Tag Archives: North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative

The science behind a stronger coast

A worst-case scenario. That’s how the National Weather Service described the timing of Hurricane Sandy’s track toward the stretch of coastline from New Jersey north to Connecticut.

It was close to high tide when the storm came ashore near Atlantic City, bearing down with sustained winds of 75 miles per hour that extended 175 miles beyond the eye — about the distance from Manhattan to Providence, Rhode Island. There were 32-foot waves in New York harbor, and a storm surge of nearly 14 feet in Battery Park. Homes were destroyed; roads were flooded; the power was out.

When Hurricane Sandy hit Rhode Island in October 2012, it breached the beach at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge for the first time in 10 years. Credit: Greg Thompson, USFWS

It’s hard to imagine how it could have been worse, but in the wake of the storm, we had a unique opportunity to figure out how it could have been better. With support from Department of Interior funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience projects, dozens of scientists were put on the case investigating the storm’s effects across the entire Northeast. The hope was that by connecting the dots between impacts and responses of different systems, species, and habitats, we could help communities understand how to strengthen their natural defenses against natural disasters.

Five years later, the research and restoration projects that were launched by the record-breaking storm are producing some astonishing figures of their own:

  • 10,000 coastal sites evaluated for their ability to migrate in response to rising sea levels.
  • 31,164 road-stream crossings assessed for their vulnerability to flooding during intense rainfall.
  • Millions of cubic yards of sand dredged from channels to restore tidal flow to historic salt marshes.

The stats are impressive, but they just scratch the surface of a meaningful body of work comprising reports, partnerships, models, decision-support tools, and more, developed to help us prepare for the worst, and hope for the best, as we face future storms.

Here is a snapshot of the scientific resources made possible by funding from Hurricane Sandy that are now available to support our collective efforts to build a stronger coast for people and wildlife.

Aquatic systems – Connecting partners to connect rivers and streams


Flooding in Norton, Massachusetts, after heavy rains washed out an undersized culvert on a tributary to the Taunton River. Credit: Mass Audubon

The problem: Tens of thousands of outdated, damaged, and poorly designed road-stream crossings fragment rivers and streams across the North Atlantic region, creating flooding risks for communities during intense rain events and preventing aquatic species from moving up and downstream.

The response after Sandy: The North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative (NAACC) — a network of partners in 13 states working to improve road-stream crossings — provides a central database of road-stream crossing infrastructure, protocols, and trainings for assessments, and web-based tools for prioritizing upgrades. Since the launch of the NAACC in 2015, more than 30,000 road-stream crossings have been assessed for vulnerability to flooding using standard regional protocols.

In action: Partners in a low-lying coastal watershed in Massachusetts, where communities face increasing risk of flooding from sea-level rise, used data from the NAACC to develop strategic guidance for upgrading bridges and culverts to prevent road washouts during intense rain events. Designed with municipal officials in mind, the report co-authored by Mass Audubon and the Taunton River Watershed Alliance identifies priority road-stream crossings in the watershed based on the potential ecological gains and associated public safety benefits that would result from upgrades.

In words: “There are all kinds of reasons to look at road-stream crossings. We want to convey that functioning natural systems provide quality of life and economic value, protect infrastructure, and protect property. More than just documenting road-stream crossings, we wanted to be able to move toward setting priorities and getting work done.” — Heidi Ricci, Senior Policy Analyst, Mass Audubon

Learn more: New report will help towns prioritize road-stream crossing upgrades in coastal watershed

Beaches – The sands of time


Structures along the coast in Atlantic City, New Jersey, alter the natural dynamics of the beach. Credit: Google Earth

The problem: Sandy beaches and dunes provide important habitat for wildlife and economic benefits to communities, but they are dynamic systems by nature, constantly changing in response to wind and wave action. Actions that “harden” beach habitat, such as building seawalls, create weaknesses in these systems by interfering with natural processes, which can worsen impacts during storms.

The response after Sandy: Using imagery from Google Earth, Google Maps, state agencies, municipalities, and private organizations from three distinct periods — before Hurricane Sandy, immediately after Hurricane Sandy, and three years after post-storm recovery efforts — coastal geologist Tracy Rice documented modifications along 1,650 miles of sandy coastline. This inventory gives managers a baseline for understanding how artificial changes to beaches and inlets affects their resilience to storms and their sustainability over time.

In action: Using the inventory, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s lead biologist for the recovery of the threatened red knot discovered that a site at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey is one of only two unmodified inlets in a 350-mile span of shoreline. Equipped with new insight about the importance of this habitat, staff can act strategically to protect an area that is not only of high value to at-risk species, but also regionally rare.

In words: “We knew these species favor these kinds of inlet sites, and we knew most of them were altered, but we didn’t know it was all but two. The data provided a landscape perspective that enabled us to say Little Egg Inlet is unique.” — Wendy Walsh, Shorebird Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Learn more: Bird’s-eye view reveals priority habitat for threatened shorebirds

Tidal marshes – The places they’ll go


Partners are targeting outreach opportunities to communities and landowners in the path of migrating marshes. Credit: USFWS

The problem: Tidal marshes across the region are threatened by changes from development, ditching, invasive species, and rising sea levels that undermine the irreplaceable benefits they provide to communities, such as protection from storm surge and nurseries for commercially important fish species. But the approaches, tools, and challenges to protecting these systems vary by state and scale.

