Mapping the future of conservation

On a Saturday morning in late January when most people would have been lingering over a third cup of coffee, a small group of partners from the North Quabbin Regional Landscape Conservation Partnership in Massachusetts gathered to discuss next steps for implementing a new strategic conservation plan for the 26-town area.

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Members of the North Quabbin partnership explore a property identified as climate resilient on their new data-driven map. (Shannon McGowan/Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust)

“We could use your help figuring out a few questions in particular,” Conservation Coordinator Sarah Wells told the group, handing out a stack of laminated note cards attached to loops of yarn. “These are the kinds of questions we’re thinking about.”

The cards listed a series of questions all surrounding the challenge of communicating the plan’s relevance: Who should know about it? What would make it meaningful to them?

The loop of yarn, explained Wells, “Is so you can wear the cards around your neck.”

It was a thoughtful addition, given the circumstances: The participants weren’t brainstorming around a conference table while idly grazing from a box of donuts. They were standing in a parking area beside the historic town common in Royalston, Mass., layered in down, fur, wool, and Gortex on one of the coldest mornings to date in 2015.

Okay: There were some boxes of donuts in the trunk of Wells’ Jeep, but only for those brave enough to remove their gloves. The consensus seemed to be that donuts are worth the risk of frostbite.

Yes, local meteorologists were advising citizens to avoid being outdoors any longer than necessary, yet this group was setting out into the woods to spend a few hours exploring properties identified as highly resilient according the North Quabbin’s new strategic map.

So what’s all the fuss about? The word “map” hardly does it justice. “Super map” might be more appropriate. Better yet: “Crystal ball.” Incorporating datasets developed collaboratively by The Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, the so-called map identifies pieces of land that will continue to provide high quality habitat for a broad array of plants and animals even as the climate changes.

But there’s another reason for the fuss: It’s pretty unusual for organizations of the scale of the North Quabbin to be using sophisticated climate data for planning.

How come? “Most aren’t aware of it,” explained Abigail Weinberg, Manager of the Open Space Institute (OSI).

That’s the motivation behind OSI’s “Catalyzing Change for Land Trusts” project, funded by the Doris Duke Foundation, Jane’s Trust, and a science delivery grant from the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC). It’s just one of a suite of projects that the LCC is supporting to help bridge the gap between high-level conservation modeling and local stakeholders who can use the information to implement real changes on the ground. OSI provided the funding and technical support for the North Quabbin partnership to develop the map.

“Our role is translating science for audiences who have very specific, basic needs: How well is this parcel going to maintain its biodiversity over time? Should I put money into it? Should I get a grant?” explained Weinberg.

In turn, it’s the role of groups like the North Quabbin partnership to address the needs of local audiences, as indicated by the questions listed on the laminated notecards. Questions like: “What would make this map easier to understand?”

The mid-winter outing woods walk a way to start tackling these questions by offering partners a sneak preview both of the map, and of what an area identified as highly resilient to climate change looks like on the ground. Although the outing was close to home for many of the participants, the map allowed them to see invisible attributes of a familiar landscape.

Sarah Wells North Quabbin

North Quabbin Regional Landscape Partnership Coordinator Sarah Wells holds up a section of a new hot-spots map that is helping the partnership identify climate-resilient lands. (Bridget Macdonald/FWS)

“The color coding really jumps out,” noted Steve Rawson, a board member of the Mount Grace Land Trust, looking over the map as the group set out to explore the first property.

When out on foot, the connection between those colors and the terrain is hard to miss, because it’s kind of hard on the lungs: Hills, valleys, steep inclines, and general ups and downs all contribute the topographical complexity that is key for landscapes to be resilient to climate change.

For anyone not wandering in the woods, the data underlying the map may require a little more explaining, but so far it seems the “hot spots” on the map speak for themselves.

“We recently held a neighborhood meeting in an area that we hadn’t had as a priority before, but became a priority when we could see the reds and the oranges on the map,” said Cynthia Henshaw of the partnering East Quabbin Land Trust, who participated in the outing.

“Now we are rolling out the first tax-credit land conservation program process through that neighborhood meeting.”

How will that appear on the map? How else: Forest green.

Listen to the North Quabbin Regional Landscape Partnership’s Regional Conservation Coordinator Maggie Owens explain how their map identifies land that is “climate-resilient” to guide strategic conservation:

One Comment on “Mapping the future of conservation

  1. Pingback: Climate science for the rest of us | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

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