New catalyst grants for resilient landscapes

NEW YORK, NY  — Fueled by Resilient Landscape Catalyst Grants, New England conservation organizations are spreading the word about the protection of climate-resilient habitat—a potential game-changer as scientists and conservationists seek to protect the lands best suited for long-term adaptation to changes in climate.

These “natural strongholds”—have demonstrated their ability over time to recover from natural disturbances such as tornadoes, hurricanes or drought. The Nature Conservancy scientists have studied these places for more than a decade, and now believe that by connecting and conserving natural strongholds, land trusts can help wildlife and ultimately humans withstand the effects of climate change.

Using TNC’s scientific data as its basis and with the generous support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, OSI launched its Resilient Landscapes Initiative to direct $5.5 million in capital grants to these “resilient” places. OSI’s initiative targets landscapes that, due to the connected forests and broad range of features—slopes, valleys, ravines, caves and lowlands, for example—exhibit diverse microclimates that will assist with climate-resilient qualities.

Catalyst grant recipient organizations will be positioned as thought leaders, whose outreach and application of the science can further accelerate conservation of resilient sites.

“While direct land acquisition is an important piece of this effort, we can only affect a very small portion of the unprotected resilient lands in the Northeast with that tool,” said Peter Howell, OSI’s executive vice president. “Through our education and outreach initiative, we can aim to integrate this science into a land trust or even a state agency’s conservation priorities, creating impact at a much greater scale.”

Massachusetts Audubon Society (Mass Audubon) and New Hampshire-based Bear-Paw Regional Greenways, Highstead and the North Quabbin Regional Conservation Partnership, New Jersey Conservation Foundation all received grants in 2013. In 2014 OSI provided additional support to Mass Audubon and Highstead to build on existing work and initiated new grants to Appalachian Mountain Club and a partnership between the State of Maine and a local conservation collaboration.

In Massachusetts, a densely populated state of 6 million people, the realization—first published in Mass Audubon’s well-received Losing Ground report—that 40 acres were being lost every day to development led state leaders to institute high levels of conservation funding. With those all-important dollars in place, land trusts and state agencies in Massachusetts have protected 130,000 acres in the last six years, bolstering the sixth-largest state park system in the U.S.

Seizing that momentum, Mass Audubon updated Losing Ground and identified 1,600 acres of critical resilient habitat largely in the eastern portion of the state where there isn’t much resilient lands remaining. With OSI’s funding and assistance from the Massachusetts chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the organization will be able to combine resiliency data with its own on-the-ground analysis to pinpoint priority conservation lands—saving the state and its 150 active land trusts—the time and cost of performing such an analysis independently.

“This will have tremendous importance going forward,” said Bob Wilber, Mass Audubon’s director of land conservation. “One of the many benefits is that conservation groups can focus on the land that’s going to be most responsive to climate change, particularly from a staff and resource capacity perspective.”

Because of the excellent reception earned by previous editions of Losing Ground, Mass Audubon’s research stands to significantly increase the visibility of this up and coming science.

Losing Ground will be a platform where we can really teach people about resilient landscapes, and build (their protection) where it needs building,” said Jeff Collins, the director of ecological management at Mass Audubon. “The timing is perfect, it really is.”

Elsewhere in New England, Bear-Paw Regional Greenways used an OSI grant to revise its conservation blueprint to focus on resilient lands in the southern New Hampshire region. State leaders, already engaged with an active conservation community in New Hampshire, have also expressed interest in learning how Bear-Paw uses the resiliency data as they update their own State Wildlife Action Plan.

“The environment for conservation in New Hampshire is really strong,” said Emily Preston, a wildlife biologist in the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department’s Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program. “We have a lot of great land trusts that are doing very thoughtful work. Now, as we revise our wildlife action plan maps, we want to include climate resiliency into it, so it will be much more integrated.”

The 214,000-acre Bear-Paw region is a unique hotbed for biodiversity, yet much of it is at risk. Population growth and development threaten to fragment and degrade essential habitats. Water, in particular, is vulnerable to pollution, altered sediment flow and other cumulative impacts associated with development.

Bear-Paw’s project will incorporate resiliency data to identify the areas with an above-average ability to maintain ecological functions and a diversity of native species, even as the species composition changes in response to climate. Using that lens may help ensure that the properties protected today will still be valuable conservation areas 100 years from now.

“Our region includes a lot of priority areas that are already highlighted in the New Hampshire wildlife action plan, and we hope that our natural resource mapping project will help build the case for the importance of protecting land here,” said Daniel Kern, Bear-Paw’s executive director.

With half a dozen acquisition projects on tap and an educational grant program complementing those efforts, OSI’s Resiliency Fund is ahead of the curve in preserving wildlife habitat that will endure through changes in climate.

“Ensuring that species can move across the landscape is key to the long-term health of our ecosystem, even as the composition of species changes due to climate change,” Preston said. “Climate resiliency data is helping inform where to protect habitat to allow for that movement.”

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