Tag Archives: science

Balancing needs of nature and people in the Appalachians

Some conservation practitioners might question how a regional conservation plan covering a 15-state area could apply to their local communities. Rick Huffines is not one of them.

“No matter what scale you are working at, we all have compatible conservation goals as part of a shared landscape,” says the Executive Director of the Chattanooga-based Tennessee River Gorge Trust.

Rick Huffines, Tennessee River Gorge Trust

As the former Deputy Regional Chief of the National Wildlife System for the Southeast Region of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Tennessee River Gorge Trust Executive Director Rick Huffines understands that regional science can support local conservation priorities. Photo: Audrey Nord.

He knows because he has worked at both ends of the spectrum. Huffines came to the Trust after retiring from a 26-year career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where he last served as Deputy Regional Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System in the Southeast. In that transition, his jurisdiction went from about four million acres across 10 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, to the 17,064 acres protected by the Trust.“As a small organization I don’t have access to the information, science, or infrastructure that I was accustomed to when working for the Service,” Huffines says.

But now he has NatureScape, an online landscape conservation design that delivers maps, datasets, and analytical tools designed to help partners working at any scale identify the best opportunities to advance conservation locally and regionally.

Supported by the Appalachian conservation partnership — which includes representatives from federal, state, tribal, academic, and nongovernmental organizations — NatureScape reflects the needs, goals, and values of members of a diverse regional conservation community because they directly informed its creation.

“Every target that is included in the design framework was something that bubbled up from conversations involving more than 60 experts and stakeholders in the region,” explains Paul Leonard, a computational ecologist who developed the modeling foundation for NatureScape as part of his dissertation research at Clemson University.

Although he completed his degree, Leonard has continued to build upon that foundation. He and his graduate and postdoctoral advisor Rob Baldwin, Professor of Conservation Biology at Clemson, and Daniel Hanks, a post-doctoral researcher in the Clemson’s Forestry and Environmental Conservation Department, just published a paper in Scientific Reports — an online journal from the publishers of Nature — describing how they developed a new modeling approach that captures the dynamics of aquatic systems and integrated it into the conservation design.

Sounds pretty impressive, right? In the field of conservation, it’s actually momentous. Here’s why: Aquatic systems and terrestrial systems are thought of in terms of different units, and analyzed based on different characteristics. For researchers who are trying to model the interactions between these systems in the real world where they overlap, that creates a problem. How do you relate what’s happening in a stream reach to what’s happening on the surrounding landscape, or farther downstream?

It’s like comparing apples and oranges, and until now, scientists haven’t had the computational tools to help reconcile these differences for practitioners. With support from the Appalachian partnership to fund the researchers at Clemson to figure out how to use supercomputers to marry different models into a single prioritization approach that better represents what is actually happening on the ground.

“The goal was to provide a tool that could offer decision support to people who are already looking at this landscape and trying to figure out how to best allocate resources,” says Baldwin.

People like Huffines, who points out that just because the pixels in the NatureScape maps are “big” relative to his jurisdiction doesn’t mean they aren’t informative. “The science provides options and information that I can apply based on our own ground truthing of the data,” he says.

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The NatureScape landscape conservation design provides valuable perspective on places like the Tennessee River Gorge by showing their significance in the regional conservation picture. Photo: Kevin Livingood.

It’s also just the beginning. “We know better data are coming, methods are improving, and that conservation outcomes are a moving target,” explains Leonard. “This is a never ending plan, and we have lots of flexibility to use local data to refine it.”

That’s not just a hypothetical. It’s already happening in the six-state Tennessee River Basin.

“When we looked at the Appalachian region, the Tennessee River Basin popped out for a variety of reasons,” explains Baldwin. Chief among them, its rich biodiversity and strong legacy of conservation: The ideal parameters for a tool like NatureScape, which can help partners identify places where they can leverage resources to make a bigger collective impact.

More than just a catalog of data products that people can pick and choose from, NatureScape was envisioned as a sort of consultation service to tailor information to the needs of partners, while making sure it still fits within a regional framework.

Just ask Huffines. He first connected with the partnership because he was interested in using a regional climate change vulnerability assessment — which is also rolled into NatureScape — to evaluate ecological communities in the gorge. “They helped us downscale the information to create something that would be relevant to the population in Chattanooga,” he says, explaining that they developed a 35-year climate vulnerability model and a 75-year climate vulnerability to capture time frames that would be meaningful for the two largest age demographics in the community.

“They helped us translate the information to make it understandable and applicable.”

Now that the complete NatureScape tool suite is available online, Huffines wants to use the information to create a model that can help the Trust refine its land-selection criteria and justify prioritizing certain parcels for acquisition. “It can show us local areas that fall within important regional corridors for fish and wildlife, and it can give us the information to say their importance is tied directly to species we care about, like green salamander.”