The response after Sandy: The Environmental Law Institute (ELI) and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO) developed a report that offers a comprehensive look at wetland prioritization activities and tools — from vulnerability mapping to policies that support living shorelines — in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, giving managers a sense of best practices and appropriate strategies for increasing marsh resilience in the places they work.

In action: With guidance from ELI and MARCO, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources developed outreach strategies to help direct support and funding to efforts that will minimize impacts on coastal communities and agricultural producers in the path of marsh migration.  By knowing what kinds of resources are available for properties in the transition zones between current and future marsh, Delaware was able to share relevant planning tools and funding mechanisms with agricultural landowners and municipal officials.

In words: “It’s not just about telling people what’s going to happen in the future, but about providing guidance to landowners on how they can plan for it today. We are trying to explain that things are going to change, and it’s better to think and plan now than to have to react later.” — Mark Biddle, Environmental Scientist, Delaware Department of Natural Resources

Learn more: Partners identify resources for landowners in the path of marsh migration

Regional science caters to community needs at conservation picnic

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in early summer, Angela Panaccione was doing the same thing many people across the Northeast were doing: getting ready to host a cookout. But in addition to potato salad, baked beans, and coleslaw, Panaccione was serving her burgers with a side of science.

“If you want to walk over there, I can show you why this area is so important,” she said, gesturing toward her car as we sat at a picnic table in a clearing at the Midura Conservation Area in Palmer, Mass. Panaccione, who is the conservation agent for the town of Palmer, led me over to a large glossy map of the town taped to the passenger side of her vehicle, and pulled out a Sharpie.


Conservation agent Angela Panaccione traces a line around an area of Palmer, Mass., where she is making the case for local conservation action based on regional data.

“Everything in this area is ecologically significant, not only locally but regionally,” said Panaccione, as she traced a line around a group of about dozen parcels on the town’s eastern boundary.

“These are the parcels we own so far — totalling about 230 acres — and these are the parcels that are currently for sale,” she said, indicating three properties adjacent to the Midura conservation land. “All of this land up here is protected by Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife (the 1,250-acre Palmer Wildlife Management Area), and right here is the King’s Brook road-stream crossing that we are trying to upgrade,” she said.

Panaccione’s car was parked next to a large white tent shading a couple dozen folding chairs and three tables laden with the usual cookout accoutrement — ketchup, mustard, relish, buns, paper plates, binders full of maps and deeds — for a special event: The Palmer Conservation Commission was hosting a picnic for landowners neighboring the conservation area.

“It’s not a bunch of shop talk, just food, conversation, and folks getting together so they can make a connection between this project and what the end result would mean for their community,” said Sarah Brodeur, the chair of the Palmer Conservation Commission.


Palmer Conservation Commission Chair Sarah Brodeur chats with neighboring landowners during a picnic at the Midura Conservation Area.

The idea for the picnic was to raise awareness among neighbors about how they can play a part in this effort — whether through measures like conservation restrictions or just expressing support — and why it’s in their interest to do so. “It comes from my whole ‘Think regionally, protect locally’ philosophy,” said Panaccione.

Since taking on the job of conservation agent five years ago, that mantra has driven her to consult every resource at her disposal to help make the case for expanding existing protections around King’s Brook. Resources including Connect the Connecticut, a conservation design developed by a team of partners using the best available science and information from the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC).

“King’s Brook is one of the main cold-water tributaries to the Quaboag River, which flows into the Chicopee River, and then into the Connecticut,” Panaccione explained, adding, “It’s also a tributary that is mostly undisturbed.”

Combined with datasets from Mass Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy, Connect the Connecticut has helped to reinforce the value of the Midura Conservation Area for habitat, connectivity, cold-water fisheries resources, and climate resilience, and to identify opportunities to support these functions for the benefit of both wildlife and residents. Benefits that are often compatible, as explained by Palmer resident Amber Hastings, who strolled over to the picnic with her husband, dog, and three-month old son.

“I’ve had two horses for most of my life, so when we were looking for a house, we wanted to find a place that would provide the space we need to enjoy them,” she said. “Buying 20, 30, or 40 acres isn’t always a reality for first-time homeowners, so this was the perfect situation. We have all these beautiful trails to enjoy right across the street.”

For wildlife, the entire conservation area is a sort of “trail” to help them move safely across the landscape. “This whole section of Palmer, and Brimfield too, is designated as a flow corridor by The Nature Conservancy, effectively allowing migration for wildlife from southern New England to northern New England,” said Brodeur. “The King’s Brook corridor sits right in the middle of that.”

Hastings attested to the fact that wildlife seem to appreciate the space as much as she does. “When we take the horses out on the trails up and over the mountain, we come across all kinds of animals: deer, little orange newts in the spring,” adding, “We even had a moose in our front yard last year. I’m sure he was passing through Midura.”


For wide-ranging species like moose, blocks of contiguous open space like the Midura Conservation Area play an important role in regional migration corridors.

Panaccione and her colleagues want to be sure areas like this continue to provide essential open space for both wildlife and people in the face of threats from environmental and land-use changes.

“Not just here, but across the whole Connecticut River watershed, if local people aren’t involved in working to get these connections, then we aren’t going to get it all connected,” she said.

Learn more about how Panaccione has used data from Connect the Connecticut to advance her work in Palmer at http://connecttheconnecticut.org/town-of-palmer/

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.