From Adaptive Management to Climate Adaptation at the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area: Starting Where You Are

Jessica Hitt Gita Bodner Karen Simms
Posted on: 11/01/2011 - Updated on: 3/02/2020

Posted by

Jessica Hitt

Project Summary

At the core of a 300,000-acre watershed southeast of Tucson, Arizona’s Las Cienegas National Conservation Area (LCNCA) , includes nearly 50,000 acres of public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Las Cienegas Resource Management Plan is based on an adaptive management approach that allows the BLM and regional stakeholders to monitor and evaluate management actions and adjust actions based on what they learn. This process builds the knowledge and flexibility needed to manage lands in a changing climate. BLM and partners are examining how they can further incorporate climate adaptation by modifying monitoring protocols; implementing no regrets actions; and engaging in scenario planning.


The LCNCA is located in the Sonoita Valley, about 50 miles southeast of Tucson. The landscape encompasses the upper watersheds of Sonoita Creek and the Babocomari River, as well as much of the upper Cienega Creek watershed, which is vital to Tucson for flood control and aquifer recharge. The landscape’s natural resources also continue to support a thriving rural community.  Long renowned for its archeological and more recent western cultural heritage, LCNCA and the Sonoita Valley also support several threatened and endangered species and five of the rarest plant communities in the Southwest: cienega wetlands, cottonwood-willow riparian forests, sacaton grasslands, mesquite bosques, and semi-desert grasslands.The landscape’s grasslands and woodlands connect several of the region’s sky island mountain ranges and play a vital role in regional connectivity. Management of the LCNCA is multi-use and includes active livestock grazing as well as a number of recreational activities.  

The Sonoita Valley community has a long history of collaboration in both protecting and managing lands. In addition to the BLM and The Nature Conservancy, regional partners include the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Agricultural Research Service, Arizona Game and Fish Department, Arizona State Land Department, Pima County, Sonoran Institute, Sky Island Alliance, National Audubon Society – Appleton Whittell Research Ranch, Vera Earl Ranch, Phoenix Zoo, Huachuca Hiking Club, Sonoita Crossroads Community Forum, Empire Ranch Foundation, and many other stakeholders in the Sonoita Valley Planning Partnership (SVPP). As an ad hoc group of regional stakeholders, the SVPP worked with the BLM from 1995-2003 to develop the site’s Resource Management Plan. Many of these stakeholders continue to engage in the site’s adaptive management process through its Biological Planning teams. The Cienega Watershed Partnership, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, formed as an alliance of partner groups including the SVPP, now focuses on securing resources to implement management and protection plans throughout the basin. 

Many of these same partners also worked to secure the congressional designation of Las Cienegas as a National Conservation Area in 2000. These stakeholders continue to promote ecological and cultural values of the landscape in a variety of other ways, including protecting lands to maintain connectivity and watershed function across public and private lands. As a result, protected lands in this valley run east-west from 9,500-foot forested peaks of the Santa Rita Mountains down through oak woodlands and grassy valley bottoms of Las Cienegas some 5,000 feet lower, back up the scrub and forest slopes of the Whetstone Mountains. Additional investments are gradually securing latitudinal connectivity from Saguaro National Park in the Rincon Mountains to the north, and south to the Patagonia Mountains and into Mexico. All together, these connected lands include terrain managed by the BLM, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Pima County, Fort Huachuca, Arizona State Parks Department, The Nature Conservancy, and many private landowners.

In recent decades, however, the region has experienced increased temperatures, prolonged drought, increased fire activity, and changes in hydrological processes. In addition, the area is anticipating climate-related increased erosion and decreased groundwater and ephemeral recharge, range shifts and species die-offs, and more. Non-climate stressors include poorly planned development, mining, invasive species, and border activities.


Adaptive management and collaboration across jurisdictions are often cited as vital strategies for climate adaptation. Yet both can take years to develop, with many potential pitfalls along the way. This project started with 20 years of ongoing investments into gathering ecological information into an adaptive management framework, and includes building relationships among managers and stakeholders so they can respond effectively to changes they see on the ground. In the last several years, partners have begun to recognize climate change as a potentially game-changing dynamic, and are now working to adapt existing structures to respond explicitly to this new challenge.

Collaboration and adaptive management:

In 2003, the BLM and stakeholders completed the Las Cienegas Resource Management Plan. The plan was formed around shared goals, which were translated into ecologically-based and measureable objectives. The plan articulates an adaptive management approach that uses both collaboration and data to inform recurrent decisions about grazing management, grassland restoration, and aquatic and riparian restoration. In this approach, BLM and partners track conditions of key watershed resources. Management actions are monitored to determine if they are achieving their intended goals and if adjustments are needed. As part of the adaptive management approach, the plan established a “Biological Planning” process that engages panels of stakeholders to review monitoring results and provide feedback to inform management decisions. In addition to participating in bi-annual review meetings, stakeholders now convene technical teams to enhance understanding of changes in particular resource areas such as grassland and riparian ecosystems.