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Whether you care more about green salamander or green space, NatureScape provides datasets and tools designed to meet the needs of a diverse conservation community. Photo: FWS.

If salamanders aren’t your thing, NatureScape also shows you areas that are tied to numerous environmental benefits for society — like clean water, access to natural areas, and unique species and habitats found only in this region — that are included in the conservation targets underlying the design.

Leonard points out that Huffines former employer can use NatureScape similarly to connect the dots between specific projects and overarching mandates. “As of now, many FWS programs operate independently,” he explains. “The benefit of NatureScape is that it allows you to look for places where the interests of different programs overlap to ask: Where should we focus to get the most bang for our buck?”

No matter what scale you work at in conservation, finding the answer to that question is mission critical.

“We have all been thinking about those kinds of large questions from the beginning, and now we are beginning to be able to answer them,” says Leonard.

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

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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

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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

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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

Helping Roaring Brook roar

Until 2015, the intersection of River Road and Roaring Brook in North Elba, N.Y., posed a risk to travelers passing through the scenic Adirondack community — whether people, fish or wildlife.

“There was a twin pipe culvert that was subject to be clogged with debris whenever there was significant rainfall, so quite often the county would have to go remove debris or even repair the road due to that increased flow,” explained Jim Dougan, Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Public Works for Essex County, where North Elba is located.

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The former twin-pipe culvert at the intersection of Roaring Brook and River Road in North Elba, N.Y., was a dead end for fish. Photo: TNC

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Now a new bridge allows fish, wildlife, and debris to pass safely underneath River Road. Credit: TNC

“It was a constant maintenance issue and a public safety issue.”

For Michelle Brown, Senior Conservation Scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter, it was also an aquatic connectivity issue. As if the debris that frequently choked the culvert wasn’t enough of a barrier, the outlet was perched well above the plunge pool. It wasn’t a passageway for fish; it was a dead end.

Now River Road is the site of a new bridge built through collaboration between the county, TNC, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, featuring a spacious open-bottom box culvert that allows Roaring Brook, and any debris within, to flow freely below.

The intersecting concerns for people and wildlife at the intersection made it a natural place for Brown and Dougan to work together. But before the establishment of the North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative (NAACC), they might never have even crossed paths.

“We use the NAACC to identify crossings that are ecological priorities, and then we go out to talk with municipalities about where their priorities are from a flooding or maintenance perspective,” said Brown. “It helps us find places where we can marry those two things.”

Supported by Hurricane Sandy resilience funding coordinated by the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, the NAACC provides standard assessment protocols and a centralized database that is helping to unite partners across the Northeast region around compatible goals for upgrading road-stream crossings that are outdated, undersized, damaged, or all of the above.

Josh Thiel, Aquatic Habitat Protection Program Manager for the New York State Department of Environmental Protection (DEC), explained that flooding caused by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee provided a dramatic catalyst for different priorities to converge in 2011.

“There was lots of infrastructure damage, particularly to road-stream crossings, and when it came time to rebuild, we saw an opportunity to improve these structures by correlating flood damaged areas with aquatic connectivity needs,” Thiel said. But that opportunity revealed a glaring need. “We didn’t have a way to see the big picture, focus on priorities, and justify where to spend money,” he said.

The NAACC responded to that need by providing a common platform for people in different fields to communicate about road-stream crossings, and setting the stage for collaboration. Whether your jurisdiction is the road or the stream, there will be a point where they overlap.

When it came time to plan the upgrade in North Elba, the priorities of the public works officials and the scientists were almost perfectly aligned. The difference between the proposed width of the opening under the new bridge and the optimal width scientists had in mind for fish and wildlife passage was just two feet.

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Upgrading culverts based on aquatic passability removes barriers for species like Eastern brook trout that need to migrate upstream to survive. Credit: TNC

“It would have been fine for fish, but they were thinking about small mammals like foxes as well,” said Dougan.

The county had done its due diligence. The design reflected requirements for accommodating the streambed in a high-flow event, but for Dougan, there was no question about going the extra distance.

“Sure, you need a little more concrete and steel, but it’s an incremental cost in the long run if a minor change to the baseline standard lets you leave a shelf inside the culvert to allow small animals to pass through,” said Dougan.

“Making it a little bigger also makes it more resilient to the changing storm patterns we are seeing,” he said, adding, “Our goals aren’t really that far apart.”

Joining forces to replace the culvert was a win-win, and an opportunity to leverage resources.   “Many of these small towns have tiny transportation budgets, so no matter how willing they are, it is a challenge to ask them to put in a crossing that could cost up to 500 thousand dollars,” said Brown.

While funding is incentive for bringing new participants into the NAACC, the resulting collaboration is the real payoff.

“I got more than just grant dollars out of this project, I got a partnership,” said Dougan.

And that’s worth a lot more than a couple extra feet of steel.