North Atlantic Coordinator, Atlantic Coast Joint Venture
After working on the frontlines of bird conservation in the most densely populated region of the country for almost three decades, the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture recently found itself on the edge of uncharted terrain. In 2016, the partnership decided that moving forward, it would focus its collective habitat conservation efforts on tidal marsh, and particularly on three species that are directly threatened by sea-level rise from climate change: Saltmarsh Sparrow, Black Rail, and American Black Duck.
Led by its management board with representatives from 17 state agencies, several federal agencies, and non-governmental organizations, the Joint Venture partnership includes an extensive network of dedicated practitioners from Maine to Florida. While the Joint Venture will continue to support efforts related to other species — such as shorebirds, waterfowl, and songbirds — increasing its focus on a small set of species will offer a way for the partnership to harness the strength of its network to act more strategically on the ground to recover species that look to be on a path to extinction.
As part of its new focus, the ACJV is leading efforts to develop an Eastern Tidal Marsh Business Plan, with specific strategies to conserve a set of highest-priority saltmarsh birds. One challenge is understanding which steps to take first. “We want to be able to tell our partners: Here is where we need to work and what we need to do to make the most impact,” said Hartley.
To that end, Hartley sees an incredible opportunity in Nature’s Network. “This is a really powerful platform for us to get the models we are developing to prioritize places to work out to a broad set of users,” he said. “It is simple and easy to use, and allows our partners to explore the data by viewing or removing different data layers to understand what is influencing or driving the models. It allows them to zoom in to a specific project area to see where high priority areas are, and others that may be near them.”
Marsh today, gone tomorrow
Since the three focal species selected by the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture all depend on salt marshes along the eastern United States, they offer targets for the partnership as it ramps up efforts to coordinate the conservation of this habitat along the Atlantic Flyway. But conserving saltmarsh in the context of climate change requires a change of perspective.
“This is not a habitat where the overarching conservation need is going to be to buy more,” said Hartley. Partly because much of it is already protected, partly because it is difficult to develop anyway due to regulatory statutes, and partly because what’s marsh today may not be marsh in future decades. The key to sustaining saltmarsh habitat in the face of encroachment from sea-level rise is giving it room to grow. “So the concept of protection, applied to saltmarsh habitat, is quite different from a lot of what we’ve done in the past”
As it turns out, one of the biggest predictors of bird community composition in a saltmarsh is the amount of development surrounding the marsh. “In the short term, development is an important factor for determining habitat quality, but in the long term, it will be important factor for determining the ability of a marsh to migrate,” he said. That’s because the “buffer zone” around marshes is also the most likely place for saltmarshes to expand into, as sea-level rises.
More than just looking at what is neighboring the marsh, partners will need to figure out how to work with its neighbors. As Hartley pointed out, “Flooding people’s yards does not make for good habitat.” Nor does it make for dry basements.
That means private landowners have an important role to play in the future of salt marshes. Fortunately, engaging this audience is the speciality of one of the Joint Venture’s major partners: The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). But while NRCS has a variety of grant programs designed to support conservation on private land, it relies on other agencies and partnerships to develop sophisticated scientific models to determine which projects offer the greatest conservation impact.
Driving money to priorities
Nature’s Network provides both a tool to help identify priority areas across the entire northeastern portion of the Joint Venture, and a forum to help foster collaboration with specific partnerships in the region. This summer, Hartley and Directorate Fellow Program Intern Melissa Althouse used information from Nature’s Network as part of a project to identify key areas of salt marsh habitat with parcels that may be eligible for NRCS conservation programs.
Among the datasets used in the analysis was the Marsh Migration product, which shows potential corridors for marsh migration at various sea-level rise scenarios for the Northeast region. That product has now been updated with results from The Nature Conservancy’s Resilient Coastal Sites study, which identifies thousands of coastal marshes with the potential to migrate inland, and in doing so, could offset more than 50 percent of the total predicted tidal habitat loss from sea-level rise in the Northeast region.
The final report was very much a preliminary product, more of a conceptual model than anything else. So when they showed the results to NRCS to get their input on the approach, Hartley was surprised by the response. “They said: This is great! They wanted to know if they could start to organize contracts based on this information.”
While Hartley explained that they still need to refine their conceptual model with expert input, NRCS is already on board and enthusiastic about using the tool when it is available. By the time of the next round of sign ups for NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program next spring, the Joint Venture hopes to have a prioritization tool ready to go.
While the Joint Venture is seen as a trusted source in the bird conservation world, Hartley knows well the importance of accountability in an age of proliferating information. “What I love about the Nature’s Network platform is that it lets people break models down into component layers, and look at them one at time to see how things compare,” he said.
“Everyone knows these kinds of modeling tools will change over time, but this approach lets us use peer-reviewed common sense criteria to come up with variables that indicate which areas we think are more important based on the best available science, and to some extent, why.”
For groups who really need science-based guidance to evaluate projects, he said, “There is potential for this to be used right away. This could really help drive money to areas where it is most needed.”