Climate science for the rest of us

The last time I spoke with the North Quabbin Regional Landscape Conservation Partnership’s Coordinator Sarah Wells, she was wearing one of those Russian fur-lined caps with folding ear flaps that can be deployed against the cold. She was dressed appropriately. It was January 31, 2015, the temperature was in the single digits, and we were standing beside the snow-covered town common in Royalston, Mass., about to set out into the woods for roughly three hours. You better believe those ear flaps were deployed.

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This is what resiliency looks like: The North Quabbin Regional Conservation Partnership’s Coordinator Sarah Wells displays the resilience map the partnership developed using sophisticated climate data.

Wells had organized the “Woods Walk” for members of the North Quabbin Regional Landscape Conservation Partnership to visit a couple of properties that their new strategic map had indicated were highly resilient to climate change, according to underlying datasets developed collaboratively by The Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.

More than sizing up potential easements, the outing was intended to let participants experience the principles behind the identification of sites that can sustain a broad array of plants and animals in the face of climate change. Hills, valleys, steep inclines, and general ups and downs all contribute to the topographical complexity that is key for landscapes to be resilient to change. They also contribute to a burning sensation in the lungs during a frigid winter hike.

For the North Quabbin partnership, the outing signified a major step for strategic conservation planning in its service area. For the Open Space Institute (OSI), it signified a major step for its “Catalyzing Change for Land Trusts” project. With funding from the Doris Duke Foundation and Jane’s Trust, and a science delivery grant from the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC), OSI provided the resources and support for the North Quabbin partnership to develop the map, which is an unusually sophisticated planning tool for a group of its size to have at its disposal. OSI wants to change that — to make incorporating climate change into conservation planning the standard operating procedure for land trusts and other groups who may operate on a relatively small scale, but can make a big impact on the landscape.

Released yesterday, OSI’s Conserving Nature in a Changing Climate guide was designed to open the door for these groups by demonstrating how to use sophisticated conservation modeling to implement changes on the ground. The guide’s poster child for success? The North Quabbin Regional Conservation Partnership.

On the eve of the guide’s release, I reconnected with Wells to find out where the North Quabbin’s strategic map has led them since we last met in Royalston, and where she expects it will lead them next.

On the path to resilience:

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From its creation, the map has played an important role in guiding investments toward projects that offer long-term conservation benefits.

Case in point: When the map was first completed in 2014, the partnership used it as the basis for designing a proposal for the Massachusetts Landscape Partnership Program, a state grant program that focuses on multi-landowner, multi-partner projects. The timing couldn’t have been better. “The year we applied, the state announced that for the first time, climate resilience would be part of the ranking criteria,” said Wells.

The partnership received a $1.285 million grant for its proposed Quabbin Heritage Landscape Project, which funded the protection of six family-owned properties totaling 1,380 acres through easements, matched by another eight properties totaling 1,300 acres, all in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Division of Water Supply Protection, the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, and the towns of Athol, Petersham, and Phillipston. Multi-landowner, multi-partner, multi-benefit.

Around the same time, the partnering East Quabbin Land Trust looked at the map to see where priorities would turn up in their area, and noticed that one of the bright red resilient zones encompassed the property of a landowner they knew. The East Quabbin contacted him to ask if he would host a meeting to inform neighbors about the ecological hotspot in their collective backyard. Not only did he agree to host the meeting, he decided to protect his own land as a result.

In addition to helping clinch big deals, the map contributes day to day. After every conversation with a landowner about a property, Wells runs through a checklist of attributes that indicate a site’s ability to contribute to biodiversity, such as ‘adjacent to protected land.’ Now ‘located within a priority area on the map’ is among the items on the list. “It’s a question we ask of every prospective conservation parcel,” said Wells.

Reaching out to move forward:

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In addition to leading them to new sites, the North Quabbin hopes the map will lead them to new partners. “We have been so focused on the project management side of things that we haven’t been able to devote staff time or capacity to public outreach,” she said. One of their outreach tactics will be to redesign the “Woods Walk” as a public program for a general audience.

Rather than billing it as a climate-change awareness hike, which is unlikely to lure people away from standing brunch plans on a Saturday morning in January, “We thought: Why not a tracking workshop?” said Wells. “It’s a natural draw, and a tangible way to show the connection between resilience and movement across the landscape.” By pointing to evidence of physical movement in the form of wildlife prints, they can illustrate that a property is part of corridor for movement. “That’s what this work is all about: supporting a living landscape.”

Words of wisdom for those following in their steps:

While the North Quabbin is starting to turn its attention to outreach, Wells emphasized that the first and most critical step in the planning process is reaching in. “Whether you are working with multiple partners or within a single organization, you need to make sure there is buy-in from everyone, and that people understand why you are doing what you are doing.”

Once the tool is in hand, it’s important to keep perspective. While the map has changed the way the North Quabbin team works, Wells said it is by no means a prescription for action.

“We still have conversations with our partners about farms and food, and doing conservation that supports a resilient human community,” she explained “That might not be the same picture as this map shows, but we hope it will be compatible one, and that we can find a way to strike a balance between goals that are different but also important.”

Wells also pointed out that the state of Massachusetts has its own resilience datasets, and that in time she expects to hear from people who compare the maps and wonder why they don’t match up perfectly. “We consider this a valuable tool, but it’s not the only tool,” she said. “Ultimately, what’s most important is that people feel empowered to do something.”

Her parting words of wisdom? “If you can incorporate science into your planning, do it. Climate change is not going away. The more we grapple with how to address this threat in our communities, the greater the impact our actions will have in the long run.”

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