Connecting the Connecticut

In March 2014, nearly 30 people representing more than a dozen federal, state and non-governmental organizations met at the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls, Mass., to begin an undertaking beyond the scope of any of their individual agencies.

Poised at a sharp bend in the Connecticut River, the center was a fitting place to meet given their mission: create a plan for conserving fish, wildlife, plants, and natural benefits in the 11,250 square-mile Connecticut River watershed now and into the future.

Today that auspicious start has evolved into Connect the Connecticut, a collaborative effort that has brought science and conservation partners together to design a resilient and connected landscape that can better withstand impacts of climate change and development.

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Connect the Connecticut partners in Hadley, Mass. Credit: Bridget Macdonald/USFWS

Announced today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners, Connect the Connecticut is a conservation road map or “design” developed using the best available science and information from the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) and an innovative modeling approach from the Designing Sustainable Landscapes Project at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

But the true meaning of this effort is expressed by the people who are now using that science and information to advance conservation on the ground.

“I’ve already had opportunities to go to Connect the Connecticut, look at a parcel that’s available, evaluate why it’s important, and provide information to justify a grant proposal to conserve the property,” says Patrick Comins, the Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon Connecticut.

“It’s all about prioritizing how we want to use resources to conserve land, and Connect the Connecticut is going to be another tool in the toolbox both for justifying grants and evaluating proposals.”

Ct River with watershed map (1)

More than just a map, Connect the Connecticut offers a set of datasets and tools individuals and communities can use to make more informed conservation decisions. Credit: Lamar Gore/USFWS.

Indeed, it is another tool in a multifaceted toolbox of resources available to conservation practitioners in the watershed. But what sets Connect the Connecticut apart is that it is designed to complement other tools and information and to adapt to the needs of individual users. Kind of like one of those screwdrivers with interchangeable bits. There are different settings for speed and torque and a variety of bits available to help get the job done, but the individual holding the drill gets to determine where to place the screw based on personal knowledge and expertise.

Why not just use the screwdriver you already have? This tool has a special feature: it is driven by regionally consistent data for the entire Connecticut River watershed — such as locations of high-quality habitat for 15 species selected as representatives for others that rely on similar habitats and resilient locations of both rare and common ecosystem types.

That means it can inform conservation decisions at multiple scales, from conducting parcel-level analyses to informing land-trust acquisitions, to corroborating focal areas identified in Comprehensive Conservation Plans (CCP) for national wildlife refuges. Convenient, since the defining geography for the Connect the Connecticut landscape conservation design is also the defining geography for the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge.

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Black bear, one of 15 representative species used in the Connect the Connecticut conservation design. Credit: USFWS

Refuge Manager Andrew French explains that when the collaborative, 18-month process leading to Connect the Connecticut began, Conte’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) was already well under way.

“I had been working with partners, using personal expertise, as well as information from states and their partners, to delineate conservation focus areas in the Refuge the old fashioned way,” he said. “When the landscape conservation design came out using a sophisticated approach to analyze data, we found there there was a 75 to 80 percent overlap.”

More than just a sense of relief, it gave him a high degree of confidence in the approach used for Connect the Connecticut, and in the validity of the information on a region-wide basis.

“Several of the science products, such as the core-connector network and the representative species models, help inform our refuge land acquisition and management decisions, as well as those of our partners,” French says. “It provides a basis for a shared understanding of how we are connected within the 7.2 million-acre Connecticut River watershed.”

Long ago the writer and critic Marcel Proust said “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” For those who love and care about wild things and wild places in the Connecticut River watershed and throughout the Northeast, a new voyage may be just beginning.

Hear more about how Connect the Connecticut is helping partners connect in their own words:

Image credits for video: Al Braden/Al Braden Photography; John Cudworth/CC BY NC; Dan Little/Hampshire Gazette; Lee Walsh/CC BY NC; NASA Goddard Photo and Video; US FWS.

 

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