

One crew of Mile High Youth Corps’ Corpsmembers was paired with and became mentors for seventeen youth from Fort Carson on a four day educational adventure. For several days preceding their time together the Corpsmembers planned educational sessions, games and experiential activities for their mentees. When the Fort Carson teenagers arrived the ice was quickly broken through a series of games and sharing activities. Corpsmembers then involved the younger youth in interpretive programs, fossil labs, and interpretive hikes.

The youth from Ft. Carson worked each day with MHYC corps members on trail maintenance, learned tool safety, erosion control, and noxious weed identification. The Corpsmembers had the opportunity to teach and tell these youth about Leave No Trace Camping, hiking safety, what Corps do and why. They also formed a panel with staff of the Monument to talk about their careers in the outdoors. Both Corps and military youth were also able to interact with park staff and learned about volunteer and career opportunities in the National Park System.

This program was developed by staff at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument and planned collaboratively with the Mile High Youth Corps. It was funded by two grants from the National Parks Foundation. The goal of the project is to get military youth connected to our parks, to provide leadership opportunities for Corpsmembers and to recruit new members for the Corps.

The youth from military families received transportation, lunches, and a small stipend for participating in the program. The Corpsmembers camped at the park, prepared their own meals, and received their weekly stipends as usual. Prior to the project Corpsmembers were not surprised to learn they would be swinging shovels and tamping trail but they never imagined that they would also be called upon to develop a curriculum and teach their trail and camping skills while also showing compassion and understanding to children of military families whose parents could be deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Both Corpsmembers and the youth from the military base benefited tremendously from this project.

2012 Project of the Year: Paddle the Los Angeles River


Winner: LA Conservation Corps

The LA River is an important ecological, economic, and social concern of agencies and entities at federal, state, regional and local levels. It was recently included as one of seven city waterways in the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, which spotlights federal efforts to connect city neighborhoods to the water.

Last year, the City of Los Angeles passed a motion requesting a report to investigate the feasibility of a pilot project for non-motorized boating on the Los Angeles River. The LA Conservation Corps (LA Corps), working with a variety of governmental entities and interest groups at all levels, developed a proposal for boating on the River within the Sepulveda Basin. The project, entitled Paddle the LA River, focused on safety, access, and environmental education. The U.S Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) issued a license to the LA Corps, which allowed ten weekends (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) of river access: from July 22 to September 25, 2011. The innovative pilot program represented the first time such an endeavor had ever been accomplished legally on the LA River.

The Paddle the LA River website went live on August 9, 2011 at 7:00 a.m. PST and within the first 10 minutes of launch, all 280 available seats sold out. During the first week of the program, the waiting list surpassed 350 people. To date, close to 1,000 people have signed-up on list-serve. These numbers clearly indicate that there is overwhelming interest by the general public for recreational activities such as this along the river.

The pilot program gave eight Corpsmembers the opportunity to paddle their way into a historical chapter in the revitalization of the LA River. The program also provided them with leadership skills, educational awareness, and knowledge of the River, enhancing their appreciation for wildlife and encouraging ongoing stewardship. Corpsmembers received a one-week certified training on River & Flood Water Rescue, Swift Water Rescue, and Low Angle Rope Rescue by certified staff from Mountain Recreation and Conservancy Authority (MRCA). The Corpsmembers and staff also received First Aid CPR training along with basic canoe and kayaking skills. Two educational workshops covered the river’s history, current management and governance, flora and fauna, water supply, water quality, and other related watershed issues. Corpsmembers benefited from scheduled guest speakers from a variety of government agencies and non-profit organizations who provided a wide range of expertise involved in LA River efforts.

As part of the project, a survey was developed to obtain participant feedback about their paddling experience and to measure the success of the program. Eighty-eight (88) participants completed the survey. When asked if the pilot program should be permitted to continue, 100% of respondents said “yes.” 100% of respondents also agreed that the program should be made permanent. All 88 participants indicated that the program impacted the environment positively while 98% found the program very informative.

As an additional note, a press conference was held to announce the launch of the Paddle the LA River project. The mainstream media was present in force. Local and international media provided exposure to a river that is normally seen as waste channel that guides water runoff as quickly away from the city as possible. These collective awareness measures helped raise consciousness of a presence of a river that exists within the city, containing a whole ecosystem, wildlife, plus water that connects and drains into the ocean. This media coverage was estimated to have been worth several million dollars. Several notable news outlets who produced reports about the project include NBC LA, ABC, the BBC, Univision, CNN, Time Magazine, National Public Radio (NPR), The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Huffington Post among many others.

As a result of the success of Paddle the LA River project, the LA Conservation Corps has been asked by city officials, river organizations, and community members to continue and expand the project in 2012.