Friday, December 15, 2006

I Do Good Work

I am feeling good. The Massachusetts Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy, a great deal of the 750+ pages of which I wrote over the course of the past two years, has just been approved by the United States Fish & Wildlife Service. We did good. Here, for your reading pleasure, is part of that Strategy, a part that I wrote, a part that I feel very strongly about. Tomorrow, we shall knit again tomorrow; today we live in the real world.

"A. Proactive Habitat Protection
For almost every species and habitat in greatest need of conservation in Massachusetts, this Strategy recommends that appropriate areas be protected from development and managed for the long-term conservation of these species and habitats. However, about one-sixth of Massachusetts – about one million acres – is already protected by a conservation entity (state, Federal, municipal, or private non-profit). Further, it is clear that the opportunities to protect suitable habitat and the funding with which to protect land are both dwindling rapidly in this state. Thus, to protect our species in greatest need of conservation, the challenge is that of making the difficult and wrenching decisions about which lands have the highest priority for acquisition in the very near future.

The Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program of the MDFW [Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife] recently completed the BioMap and Living Waters projects. The BioMap is a statewide map of the areas, called Core Habitats, which if protected will conserve viable populations of rare species and exemplary natural communities for the future. The Living Waters project also produced a statewide map, but the Core Habitats shown on this map are the actual waterbodies supporting rare aquatic species and aquatic natural communities. Areas buffering and draining these aquatic Core Habitats, called Critical Supporting Watersheds, are areas which are appropriate for protection, if undeveloped, or for implementation of Best Management Practices to improve run-off water quality, if already developed.

Together, the BioMap and Living Waters Core Habitats cover about one-quarter of Massachusetts. About 40% of these Core Habitats are already protected, but 60%, or some 710,000 acres, are not protected from development or other destructive actions. It will be almost impossible for all the conservation groups in Massachusetts, not just MDFW, to protect all of this land, plus those areas of Critical Supporting Watershed that are recommended for protection. In addition, the data used by the BioMap and Living Waters projects are now up to five years old and, in some cases, already out of date. Some areas of BioMap Core Habitat have already been developed and have thus been lost as conservation possibilities. Some species thought to be rare at the time of these projects have proved to be more common than thought and thus do not need the level of conservation attention directed at the truly rare species. As time goes on, our knowledge of the species in greatest need of conservation will change, as will the inventory of land available for protection. There should be an on-going process to analyze and prioritize land in the Commonwealth for conservation purposes. The steps below build on the BioMap and Living Waters project and outline this on-going process.

To make and implement this prioritization for land protection, the following elements are necessary:

1. Knowledge of what land is protected in the Commonwealth, by whom, and for what purpose. Massachusetts has a very good state GIS system, MassGIS, which constantly updates their data on protected open space, including ownership and purposes. However, due to understaffing, the MassGIS program is often six months to a year behind in adding new state-owned conservation lands to their database. It has no systematic way to update newly protected lands acquired by municipalities or private non-profits. Both of these issues should be addressed. Since development is one of the greatest threats to wildlife in Massachusetts, more up to date landuse maps are needed. Without an accurate and relatively up-to-date database of what is already protected, we cannot plan for future acquisitions effectively and efficiently.

2. Knowledge of the biological resources of the state, particularly of the species and habitats in greatest need of conservation. Our knowledge of the statewide distribution of these species and habitats is uneven. For some species (for example, Federally listed species and fish species in general), there have been recent or on-going statewide surveys of all suitable habitat and, thus, our knowledge of their distribution and abundance in the state is relatively complete. MDFW has a comprehensive database of fish distribution and abundance for the fish species listed as in Greatest Need of Conservation. On the other hand, some state-listed species (for example, some aquatic macroinvertebrates) are just now receiving the kind of survey effort that will clarify their distribution and abundance; thus, we do not yet have sufficient knowledge of even all of the state-listed species. For non-listed species in greatest need of conservation, whether globally rare, game animals, or associated with early successional habitats, our state of knowledge is particularly insufficient. Likewise, for some habitats of concern – coastal plain ponds, bogs – we have recent field surveys, targeted at the best examples as identified by aerial photo-interpretation. For other habitats – large, unfragmented natural landscape mosaics – we are just beginning to realize the need for conservation and, frankly, have a difficult time identifying these habitats on the ground. Marine and estuarine habitats have been under-surveyed in general; however, the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management has recently begun several initiatives aimed at mapping these habitats. Elsewhere in this Strategy, the details of these survey and inventory needs are covered; here it needs only be noted that this knowledge is absolutely essential for conservation of our biodiversity.

