The Nature Conservancy of Idaho
Born and raised one a small farm in South Central Idaho, one of our world's agricultural epicenters, Mark Davidson brings childhood memories into his daily work as director of conservation initiatives for The Nature Conservancy of Idaho. Mark collaborates with regional ranchers, farmers, and land owners to help them protect the land that they love through conservation and regenerative agriculture practices. His work involves agricultural land conservation around the Silver Creek headwaters and enhancing range land management practices in the Pioneer Mountain region.
We caught up with Mark to learn more about his work and connection to food:
LFA: How does your work at The Nature Conservancy connect with agriculture?
MD: The Nature Conservancy has partnered with farmers and ranchers across Idaho for decades. For example, in the Silver Creek area, we worked with landowners to preserve over 10,000 acres around the creek, much of which is productive farmland. We have worked with ranchers in the Pioneers landscape to protect over 70,000 acres of range lands and working ranches. We are working with farmers and partners through the Wood River Water Collaborative to secure water supplies for farms as well as the Wood River and Silver Creek. This past year, The Nature Conservancy launched a Healthy Soils, Clean Water Initiative in Idaho’s Snake River plain including the Wood River valley.
LFA: What type of projects/programs does TNC provide in our region?
MD: Our projects in this region aspire to increase adoption of regenerative farm practices which improve soil health, increase water conservation and reduce the amount of chemical inputs required to grow food. Our approach is to provide funding and support to farmers who convert to regenerative farming and reduce irrigation water demand.
LFA: How did you get involved in conservation work in Idaho?
MD: In May of 2000, I accepted a job as the assistant manager at The Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve. It was through this job I learned about community-based conservation and the power of working with partners to achieve compelling conservation outcomes. In 2003 I began working in the Upper Salmon and from there to areas all over Idaho to conserve range lands, restore and protect habitat for salmon and steelhead and native fisheries, implement water conservation programs and partner with farmers and ranchers who are committed to protecting nature and strengthening communities.
LFA: What do you find most rewarding about your work?
MD: Everywhere I have worked over the past 19 years, I have been privileged to meet and partner with individuals who have committed their lives to conservation either professionally or as part of how they farm and ranch. I have worked with people like Merrill Beyeler who, with his three sons, ranch in Leadore, Idaho. On their ranch, salmon and steelhead have as much value to them as the land they raise cattle. Here in the Wood River watershed it is people like Rod Hubsmith who farms and ranches on the Little Wood River who is as committed to finding ways to restore water for fish in his home river as he is to secure the future of his farm. Spending time with farmers and ranchers walking fields, riding horses, and sharing a meal as we develop a shared conservation vision and implement efforts towards our vision is most rewarding.
LFA: What local farms/ranches have you worked with, past and present?
MD: The Nature Conservancy holds conservation easements all around Silver Creek and in the Pioneer landscape, as a result I have been able to develop numerous working relationships with local farmers and ranchers. One of the first farmers I met when my wife, Jenny Emery Davidson, and I moved onto Silver Creek Preserve was Bill Molyneux who has farms throughout the area. Other farmers I have learned from include Rocky Sherbine, Larry Schoen, and Bud, Nick and Pat Purdy of the Double R Ranch. In the Pioneer mountains area north of Carey I had the privilege to work with Jim and Susan Barton owners of the Bar B Ranch. Through our work together their land will remain a working ranch for the next generations of Barton’s. I am currently working with Dan and Brian Ratliffe on a 5-year farm project to improve soil health and conserve water. We recently completed a water conservation agreement with Brick Blackburn on the Cove Ranch which will catalyze a paradigm shift in water management in the Wood River basin. In the lower Wood River watershed, I am working with Fred and Cooper Brossy of Ernie’s Organics to assist them as they begin to embark on a long-term effort to demonstrate the economic viability of regenerative farming and crop diversification.
LFA: How does your work promote regenerative agriculture?
MD: There are two ways in which we promote regenerative agriculture. 1. Developing strategies to ease the financial risk associated with converting from conventional farming to regenerative farming and 2. Implementing monitoring programs that help us characterize improvements to soil resulting from regenerative farming and reduce input costs over time.
LFA: Can you share an impactful story of a TNC project?
MD: In 2006 TNC purchased an 1,800-acre ranch and associated BLM and USFS grazing permits to 45,000 acres in the Pahsimeroi River valley of central Idaho. Our purpose was to protect and restore habitat for salmon and steelhead, improve range conditions for sage grouse and find a local rancher to sell the ranch to. Shortly after we purchased the ranch I was contacted by Glenn and Caryl Elzinga, owners of Alderspring Ranch. They were looking for a place to grow their grass finished organic beef cattle operation. We sold the ranch and grazing permits to them a couple years later. Since owning the ranch, they have improved rangelands on the allotment through innovative grazing management strategies, reduced water use on the ranch, removed irrigation dams out of the Pahsimeroi River opening up miles of salmon spawning habitat, and restored the productivity of the land, all while raising 7 daughters. They employ local people, sell their beef online and at Atkinson’s Market. Their commitment to the land is transforming watersheds and developing new strategies for livestock management in central Idaho.
LFA: What’s your favorite meal made with local ingredients?
MD: My favorite meal consists of food from people I know. A grass finished Alderspring Ranch tenderloin steak, green salad with a lot of vegetables from our garden, and an Idaho baked potato from Mike Heath’s farm.
LFA: How can our community best support conservation practices on regional farms and ranches?
MD: Purchase food from local and regional farms and ranches. Support conservation organizations such as the Local Food Alliance, Wood River Land Trust, Trout Unlimited and of course The Nature Conservancy who are working with farmers and ranchers to develop programs supporting broader integration of regenerative agriculture.
LFA: Who is your food hero?
MD: Anyone who is willing to jump into agriculture to grow food that is nutritious, accessible, and supports regenerative agriculture.
LFA: What’s your end goal or what impact do you hope to have in terms of food and/or agriculture?
MD: If we demonstrate successful partnerships, projects, and funding mechanisms that advance local regenerative agriculture and secure our water supply, we believe we can create the social and political enabling conditions to improve water quality, soil health, and water supply and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change.
LFA: What food system change would you most like to see in the Wood River Valley region?
MD: Increased investment from the community, including impact investment and philanthropic, to update our water delivery infrastructure systems, access to capital for farmers who want to adopt regenerative farm practices, investment in the creation of local food processing, more opportunities for the development of vertically integrated food co-ops, and addressing transportation of the flow of food from farm to market to table.