Last month, my boyfriend and I were driving west on I-88 in New York on our way to Ithaca to visit friends when we passed a sign announcing: “Entering Chesapeake Bay Watershed.”
Talk about a sense of place. One second we were just cruising along a rural freeway in what felt like the middle of nowhere (actually, it was Worcester, N.Y.), and then suddenly we were part of a six-state watershed that drains 64,000 square miles into one of the most productive estuaries in the world. When we stopped at a rest area a few minutes later, the sound of the toilet flushing had a whole new significance.
Context allows you to zoom out to see where you fit into the big picture, and that change in perspective can be empowering. But when coupled with information, context can also help you zoom in on local decisions that help keep the big picture intact.
Thanks to a collaborative effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Coordination Office and their partners, conservation practitioners in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed have a lot more than road signs for guidance.
This spring, the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership completed a watershed-wide map of conservation priorities created cooperatively by federal agencies, state agencies, and non-governmental organizations across the six-state region.
Developed with technical support from the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) and the Chesapeake Conservancy, the map uses data from the Nature’s Network conservation design. Nature’s Network reflects habitat needs for thousands of vulnerable species identified in State Wildlife Action Plans from Maine to Virginia, as well as for important game species like American black duck.
Looking at the map, I discovered that the rest area where we stopped on I-88 is within an “Aquatic Buffer” — an area that is upslope and upstream of high-quality river reaches, lakes, and ponds, and has a strong influence on the integrity of these aquatic systems. Neat.
People involved in resource management and community planning across the Chesapeake region can discover more things like this when exploring the interactive map. That’s because the map integrates information on the highest priorities for sustaining natural resources and benefits determined by six goal teams nested within the Chesapeake Bay Program.
“There are teams focusing on sustainable fisheries, vital habitats, water quality, healthy watersheds, stewardships, and partnerships,” explained Kristin Saunders, the Bay Program’s Cross-Program Coordinator. “Each team works toward specific outcomes, ranging from brook trout habitat, to land use methods, to environmental literacy.”
This map is the critical next step for making progress: finding the best places to take action where it will yield the most benefits.
For Saunders, the map brings opportunities for collaboration into focus. “It allows us to see where priorities overlap — information we can use to answer specific management questions, like, where is there existing capacity to do fish passage work?” she said.
“Where multiple priorities align, partners see places they hadn’t thought about working before.”
Partners like Steve Reeser, a District Fisheries Biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and a member of the Bay Program’s Brook Trout Action Team. “Let’s say we want to focus on conservation easements in areas of important habitat for brook trout,” he said. “This gives us a way to narrow down to the highest priorities.”
After a pause, Reeser added, “For that matter, it gives any group that is interested in brook trout conservation a place to start.”
And that’s what Saunders sees as most exciting about this tool. More than just aligning major players in conservation in the watershed, it gives others a lens to see where they fit into the regional conservation picture.
“Folks who live in the upper reaches of the watershed have had less incentive to focus on water quality issues in the Bay even though those same issues affect them,” she explained. “This map gives us another way to talk to people who haven’t felt connected to our work in the past.”
Bringing more people into the conservation allows partners to leverage resources through mutually beneficial projects, like protecting aquatic buffer areas around Schenevus Creek in Worcester, N.Y., because it will provide flood control for communities in the area, but also because it will increase water quality downstream.
That’s not only inclusive, it’s cost effective. Jennifer Greiner, Chesapeake Bay Liaison with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, pointed out, “By honing in on places where actions can make the most difference, we can maximize return on conservation investments and help communities make decisions that meet multiple objectives efficiently.”
For people living, working, and playing across this region — from the upper reaches of the Susquehanna River to mouth of the James River — all roads on the Chesapeake Bay watershed prioritization map lead to a brighter conservation future.