3. Knowledge of which species and habitats are already protected. As a consequence of completing the two elements above, it will be possible to clarify the level of protection afforded each of the species and habitats in greatest need of protection. Again, this analysis should be completed, not just for state-owned lands, but for all property owned and/or managed for conservation purposes across the Commonwealth. This element involves inventory and assessment of the biological resources supported in whole or in part by each parcel of protected land, to answer such questions as: What percentage of the occurrences of a SGNC [Species in Greatest Need of Conservation] species or habitat are on protected land? Which SGNC species or habitats are least well protected, currently?

4. Prioritization of protection efforts. This element involves making what can only be described as judgment calls. For example, all things being equal, what species should be targeted for immediate protection? It is easy to see that different conservationists might answer differently: protect all the occurrences of the very rare species first; or protect first the most viable populations of those species judged most likely to persist if properly conserved; protect first order streams, or protect wildlife corridors first; or protect large, contiguous landscapes of natural habitats first; or protect first what our human constituency at large wants protected – the glamorous and showy rare species, the beautiful landscapes, and their favorite hunting and fishing spots.

In reality, future conservation efforts will involve numerous organizations and individuals; the MDFW is only one of the partners in the cause. Each organization and each scientist or conservationist will have their own priorities for protection, dictated by organization policies, funding sources, and personal preferences. However, with the BioMap and Living Waters projects, many conservation entities in Massachusetts have proven themselves eager to base their protection efforts on biological data, interpreted by knowledgeable scientists, and disseminated to usable formats.

It is a major goal of this Strategy to develop a consistent and objective prioritization system for habitat protection, aimed at the identified species and habitats in greatest need of conservation, with the input of as broad a spectrum of knowledgeable biologists as is feasible.

5. Identification of land for protection, based on stated priorities. Once priorities for land protection are established, these priorities should be applied to the existing knowledge of the biological resources of the state, to identify precise areas for immediate protection efforts. A map of these areas will be developed, with information attached to each recommended area as to the particular conservation targets therein. It can be expected that, as a result of this step in the process, along with the preceding steps, gaps in our knowledge will be identified, which can then be filled in the next cycle of this whole process.

6. Dissemination of conservation priorities to conservation partners. Providing GIS or paper maps and supporting information to state, Federal, municipal, and private conservation groups is the first step in implementing proactive habitat protection. Beyond that, it is likely that a detailed examination of the map of areas to be protected will reveal which organizations are most suited to protect each area, because of proximity to land already protected, or the particular priorities of the organization, or some other such factor. A list of unprotected areas suitable for protection by each active conservation group should be compiled and distributed, wherever possible in whatever venue is appropriate. Meetings between MDFW staff and staff from these other groups are likely to be particularly fruitful. An agency database of contact/mailing information of all identified conservation partners needs to be developed to aid in mass postal and electronic communications. Currently, lists exist in various forms but not in any centrally organized fashion that is easily accessible.

7. Funding. Admirably, when informed of their land’s conservation value, many landowners choose to donate their property to a conservation group. Many conservationists choose to donate their time and skills to a land trust, for example, to help in the cause of land protection. Not surprisingly, land donations are not financially feasible for many landowners, and most land protection efforts cannot be accomplished by a purely volunteer work force. Funding for land protection in Massachusetts has decreased dramatically in recent years, especially at the state level. The tasks of everyone involved in this Strategy will be to inform others of the importance and immediate need for increased funding from all sources for land acquisition, to use available funding as efficiently as possible to accomplish protection priorities, and to identify and cooperate on funding sources beyond the usual. Re-activating the Massachusetts Teaming With Wildlife Coalition, a group formed for the purpose of providing information about federal legislation that would provide funding for unmet wildlife needs, could be one strategy for advocacy of wildlife funding initiatives on both the state and federal levels.

8. Updates of these protection priorities. In five to ten years time, the information on which this Conservation Strategy is based will be out of date. The very successful BioMap project was based on data through 2000; it is clear just five years later that, while most of the areas recommended for protection are still worthwhile, new data necessitate an update. Further, both BioMap and Living Waters were aimed at conserving state-listed rare species, in general, and many of the species included in this Strategy are not addressed specifically in either BioMap or Living Waters. Throughout the implementation of the seven steps above, gaps in data should be identified and addressed, progress towards protection priorities should be compiled, and conservation partners should be cultivated. This will inform the next round of setting priorities for proactive habitat protection."

1 comment :

cathy said...

Yay for federal approval. :)
I'm glad that ther are people like you fighting for all the buzzards, leeches, and dragonflies in MA. We need more protected land and wild spaces.

BTW, my new roommate works for the Fish & Wildlife office in Boston. Small world.