Christine Conn, Ph.D.
Landscape Conservation Planner for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources
Co-Chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Habitat Goal Implementation Team (HGIT)
When Christine Conn started working as a landscape conservation planner for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in 2000, the agency was just beginning to roll out its new Green Infrastructure program, outlining a “natural support system” of priority areas and connectors representing a sort of conservation blueprint for the agency.
“Having that resource available was very useful for me during those early years to demonstrate accountability and transparency for how state funding was being spent, and to be able to make and justify decisions based on solid science,” she said. “I saw how important that statewide interconnected vision was to help tie together the individual actions of different groups within our agency.”
The conservation universe is expanding
But as the years went by, Conn noticed that she was increasingly fielding certain kinds of questions from her constituents. Questions like: Will this action help protect a species that is rare on a larger scale? How are you taking into consideration what a good landscape will look like in changing climate? And, how does Maryland fit into the larger landscape?
“There has been a growing interest in scaling up in Maryland,” she said. “Whether you are a state program manager, a local government planner, or a watershed group, you want to see how your actions fit into the big picture.”
In 2015, Conn was given an opportunity to do just that by serving as co-chair of the Habitat Goal Implementation Team (HGIT) for the Chesapeake Bay Program, a regional partnership that has led and directed the restoration of the Bay since 1983. In less than a year, she says, “My conservation universe has expanded from Maryland to the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed.”
Down to the nitty-gritty
The Chesapeake Bay Program has a high-level habitat goal to restore, enhance, and protect a network of lands, waters, and associated benefits resulting from higher water quality, but it’s the job of the HGIT to drill down to the nitty-gritty: What needs to happen on the ground across the five watershed states to make that happen?
In her capacity as co-chair of the HGIT, with David Whitehurst from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Conn helps to coordinate and support six sub-teams that are working to answer that question as it relates to six priority resources that span the watershed’s ecological gradient: American black duck, Eastern brook trout, fish passage, wetlands, stream health, and submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV).
Each priority resource is linked to specific management objectives that incorporate a combination of spatial, temporal, and numeric attributes. For example, the goal for American black duck is to “restore, enhance, and preserve habitat that can support a population of 100 thousand by 2025.”
With those targets in mind, each workgroup focuses on setting and advancing incremental goals that reflect both the expertise and limitations within each of the five watershed states.
“What we are really trying to do is make sure individual actions to address these management outcomes at the state level will enable us to collectively leverage our money, time, and resources in a way that optimizes fish and wildlife diversity on a regional scale,” explained Conn.
“That’s where I see the Nature’s Network products being so important.”
From the perspective of the HGIT, Conn says the priorities identified in Nature’s Network lay out a region-wide conservation and restoration vision that offers context and inspiration for the work of the Chesapeake Bay Program. “It’s exciting for all of us to see where we fit into this vision.”
As a representative of the state of Maryland, she says the vision resonates because it directly reflects priorities set by state wildlife agencies. “That is a really important connection for us at the Bay Program because we work with so many local and state jurisdictions, and these products allow us to cross all of those scales,” she said. “If we can say, these are the same priorities that are outlined in your State Wildlife Action Plan, we make a stronger case for them.”
Aligning efforts to advance goals
Conn explained that each of the HGIT workgroups is developing two-year milestones detailing what can be accomplished in the short term to advance their long-term goals. Returning to the black duck example, the first management approach is to restore degraded wetlands in historic breeding grounds. “In order to make that happen, we need to develop a decision-support tool to evaluate current and future habitats, looking at the long-term resilience of areas that are already considered important. Since the Nature’s Network models already include that kind of forecasting, we can fine-tune the information based on other data products from our partners,” she said.
“So the data works its way down to help us identify exactly where we need to work to meet our goals.” By complementing the maps and data with local knowledge, the team can determine the most appropriate actions to take in those places. “More than just where to prioritize, it can help us figure out where we need to develop funding, or where to conduct outreach to communities,” she explained.
“The specific objectives for these resources are all very different, but when you start to look at addressing common management challenges in order to make the most of limited funding, and figuring out how partners can work together in the most important areas, you can see that Nature’s Network will be really important for helping us align our efforts.”
In the big picture, Conn said, “It will also be the recipe for conserving enough of the right kinds of habitat, in the right places, to support Chesapeake fish and wildlife, now and into the future.”