The grinding gears of government work means projects often take years from start to finish. Consider the updating of a jurisdiction’s master plan or identifying an area in need of forest treatment, such as thinning and prescribed fires (p. 11). The crossing of governmental t’s and dotting of i’s is a thorough one.
But one issue is breathing hotly down our necks, and time is not on our side. The mantra of any western U.S. land manager these days is to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration amid the ever-clearer effects of climate change. Vibrant Planet is a Tahoe-based and relatively new public benefit corporation that provides a cloud-based fast track for planners and policy makers to heed this call. The company’s first and only (thus far) software, Land Tender, analyzes the resiliency of California’s landscapes, ranks potential treatments for those lands, takes into account the priorities of agencies with differing missions, and puts together a cohesive plan.
An example: A watershed organization is focused on protecting a river; a habitat-minded nonprofit sees biodiversity as top of mind; and a fire protection district wants its community prepared for wildfire — each of these groups ranks its priorities across the same acreage in Land Tender and can view where the biggest bang for one’s buck would be in planning a project, focusing energies on where all three groups’ priorities overlap.
By restoring forests — improving the health, regeneration, and ecological life among trees — nature is better equipped against high-intensity wildfires (and climate change effects in general), food security is enhanced, and water and air quality boosted.
The seed for Vibrant Planet was planted in 2018 when Allison Wolff, a Silicon Valley veteran, was working with a Tahoe area family, also heralding from the tech-startup industry, to develop a philanthropy strategy. The family was especially interested in climate change solutions. With the Shasta and Trinity counties’ Carr Fire fresh on everyone’s mind, Wolff saw the connection between climate change and these high-intensity fires and the need for effective land management to abate the threat.
“I did a lot of observations to really understand ethnographically where technology can help,” Wolff said. She’s one of Vibrant Planet’s co-founders and an Incline Village resident. “And that gave birth to … our software platform for land management and monitoring.”
The interface shows landscape imagery (acquired through satellite and Lidar technology) with the user able to toggle on and off strategic areas, resources, and assets (known as SARAs) such as wildlife habitats, community structures, or vegetation stands. After a user identifies and prioritizes the SARAs, Land Tender normalizes and generates the ecological benefit, risk, and avoided loss of the SARAs, and suggests an appropriate treatment for that landscape.
These maps can be layered with one another, yielding management scenarios across multiple collaborators.
“Now you have this map and all of a sudden you’re like, wow, we all agree,” said Scott Conway, chief resilience officer and the other co-founder of Vibrant Planet. Conway was working as a district ranger with the U.S. Forest Service’s Truckee Ranger District up until 2019 before leaving to create his own consulting group, then met Wolff. “Even though we have very different opinions, these areas get us all what we want. So why wouldn’t we go to action on these areas now versus trying to figure out complete consensus agreement on everything?”
Vibrant Planet’s goal is for users of the platform to create a plan in six months as opposed to the timeframe of many years that collaborative projects usually require. (For example, the Sagehen Forest Project north of Truckee took six to eight years to get going.) After any acreage is prioritized, Land Tender shares a treatment plan that displays the cost of the project to address improving the point of interest, the proposed remedy and workforce capacity needed, the value of carbon and water diversity, and more.
Rather than treating the most amount of acreage possible, regardless of how effective it will be, collaborative planning through Land Tender yields treatment of quality acreage. A single acre could cost just $2,000 to treat, but a carefully vetted plan might yield carbon benefits, improved water quantity and quality, and increased biodiversity. The forest becomes more resilient, and a community is protected. “It was only an acre,” Conway said of the hypothetical example, “but wow, what we got out of that acre, now that is something to write home about — being able to really shift the conversation from acres treated to what you did in that acre.”
In September of 2021, Vibrant Planet announced its first project: Helping agencies around the Tahoe Basin create a community wildfire protection plan update across 500 square miles. Things started in earnest in early 2022 once state funding began to appear. The California Tahoe Conservancy is taking the lead, utilizing funds from the Tahoe Fund and the state department of conservation to provide annual licenses of Land Tender to 30 different agencies — fire districts, forest service units, state parks, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, etc — for seven years. The scenario-building work with Land Tender is scheduled to take place this fall and is expected to last about two months.
Land Tender will assist in addressing not only Basin community wildfire protection, Wolff said, but also broader wildland resilience around communities. Vibrant Planet is currently wrapping up its data curation for the Basin project. The planning portion will begin in the next couple months, according to Wolff.
The Truckee River Watershed Council is also utilizing Land Tender to create a comprehensive fire management plan for the middle portion of the Truckee River watershed, benefitting the City of Reno and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s main water source. The council’s management plan is currently being transferred to the software platform to allow adaptive management and ongoing monitoring capabilities.
The Tahoe National Forest, too, is slated to begin its own Land Tender plan this August, developing a 10-year plan that’s due by the end of September.
“Once we do a lot of mechanical thinning and prescribed fire, we’re hoping that over time we can closely manage with prescribed fire and wildland fires — get that data so accurate that we’re comfortable letting wildland fires run a little bit as a regenerative course,” Wolff said. “The way I describe us is an operating system for forest restoration and finance.”