Project Manager, Chesapeake Conservancy
Beginning in 2013, the Chesapeake Conservancy initiated an exhaustive community engagement campaign to identify the biggest natural and cultural resource priorities in the Susquehanna River watershed, and the partners who have a stake in addressing them.
From members of a core team of advisors representing the National Park Service, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition for Environmental Studies, the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership, and the Wildlife Management Institute, to a cross-section of real people who live and work in the watershed, the Conservancy staff heard a consistent, sustained request for better, higher-resolution data, and easier to use tools.
Conservation science for the rest of us
And so in parallel to their effort to distill different conservation priorities into an overarching vision for the Susquehanna River watershed, the Conservancy focused on removing technological barriers that stood in the way of progress. They developed high-resolution land cover and stream channel data for the entire watershed, as well as the interactive Prioritization Tool for identifying conservation opportunities that is part of the Nature’s Network suite of products.
“Never before has this kind of data been available to local communities, and that’s what brought them into the conversation,” explains Dean.
“This information is helping them more easily answer questions that they have had for a long time,” she said, pointing out that they have already heard feedback about the utility of the Prioritization Tool for getting site-specific information for things like species distribution and ownership.
“We are at an exciting time where we are working with partners to figure out how to prioritize where dollars are spent, and we are starting to have project-scale data that helps us make those decisions,” Dean says. Supplying that kind of micro information is essential to engaging communities in what she calls “precision conservation” — the right practices, in the right places, at the right scale.
“Through precision conservation, we can see more impactful results,” she explains.
Common ground on overlapping priorities
The Conservancy led a pilot project in Centre County, Penn., involving five contiguous landowners who all use their lands for agriculture to varying degrees. “This portion of Elk Creek has the highest quality cold-water habitat designation for the watershed, and this is the only stretch that is considered impaired,” says Dean. “Although there aren’t brook trout in this section of the creek, they have been documented upstream and downstream, and we believe by improving this stretch we can bridge the gap between those populations.”
Three local landowners participated in a workshop led by the Conservancy and partners in January to understand individual priorities that can be included in the prioritization of restoration opportunities along concentrated flow paths on agricultural land. “They contributed their thoughts on what makes a priority a priority, and what information they would want to know in order to make a decision about conservation on their land,” says Dean.
With input from local stakeholders, the Conservancy prioritized 43,833 Restoration Opportunity Areas for improving water quality that had been identified in the focal areas of Clinton and Centre counties using 40 water quality and wildlife datasets assessed, including several that are part of Nature’s Network, such as Local Connectedness and Brook Trout Habitat Suitability.
“People are really interested in brook trout and the regional datasets have been helpful to communicate the potential to restore habitat for this species,” says Dean. “It has been exciting to present both parcel-specific and landscape-scale datasets and get feedback on how valuable the information is. Then, we work with local communities to figure out how to use information on wildlife and water quality to prioritize conservation at the project scale, and apply it to actions on the ground. ”
On the banks of Elk Creek
In 2017, the Conservancy helped raised funds for a riparian restoration project on one of the high priority parcels along Elk Creek, and in November, helped plant trees and shrubs at the site along with on-the-ground partners including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Habitat Forever, the Foundation for California University of Pennsylvania, Penn Valley Conservation Association, Seven Willows LLC, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation
But the work doesn’t end with implementation. “Once we have prioritized and planted the trees on the riverbank, we will engage our university partners to do the necessary monitoring to validate the effectiveness of these measures,” says Dean.
More than helping to grow Nature’s Network, they are helping to make it stronger.
Envision the Susquehanna: A Vision for the Susquehanna River Watershed