Since 2005, The Nature Conservancy’s main role has been helping BLM refine the science components of its adaptive management program by making sure monitoring can inform BLM and stakeholders whether or not management objectives are being met; enhancing ability to detect change around critical ecological thresholds; and ensuring that relevant data is available when and where decisions are being made. Such robust monitoring and evaluation processes are crucial for enabling managers to respond to the changes they see on the ground, in part because stakeholders that are engaged in documenting changes are much more likely to support agency attempts to modify management in response to these changes.

Funding for adaptive management has been provided primarily through the BLM, with considerable cost-share investment by TNC.  Many other partners contribute substantial time and resources. Several partner organizations have obtained foundation grant funds to implement restoration projects. The LCNCA also utilizes citizen science and volunteers that make the robust monitoring program and restoration actions possible.  

Climate Change Adaptation – Building from the foundation:

Monitoring protocols:  Some monitoring protocols are now being modified to better track climate parameters themselves. For example, the partnership recently installed an array of more accurate rain gauges to help understand drought impacts across the landscape (funded by a small climate adaptation grant from BLM to TNC). Sensors are being added that will record temperature and humidity, essentially creating mini-climate stations that may help tease apart climate impacts from other ecological changes.

No regrets actions:  In order to make this project more climate-smart, partners are examining existing activities that will have adaptation benefits and looking for areas that may need to be adjusted. They are currently focused on no regrets actions, including:

  • Building resilience into floodplains through restoration and enhancement activities; this includes restoring riparian sacaton grasslands and reducing erosion in arroyos. Boosting the capacity of floodplains to capture sediment and slow release of runoff benefits people and wildlife regardless of climate change; predicted increases in intensity of droughts and floods may make floodplain health even more critical for buffering streams from watershed-wide impacts.
  • Recognizing the climate threats posed to southwestern streams, the partnership has recently ramped up monitoring of groundwater changes to detect impacts of human activities as well as droughts. This new data is feeding efforts to improve modeling of the basin’s dynamic water resources. A primary goal of this monitoring and modeling is to identifying management actions that could reduce the impacts of projected declines in the regional water budget; and
  • Continuing to protect landscape connectivity, particularly along elevational and latitudinal gradients. Purchases of land and easements are also targeting areas that protect key water resources.

Scenario planning:  The partnership has recognized that in some cases, making adjustments to existing activities may not be enough to buffer the watersheds that human communities and wildlife depend on from effects of rapid change. Las Cienegas staff and partners asked internationally-renowned scholars and managers to help brainstorm climate adaptation solutions at a Collaborative Adaptive Management Network (CAMnet) conference in 2010. Suggestions included blending adaptive management with scenario planning approaches that explore a larger range of potential futures and generate indicators that help managers identify which trajectories of change a system appears to be on. The partnership recently brought experts to a community science forum to begin exploring options for scenario planning.

Outcomes and Conclusions

BLM and partners have a long history of collaboration on management of the LCNCA, and an equally long history of protecting landscape connectivity across many public and private jurisdictions. As it became clear it was essential to incorporate climate change into their activities, project leads determined that they did not need to start from scratch, but rather could examine their existing work through a climate lens – a “starting where you are, but not stopping there” strategy. This approach has enabled managers to start implementing some adaptation solutions while planning and evaluating others. Getting started on no regrets strategies and tracking changes is particularly valuable since it may take many years of data to separate climate-related or management-related changes from natural variability (e.g. groundwater fluctuations). Inevitably, some actions will yield better results than others. The partnership has already demonstrated a commitment to learning from results as they emerge. But we will learn much more if we can find ways to more effectively track both inherent benefits of restorative management actions and any additional benefits from climate-savvy modifications of time-tested practices.


Bodner, G. S., Simms, K., & Hitt, J. (2011). From Adaptive Management to Climate Adaptation at the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area: Starting Where You Are. [Case study on a project of the Bureau of Land Management, The Nature Conservancy, and the Cienega Watershed Partnership]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE:… (Last updated November 2011)

Project Contacts

Affiliated Organizations

The Nature Conservancy's Center for Science and Public Policy in Arizona was created to engage stakeholders and expertise in applied science and policy to develop new information, ideas, and tools that can help solve some of our most pressing challenges affecting people and nature.

BLM Arizona administers 12.2 million surface acres of public lands, along with another 17.5 million subsurface acres within the state. Field Offices throughout the state provide on-the-ground field management: Arizona Strip, Hassayampa, Kingman, Lake Havasu, Lower Sonoran, Safford, Tucson and Yuma. Arizona BLM management, coordination and direction come from the Arizona State Office, which is guided by State Director Jim Kenna.

Related Resources