Category Archives: Climate Change

Won’t you be my conservation neighbor?

Let’s say you’re the head of a land trust with a detailed map outlining the network of lands and waters you need to protect so that fish, wildlife, and natural splendor may endure in your community for generations to come. If the next town over decided to site a housing development on priority habitat just beyond your group’s boundary, would that affect wildlife movement within? Would you even learn about the plan in time to suggest an alternative?

The 12 Rivers Initiative isn’t waiting for the ominous rumble of bulldozers in the distance. Last year, the Maine-based conservation partnership applied for a grant from the Open Space Institute (OSI) to reexamine their long-term conservation planning through the lens of regional climate data. The objective wasn’t just to refine conservation priorities within their boundaries; it was to better align with conservation priorities outside of them.

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Anna Fiedler from the Midcoast Conservancy shares a new map developed using climate data with members of neighboring land trusts to identify opportunities to connect. Credit: 12 Rivers Initiative

“We saw this as an opportunity to approach land trusts at the edges of our landscape to talk about where conservation corridors should go once they leave our map,” said Anna Fiedler, Director of Conservation for Midcoast Conservancy, one of the eight land trusts that comprise the 12 Rivers partnership.

12 Rivers is one example of how conservation groups working across a relatively small area are having a meaningful impact on the larger landscape by incorporating climate change into long-term planning. Building on its partnership with the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, OSI is now offering support for land trusts across the eastern United States, helping them integrate climate change into their conservation plans through workshops and outreach support available across the region in partnership with the Land Trust Alliance.

With guidance from Gillian Davies of the BSC group, Fiedler’s colleague Ruth Indrick, Project Coordinator at Kennebec Estuary Land Trust, created a map highlighting overlapping priority areas identified by combining the Terrestrial Resilience and Regional Flow datasets developed by The Nature Conservancy and the Index of Ecological Integrity developed by the Designing Sustainable Landscapes Project at UMass Amherst. Together these datasets can help practitioners identify sites in the Northeast with characteristics necessary to support biodiversity and wildlife movement into the future, and all three are available for anyone to access in the Land Protection in a Changing Climate gallery in the North Atlantic LCC’s Conservation Planning Atlas.

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The 12 Rivers Initiative created a new conservation plan designed to support habitat for wildlife and community needs, like working lands and recreation, across an 825,000-acre landscape in Maine using the best available data in the region.

Idrick and Fiedler then presented this co-occurrence model along with individual maps depicting each dataset at a workshop for staff from all eight land trusts of 12 Rivers, as well as for those along the boundaries.

“We talked about what we envisioned for planning, shared maps with the lands committee at each land trust so they could ground truth what the models showed, and agreed to reexamine the edges and corridors with new information provided by our neighbors.” said Fiedler. “Mapping is a great tool, but it’s important to use local knowledge to put it to the test.”

It’s also good diplomacy. “The conversation really strengthened our relationships with the land trusts at our borders,” she said.

The map has provided scientific reinforcement for the direction the partnership is heading. “The data showed us that we already had a solid conservation plan in place, but by making sure it is aligned with new knowledge, it shows that we are looking ahead,” said Fiedler. “That’s really valuable when going to donors and funders.”

While 12 Rivers is still in the process of realigning its conservation plan based on input from partners and neighbors, the mapping exercise itself has initiated important conversations as the partnership looks ahead. “We are seeing now that the bulk of the effort moving forward will be communicating about it,” said Fiedler. “We are incorporating more climate change context into our work, and we are looking for ways to talk about it that keeps a range of different people engaged, without using the kinds of buzzwords that can close the conversation.”

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Staff and board members from the 12 Rivers partner land trusts take part in a role-playing activity to practice engaging different kinds of people in conversations about climate. Credit: 12 Rivers Initiative

In addition to addressing sensitivity to language, they are trying to make it real for their members. Fiedler explained that during a second workshop, in which they shared the maps with board members and staff from all 12 Rivers partner land trusts, they also asked attendees to take part in a role-playing activity. Everyone paired up and pretended to be either a skeptical landowner or a member of a land trust who was trying to convince that landowner it was critical to conserve his or her property.

“Most people didn’t even use the phrase ‘climate change’ in their conversations,” explained Fiedler. “Rather, they said that finding some common ground with the other person was the best way to get through to them.”

It seems just like in productive conservation, productive communication demands meeting people on their terms, even if that’s beyond where your own map ends.

Since the staffs of land trusts within 12 Rivers approach donors and community members as representatives of their own organizations, it’s important that they are equipped with consistent messages about the climate data at the foundation of their shared plan. As such, Fiedler said the circuit rider helped them develop initial messaging about their work based on research from the Yale Program on Climate Communication. OSI is considering providing further support to 12 Rivers to advance their climate communications.

“It’s wonderful to have that kind of support,” said Fiedler. “I’m glad they understand that communication is critical to long-term planning.”

