Breaking New Ground

In the Connecticut River watershed, a small meeting of conservation partners is leading to something big.

Last month, about 30 people representing a dozen or so federal, state and non-governmental organizations gathered at the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls, Massachusetts to begin mapping out a plan for conserving fish, wildlife and plants in the 7.2 million-acre watershed.

This was not your standard visioning exercise. The partners spent four hours discussing common goals for the project; reviewing science information and tools that can help inform conservation planning efforts; and hammering out a process for “designing” a landscape of intact, connected and resilient ecosystems that will sustain wildlife and the natural benefits they provide to people for years to come.

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Partners are working together to develop a plan for conserving the 7.2 million-acre Connecticut River watershed. Credit: Lamar Gore, USFWS.

“We’ve been moving in this direction for years but now we have the scientific tools and capability to make it happen,” said Ken Elowe of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is helping to facilitate the Connecticut River landscape conservation design pilot project.  “This is really a ground-breaking experiment on how to do collaborative landscape-level planning.”

A key to this experiment’s success is the partners’ ability to agree on conservation goals and objectives for more than a dozen species in the watershed – like black bear and wood thrush – representing the needs of larger groups of species with similar habitat requirements.  Using decision-support tools and regional species and habitat information provided by pilot partners and the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, those goals and objectives will be translated into maps that project the amount, location and type of habitat needed to support identified representative and priority species throughout the watershed, as well as important ecosystems and their functions.

By focusing on a limited number of species, scientists and managers can more effectively monitor results of conservation actions, as well as species and habitat responses to widespread threats such as changing climate, development and habitat fragmentation.

Wood Thrush

Wood thrush. Credit: USFWS

In the end, the partners hope to create an overarching blueprint for the watershed that will help guide management decisions and conservation actions at regional, landscape and local scales. The effort also will connect to broader goals for conserving wildlife populations and intact natural systems across the Northeast, which in turn support and enhance food production, clean air and water, storm protection, recreation and the overall health and well-being of people.

Lessons learned during the 6-month pilot will help refine and improve the process so it can be replicated by partners in other regional landscapes like the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Maine.

This notion of working together to design and conserve sustainable landscapes is not new. Eric Sorensen, an ecologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department who participated in the Great Falls meeting, said he remembers reading about the approach two decades ago in a book called Saving Nature’s Legacy, one of the first comprehensive texts dealing with large-scale conservation planning to conserve biological diversity.

“A lot of ideas in that book are still very relevant 20 years later,” he says. “I think it is really exciting that we’re moving forward on a regional conservation effort to do this now.”

It’s one meeting, and for now there are more questions than answers. But this is one idea whose time has come.

Click here for additional details on the Connecticut River Watershed Landscape Conservation Design Pilot.

Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge was established to conserve the abundance and diversity of native plants and animals and their habitats in the 7.2 million acre Connecticut River watershed.

Learn about fish restoration efforts in the Connecticut River watershed in this video.

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