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For Regional Conservation Partnerships, Nature’s Network offers new perspective on familiar places

At the annual Regional Conservation Partnerships (RCPs) Gathering hosted by the Highstead Foundation in Nashua, N.H., practitioners had the opportunity to learn how thinking big can support local conservation during a session on Nature’s Network, in which panelists shared examples of how different partners working at multiple scales are using regional data to refine strategic conservation planning.
For Regional Conservation Partnerships, Nature’s Network offers new perspective on familiar places

Overlaying an RCP's conservation plan with Nature's Network can reveal places that might be worth a closer look.

Members of Regional Conservation Partnerships (RCPs) already understand that collaborating with others can lead to greater conservation outcomes. At the annual RCP Gathering hosted by the Highstead Foundation, they had the opportunity to learn how collaborating with partners in 13 states can help advance their work even more by providing landscape context about familiar places.

“How many of your RCPs already have strategic conservation plans?” asked Brian Hall, a GIS Analyst with Harvard Forest who co-led a session on Nature’s Network with Michale Glennon of the Wildlife Conservation Society Adirondack Program and Scott Schwenk of the North Atlantic LCC.

When most people in the room raised their hands, he followed up: “So how do you feel having about another dataset to look at?”

Although participants had questions about what exactly makes up Nature’s Network, nobody protested having access to more information that can help advance their work in conservation.  

“States, land trusts, and other organizations are already doing great work in conservation, but we all know that wildlife and natural processes aren’t confined to boundaries,” said Hall. “The idea behind Nature’s Network is to make information on habitats and species seamless across the entire Northeast region.”

In an overview presentation about the project, Schwenk explained that the idea was made a reality by a team of partners representing agencies and organizations in all 13 states who contributed information, expertise, and priorities to help develop a collaborative scientific approach for conserving and connecting intact habitats and supporting imperiled species.

The resulting conservation design offers a set of tools that practitioners working at any scale in the region can use to gain perspective on their work in conservation by asking new questions. Questions like:

What distinguishes our area from the rest of the region?

Where can we work locally to best support regional biodiversity?

Who should we collaborate with to enable wildlife connectivity beyond our borders?

How can we maximize our resources to have the greatest long-term impact?  

During the rest of the session, the team demonstrated how Nature’s Network can support local priorities by providing regional context.

Glennon shared example of land trusts and municipalities in New York state that are using data featured in Nature’s Network to understand the landscape value of their natural assets and to act strategically to protect them, including through legislation. She explained that her organization is currently facilitating a community process to reform the Adirondack Park Agency Act’s application for large subdivisions by adding a requirement for conservation design.

The amendment stipulates that developments of a certain size and intensity be designed in accordance with an ecological preservation and forest stewardship plan “taking into account, but not limited to” wildlife corridors, habitats, ecological resources, and large intact forest tracts, all of which can be identified using landscape scale datasets.

In the context of such a requirement, Glennon pointed out, “Nature’s Network could inform the process of conducting ecological site assessments in a consistent way.”

For his part, Hall shared potential uses for the data that relate to the hats he wears outside of Harvard Forest. He serves on the Open Space & Recreation Committee for the town of Athol, Mass., and is a member of the North Quabbin RCP.

Like many of the other RCPs represented at the session, the North Quabbin RCP already has a strategic conservation plan. But by overlaying their existing plan with data from Nature’s Network, Hall revealed something new. “We see that most of the Nature’s Network priorities are already protected or align with the North Quabbin’s priorities, but the green and purple indicate areas that show up as important in Nature’s Network but were not part of our plan,” he said, indicating a map on the screen.

Mary Ellen Lemay
Mary Ellen Lemay, Steering Committee Member for the Fairfield Country RCP, said she left the session on Nature's Network with a gift -- a map highlighting potential priority areas that can help make the case for creating a regional land trust in this part of Connecticut.

In addition to an example application from his region, Hall shared one for the Fairfield County RCP in Connecticut. Nature’s Network revealed an archipelago of small areas of regional importance that were not captured in that RCP’s conservation plan.  

“These are examples of small gems,” said Hall, “What’s great is that they give people in the surrounding areas a larger role to play in conservation.”

Fairfield County RCP Steering Committee member Mary Ellen Lemay confirmed the value of the areas identified by Nature’s Network. “Those dots are along the Pequonnock River riparian area,” she said, explaining that the Connecticut Department of Transportation is developing a recreational trail connecting the towns in the river valley. “Looking at this, I can see wildlife are probably using the trail too.”

Although Lemay supplied Hall with the data for the exercise, she was seeing the results of his analysis for the first time at the workshop. “It’s so great for me to see this data,” she said, explaining, “I am working on putting together a narrative about why we need to create a regional land trust, and I am especially interested in the need to connect riparian areas in this part of our jurisdiction.”

Now Lemay has an illustration to accompany her narrative. “I came away with a gift,” she said.

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