Tag Archives: Nature’s Network

Restoring hope in the Chesapeake Bay

John Smith, Jacques Cousteau, Rachel Carson. People have long recognized the significance of the Chesapeake Bay: it is the largest estuary in the nation, a corridor for migrating American shad and striped bass, a nursery for juvenile fish and blue crab, and the birthplace of Old Bay Seasoning.

In the early 1980s, people also recognized that pollution and mismanagement were having a significant impact on this system. The underwater grasses that provide oxygen, absorb nutrients, and feed and shelter fish were becoming sparse; populations of crab, shad, and bass were plummeting; there wasn’t much for Old Bay to season anymore.

In response, Congress appropriated funding to create the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership that has led collaborative restoration and protection efforts in the watershed since 1983, and has gradually been moving the needle in the right direction for the fish, wildlife, and people who depend upon this system. Remember those sparse underwater grasses? Their extent has nearly tripled in the last 35 years.


Underwater grasses play a vital role in the health of the bay — providing oxygen, absorbing excess nutrients, trapping sediment, and sheltering the iconic blue crab. Photo: FWS

The bay received another boost in July 2019, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) released The Chesapeake Bay Comprehensive Plan and Restoration Roadmap, developed with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and states, to help partners in the Chesapeake identify the most strategic places for cross-cutting restoration actions to support the long-term health of the watershed.

Places like Tangier Sound, Mobjack Bay, and the Choptank River, which caught Chris Guy’s attention because it flows through his home state of Maryland before draining into the Bay.

“The Choptank came out as a priority, and now the Corps has identified sites in the tributaries where they can say: If all you have is $1 for restoration, that’s where you want to spend it,” said Guy, Branch Chief for Conservation Planning and Assistance at the Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office.


The Choptank River, the longest on the Delmarva peninsula, is one of the places that was identified as a priority area for restoring tidal wetlands. Photo: NOAA

Those investments are backed by more than 200 stakeholders who contributed to the plan, including representatives from every Service field office and state wildlife agency within the watershed.

“We focused on identifying places where partners could get the most habitat restoration and conservation benefits based on the goals and outcomes outlined in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Agreement,” explained Alicia Logalbo, Chief of the Norfolk District’s Environmental Analysis Section for the Corps, who coordinated the development of the plan.

The Bay Program created the 2014 agreement as a way of tracking progress in the restoration effort. It focuses on 10 overarching goals related to biodiversity, clean water, climate resiliency, conservation, and community engagement. Given that those goals can be approached through a multitude of different sites, actions, and initiatives, the fundamental question became, where are the best places to start?

“There are many restoration opportunities, but we wanted to get that down to a manageable amount and also identify those opportunities that optimize multiple Bay Agreement goals and outcomes,” said Logalbo. “We wanted to take those broad goals and opportunities and put them on the map.”


The Service’s restoration priorities focus on supporting fish and wildlife throughout their ranges. For example, identifying aquatic barriers for American eels, which must migrate from freshwater to the ocean to spawn. Photo: FWS

As the Service’s liaison to the Corps, Guy explained, “My role was to communicate what is important to U.S. Fish & Wildlife.” Naturally, fish and wildlife were a top priority — “endangered species, species of concern, migratory birds” — but so were landscape characteristics that can support species throughout their ranges, like aquatic connectivity. “We want to be able to say this culvert in this stream is blocking eels,” said Guy.

The Corps synthesized and analyzed information from the Service and states to understand what partners wanted to sustain at what level, and what threats or barriers were keeping that from happening. But there were still some gaps in the data, so they turned to Nature’s Network — a collaborative effort to identify the best opportunities for conserving and connecting intact habitats and ecosystems across the entire 13-state Northeast region.

“We looked at a lot of factors for prioritization in the watershed, like development threats and stream restoration potential, but we wanted to be able to optimize for wildlife,” said Logalbo.

The imperiled species layer from Nature’s Network offered spatially explicit information about the location of the most important habitat for fish and wildlife species, and the connectivity analysis helped them understand how to ensure that habitat could be fully utilized as part of a functioning network.


The bog turtle is considered imperiled in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and is one of thousands of species whose habitat needs are incorporated into Nature’s Network. Photo: FWS

“I think regional information really helps you focus,” she said, “You can fine tune it with local information or field visits, but regional perspective gives you the broad brush to optimize, and then zoom into important areas you can verify.”

Areas like the Choptank, where the plan has already started a conservation dialogue.

After the river emerged as important in the analysis, the Corps approached Guy for his perspective on reviving a number of projects that had been identified in the Choptank years ago but had fallen by the wayside.

“They asked, are these still good projects? Which ones would you like to see happen?” said Guy.

More than just suggesting the best starting places for restoration, the plan is already providing a vehicle for moving forward.

Putting conservation on the map in the Chesapeake Bay watershed

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.”


All roads lead to conservation on a new prioritization map for the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Credit: Ian Hutchinson/Upstatenyroads.com

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.


The Chesapeake Bay watershed map displays a network of priority areas for conservation based on data from Nature’s Network on intact habitat and ecosystems that can support the needs of fish, wildlife, and people into the future.

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.”


The visualization tools help partners find the best opportunities to take actions to support species like Eastern brook trout that are sensitive to changes in water quality and temperature.

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.