Capacity grant helps New Mexico Land Conservancy expand grassland protection

Conserving vast grassland landscapes is a large task; one that requires partnership, an ability to identify priority areas and a commitment to increasing capacity for habitat conservation. The PLJV ConocoPhillips Capacity Grant Program is helping to build that capacity by investing in organizations that are protecting grasslands.

As the most recent PLJV ConocoPhillips Capacity Grant Program awardee, New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) will use its $120,000 grant over the next five years to strengthen the organizational infrastructure of their Grasslands Program by building technical expertise for biological planning both in-house and through partnerships, improving capacity for landscape-scale planning to prioritize habitats, improving landowner outreach and access to training for staff in the areas of habitat protection and enhancement, and increasing the diversity of funding sources.

NMLC has been working to protect and conserve private lands in northeastern New Mexico since 2011 and has established a foothold in the community of large-scale ranches that characterize this region. With well over 100,000 acres of land protected to date in the region and with the potential for exponential growth over the next five years, the capacity grant will result in significant habitat gains for grassland birds.

“What gets me excited is being more on the ground — being out there, talking to landowners, looking at their land and actually identifying the species and the habitat that could benefit from protection,” said Milu Velardi, NMLC’s stewardship coordinator. “It’s a unique opportunity to become a bridge between the science and the policies that can protect birds in the long-term.”

NMLC is the only state-wide land trust in New Mexico, with the mission to preserve New Mexico’s land heritage by helping people conserve the places they love through easements.

“So much of the grasslands in New Mexico are under private ownership and we can use easements to unite large ranches with neighboring public lands to establish large expanses to protect wildlife on a corridor level and a migration level,” Velardi said. “Creating larger corridors is really important, instead of limiting things for birds to a patch mosaic habitat. That’s where the power of conservation easements lies.”

For NMLC, the first part of their grant work will include developing more conservation easements and joining with other organizations doing grassland conservation work.

“This grant will help us create relationships with groups like Audubon, Natural Resources Conservation Service, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and more,” Velardi said. “Because this is such a large area, it would be wonderful to bring in the resources and also the expertise and lands that are already in protection under other agencies and organizations.”

The second year will be focused on making connections with more landowners to communicate the value of easements.

“There will be more identifying priority areas that are either under easement now or could be under easement and reaching out to those landowners,” Velardi said. “Opening the doors and providing that educational component is pretty exciting.”

A main component of PLJV’s capacity grants is the longevity of the support. Organizations that receive a capacity grant introduce projects on the landscape that will develop over multiple years. This ability to increase the capacity of land being protected is a valuable tool on these landscapes.

“We will have the ability over five, six, seven years — and this being a five year grant is a great start — to follow up, to actually see what happens and then to develop and see the progression that can take place with restoration and protection,” Velardi said.

For Velardi, the chance to help families protect their land while benefiting wildlife is what drives her to do this work.

“Having a lot more land preserved to create a beautiful matrix would be wonderful, including the playas that are all over that area,” Velardi said. “Behind all this capacity is a love of wildlife. Conservation easements can open doors for the maintenance of these lands in families and maintaining large pieces of land to keep it from being segmented and developed is a huge reward.”

Posted: November 9, 2020