Chafee NWR salt marsh restoration USFWS

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Jen White

(Click on an image above to launch the photo slideshow.)

Protecting coastal resources – for the people and wildlife that depend on them – has to be a priority when you’re a state with 400 miles of coastline and one of the highest ratios of coastline-to-land in the country.

In Rhode Island, one such effort involves restoring coastal marshes.

“Having a marsh is good because it can slow down waves that would be heading toward homes,” says Jen White, a USFWS biologist in Rhode Island. “If we lose the marsh, that will all turn into open water basically and you won’t have any protection.”

White is looking out at the Narrow River estuary, where FWS and partners are working on a marsh restoration technique called “thin-layer deposition,” which has been used widely in Gulf Coast states but is just recently gaining traction in the Northeast. Last year the partners used the technique on 11 acres at Sachuest Point NWR, and now are working on 30 acres along the Narrow River at Chafee NWR.

The objective is to dredge sediment from the estuary and spray it onto the marsh, raising the elevation of the marsh enough to allow it to keep better pace with sea-level rise.

“What we’ve seen here is a switch from high-marsh grasses to low-marsh grasses, so we’re losing the high-marsh habitat in this area,” says White. “By adding material we’re hoping to bring it back to high-marsh elevation and that will hopefully allow it to last into the future.”

The partners are aiming to add six inches of elevation to the marsh, which should allow the high-marsh grass to grow through. They will also re-plant the area with about 35,000 plugs of marsh grasses in the spring.

To achieve this delicate balance of elevation, the dredging and spraying machines are equipped with computer sensors that precisely monitor the process.

“The sand will be contoured so there will be hills and valleys — the hills will be where the high marsh will grow and where water will be able to drain off the marsh so we’re not creating any impounded water anywhere,” explains White.

Marshes are widely considered valuable assets for coastal protection – they buffer wave energy and absorb water. But they also harbor an amazing diversity of species. One important creature that depends on them is the saltmarsh sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus).

“Saltmarsh sparrows breed in the high-marsh elevation grasses, so that’s informed the restoration planning we’re doing. Willets (Tringa semipalmata) also breed at that elevation,” says White. “Sea-level rise is going to be a big issue for the saltmarsh sparrow. As sea-level rise increases, these birds will have fewer and fewer breeding opportunities. By raising the marsh we hope to provide salt marsh nesting species habitat into the future.”

White notes that researchers (Field et al. 2016) estimate the sparrow may go extinct as early as 2035, with populations having dropped sharply since the 1990s according to the Saltmarsh Habitat & Avian Research Program (SHARP), a group of academic, government and nonprofit researchers along the East Coast.

“Sea-level rise is really the main issue for marshes, whether you’re talking about the habitat they provide for the saltmarsh sparrow or their ability to protect coastal communities from inundation.”

This is the fifth in a series of photo slideshows highlighting the people who have been working to defend their coastal ecosystems against storms in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. In previous weeks we have looked at Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons, combating climate change in the Chesapeake BayJulie Devers, assessing fish barriers and culverts in Maryland,  Kevin Holcomb and Amy Ferguson building living shorelines at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and Eric Schrading and Katie Conrad building living shoreline oyster reefs at Gandy’s Beach in New Jersey.

Video: Time-Lapse of Hughesville Dam Removal

Update summer 2017: American shad have already returned to the Musconetcong River after the removal of Hughesville Dam! State wildlife biologist Pat Hamilton shared this “thrilling” news with NPR reporters – read the story – and then watch the video below of the dam coming down. 

Dim the lights, turn up the music and help us celebrate the take-down of Hughesville Dam on the Musconetcong River in New Jersey! The entire dam removal took nearly three months, but you can watch the sped-up version here.

Removal of the 150-foot-long and 18-foot-tall dam in Pohatcong, NJ, is a major success for all who love and care about the mighty Musconetcong. A designated “National Wild and Scenic” river, the Musky flows for 42 miles through the state and is a popular place for fishing, boating and swimming. Hughesville is the fifth dam to be removed as part of a larger partner-based effort to restore the Musky to a free-flowing state.

Removal of the dam is projected to provide $2.5 million in economic benefits – including increased access for sportfishing – and reduce flood risk to nearby communities. The project was supported by many partners and funded largely by the USFWS through the Department of the Interior (DOI) under the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013.

In September 2016, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell toured the project, calling it a “model for collaborative conservation,” and joined a roundtable discussion about dam removals.  Since completion of the dam removal, volunteers with the Musconetcong Watershed Association have helped restore the site by planting trees along the river banks to serve as a buffer and help keep the water clean.

Congrats to all the people and partners involved in making this project a success!

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USFWS staff, partners and community members pose with Sally Jewell at the Hughesville Dam removal event on Sept. 8, 2016. Credit: USFWS