Landscape conservation by design
“Designing sustainable landscapes.” What does that mean to you?
Understanding the “what” and “how” of this phrase was difficult for me at first. Sure, the words sound simple, but what exactly is a sustainable landscape?
To find out more, I began with basic definitions.
Designing is technically defined as deciding upon the look and functioning of an object (typically) by making a detailed drawing of it. I associate the word design with planning, visualizing and ultimately, implementing.
Sustainable is defined as being able to be maintained at a certain rate or level. Although a word with vast, subjective definitions, I think of it as the likelihood to withstand conditions for future generations.
Landscape is defined as a combination of physical and living elements forming a larger ecosystem. All parts of a landscape are connected, from the wildlife to the forestry, to the water availability and soil. If one aspect is changed, all are affected.
All of these elements come together in the Designing Sustainable Landscapes project supported by the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative. Led by Dr. Kevin McGarigal, a professor in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the project aims to conserve landscapes that provide diverse habitats and serve a variety of purposes- ranging from species habitats to erosion control. The end result is a model of landscape change that assesses ecological consequences and designs that prioritize conservation throughout the Northeast.
Designing Sustainable Landscapes began in October 2010 by developing and testing approaches in pilot watersheds, including models of wildlife habitats and ecosystems. Examples of species represented by habitat models include black bear, diamond-backed terrapin, ruffed grouse, and red-shouldered hawk. Species are chosen based on their potential to represent multiple species with similar habitat needs.
Areas are prioritized based both on long-term predictions of how well species and ecosystems will cope with disturbances, such as climate change. McGarigal says there are three key components:landscape change, landscape assessment, and landscape conservation design.
The crucial question in all of this is where do humans fit into the landscape? More importantly, can they undo the damage already done? Is it realistic to begin to design an idealized form of nature? Ultimately, do we have any other choice in an environment permanently changed by human behavior?
”Conservation design is really about being proactive,” McGarigal says “We can’t continue to approach conservation reactively. We need to preserve and maintain the landscape, while we still can.”
Witnessing the coverage of the recent typhoon in the Philippines prompted me to reflect on how crucial this kind of future planning is for nature and people. As climate change progresses, sea levels rise, and natural disasters become the norm rather than the exception, it is our job to plan ahead. Plan for resiliency. Plan for the physical, social and economic effects of climate change. Plan for landscapes that will be here decades from now, and an environment future generations will have the opportunity to know, enjoy, and treasure.
Dr. McGarigal and I discussed how we [humans] don’t often anticipate problems very well, but respond once the threat is great enough. McGarigal says it is now time to “think strategically” and focus on “what we can do today to affect long-term outcomes.”