Greenprint For Conservation

Photo courtesy of Jen Leister

Land conservation (any conservation project, really) can be complex at times. It is rarely as simple as buying land and turning it into some sort of publicly accessible parkland, although that is one of the many benefits. In addition to the costs of acquisition, land trusts like CWC must find a way to raise tens of thousands of dollars to put aside in an endowment fund in order to protect and manage these lands in perpetuity, post the boundaries of the new preserve, conduct biological inventories and draft preserve management plans, in addition to other “hidden” costs. Carefully balancing public access with the protection of sensitive wildlife habitat and other ecological concerns are generally at the top of the list, as are funding and staffing. Because this involves so much work, an enormous amount of deliberation and planning must be put into conserving the most critical lands first, rather than expending valuable resources on other projects.

Before you can conserve these vital, sensitive habitats, you need to know where they are. Identifying them takes further planning and deliberation, but it is worthwhile as it is more efficient and cost-effective. Methods of doing this are often referred to as strategic conservation planning or landscape-scale conservation. Here in the CWC office, we refer to the process as developing a “greenprint for conservation.” This isn’t a new field, and the most recent plans of this nature incorporate geographic data and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software into the process.

GIS software is part mapping platform, part data analyst. These programs are incredibly sophisticated and capable of just about any sort of mapping application you could think of. Using this approach, it is possible to analyze enormous amounts of geographic, environmental and cultural data at the same time and produce a map that illustrates where these various features overlap or are most highly concentrated. For example, the Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust (THTLT) completed a strategic conservation plan several years ago and incorporated 11 parameters for consideration in their final map. First, they delineated their focus area, which turned out to cover multiple counties. For CWC, our focus area is the Chautauqua County bioregion, as stated in our Certificate of Incorporation. In addition to the focus area, they also considered how close a specific parcel is to other preserves, parks and conservation areas; the estimated uniqueness/quality of wildlife habitat; working lands (croplands, pastures, woodlots for timber, etc.); water resources (wetlands, lakes, streams etc.); scenic views (a core part of CWC’s mission); historic/archeological resources; recreation value; parcel size (larger parcels are often of more ecological value); rare/threatened/endangered species; and agricultural districts.

This is an impressive mountain of data to process. In Chautauqua County, there are 89,751 different parcels of land, and THTLT’s plan spanned several counties. When considering the scope of the rest of the analysis with all the various data contained in the other parameters, you can imagine how much information was put into this software!

Another aspect that warrants consideration in strategic conservation planning is climate change. In order to mitigate this global issue to the greatest extent possible, land trusts like CWC are now factoring in climate resiliency to any planning process. Climate resiliency in the landscape refers to those areas that are best able to cope or mitigate the ecological disruption that climate change will cause. These areas are more tolerable of or insulated from climactic turbulence and, therefore, should be targets for conservation. For a variety of reasons, these areas are often more biologically diverse and are already of high ecological character, so there are overlapping reasons to conserve them already. An interesting GIS platform that is freely available online was developed by the Open Space Institute and the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative. These organizations compiled data that included geological diversity, landform diversity, habitat connectivity or “connectedness” and intact biological condition. This robust and malleable platform allows users to identify the most resilient areas in most of the northeast, making it an exceptionally useful tool for land trusts. Further work is underway to map out the rest of the United States and beyond.

CWC is currently developing a strategic conservation plan for our focus area, and it will likely incorporate the elements described above, as well as others, to help refine our approach to preserve and enhance the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. The recent acquisition of high resolution elevation data using LiDAR (described in a previous article of mine) will go a long way to aiding us as we develop our “greenprint for conservation.”

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit www.chautauquawatershed.org.