PSU-The Nature Conservancy partnership taps trees to address regional climate change

Person walking on trail surrounded by large trees on either side
The Conservancy's Cascade Head Preserve near Lincoln City. (Devan King/The Nature Conservancy)

For the past two and a half years, Rose Graves has had one foot at Portland State and one foot at The Nature Conservancy's Oregon chapter. 

As a postdoctoral researcher on natural climate solutions, she led an analysis of the potential of Oregon's natural and working lands to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help limit the impacts of climate change — work that will now help inform climate-based policy discussions at the state level and prioritize conservation strategies.

Rose Graves
Rose Graves

"Partnerships between academic institutions and non-academic institutions are a really powerful way to get research done," Graves said. "It's nice to see actual tangible use of your research."

Graves’ research has allowed Portland State and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to deepen an existing partnership while making progress on the region’s climate agenda. 

PSU and TNC started collaborating four years ago thanks to a mutual connection: Jonathan Fink. The director of PSU's Earth, Environment and Society Ph.D. program is also a member of the board of trustees of TNC Oregon and has been working to connect PSU researchers and TNC scientists and seek out opportunities for students to get involved with the organization. 

The idea for the joint postdoc position came out of conversations about areas where TNC was looking to grow but didn't have the in-house science capacity to do so. 

"Our partnership with Portland State has really allowed us to build the scientific or evidence foundation for building new strategies or moving into new areas that we either don't have the dedicated staff or expertise," said Ryan Haugo, director of Conservation Science for TNC Oregon. "It helps us to tap into the expertise and skills that are present at the university, and on the flip side, TNC can provide an opportunity for postdocs, grad students, undergrads and faculty to help apply their work in a real-world setting."

As a global organization, TNC has been researching natural climate solutions — the conservation, restoration and improved land management of natural and working lands that can both conserve biodiversity and help mitigate greenhouse gases — as a tool to use in the fight against climate change on a global and national scale. The local chapter wanted to better understand specific opportunities in Oregon given its range of ecosystems and strong land use controls and environmental policies. 

Haugo teamed up with PSU's Andrés Holz, associate professor of geography, and Max Nielsen-Pincus, associate professor of environmental science and management. Together, their research brought the ecological and social science expertise needed in natural climate solutions. 

Graves, who started in fall 2018, was first tasked with completing a biophysical analysis that modeled the capacity of landscapes and wetlands in Oregon to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and/or increase carbon sequestration. The study found that allowing trees to grow longer on a portion of working forests, reforestation along riverbanks and replanting after wildfires would have the greatest potential in reducing emissions, followed by changes to agricultural management through no-till, cover crops and nitrogen management. 

Graves then dug into one of the natural climate solutions — increasing the age and structural complexity of private forests in western Oregon — and surveyed 1,500 small to midsize forest landowners to gauge the likelihood that they would participate in such a program. 

"Rose's work has helped us shape and redefine our strategies as an organization," Haugo said.

Given the success of Graves' position, TNC and PSU decided to jointly fund another postdoc position with the support of Fink and PSU's Digital City Testbed Center — this time focused on urban tree conservation, a new area for them. Haugo says they saw the postdoc position as an opportunity to quickly build the scientific foundation for improved and equitable urban tree conservation across the Portland metro area and leverage the expertise of urban planning professor Vivek Shandas, whose Sustaining Urban Places Research (SUPR) lab has studied how trees can mitigate urban heat and air quality.

Fernanda Ribeiro, who started in fall 2020, has been using remote sensing technology to create tree canopy maps that assess the distribution and characteristics of trees across the metro area. That work will then lead to the development of "spatial action maps," which will help TNC and other regional partners who are part of a larger Smart Trees collaborative to prioritize the planting, protection and maintenance of trees in the neighborhoods that need them the most in order to achieve equitable outcomes for both people and nature.

Fernanda Ribeiro
Fernanda Ribeiro

Working with Shandas’ lab, Ribeiro has been zeroed in on the technical analysis, but with TNC, she's been able to better understand the community and the larger issues and policies that are driving the research. 

"What really attracted me to this position was being able to work on something applied," she said. "It's in Portland, I'm living here and it's very motivating to see how the project can impact the city."

Graves and Ribeiro both said the dual role has given them a unique perspective into the inner-workings of a non-governmental organization like TNC and the opportunity to interact with key stakeholders that they may not have otherwise gotten. 

Meanwhile, Holz, Nielsen-Pincus and Shandas said that Graves and Ribeiro's presence in their research labs has set an example for their undergraduate and graduate students.

"It sparks all kinds of interest and gives them this sense of what's possible in the future and what they can do," Nielsen-Pincus said. 

Haugo said that whatever challenges may lay ahead, TNC has a partner they can rely on.

"We'll be facing issues that we don't understand well today, but I know I can go to PSU and find people who will be interested in working with us and building a creative partnership to help address those needs," he said.