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OSI Grant Boosts Land Conservation in Fight to Protect Maine Coast from Sea Level Rise

Image Credit: Brett Cole

For communities located along the nearly 5,000 miles of Maine coastline, the threat of climate change is growing increasingly dire. With every passing year, rising sea levels provide new threats to the region’s distinctive ecosystems, including salt marshes and eelgrass beds – weakening their natural abilities to buffer communities from coastal storms and protect lives, homes, and businesses.

Rising to the challenge, the Open Space Institute (OSI) is administering an innovative initiative aimed at harnessing land protection to mitigate sea level rise and other climate threats across the eastern seaboard. Since 2012, OSI’s Climate Catalyst program has aided in the development of more than 60 climate-informed conservation plans and supported local land trust efforts to better prepare communities for increasingly destructive storms.

Now, with support from Jane’s Trust Foundation, OSI is expanding this effort to tackle the increasing threats of sea level rise in Coastal Maine.

Addressing Sea Level Rise Head-On

Along the New England coast, like other parts of the country, protected land — and its ability to absorb and slow rising waters — is a critical solution that protects lives, livelihoods, and habitat. And in a state that could experience sea levels rise by nearly nine feet by 2100, conserving land — and quickly — is becoming even more urgent.

To encourage coastal conservation, OSI supported the Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s efforts to pilot a new model for climate education: a “Coastal Resilience Master Class” to help participants hone strategies, develop insights, and reflect on new ways of carrying out day-to-day land protection work.

“In Maine, we had existing working groups and forums about sea level rise, but these conversations were mainly for state agencies and municipal policymakers,” says Jeremy Gabrielson, Senior Conservation Planner for the Trust. “There was a real need to get land trusts similarly involved.”

Dr. Beverly Johnson (Bates College) and staff from MCHT and Crabtree Neck Land Trust collect marsh core samples that will be used to help design a restoration project at Old Pond Preserve this summer. The property is owned by MCHT and was purchased as a priority for marsh migration.
Dr. Beverly Johnson (Bates College) and staff from MCHT and Crabtree Neck Land Trust collect marsh core samples that will be used to help design a restoration project at Old Pond Preserve this summer. The property is owned by MCHT and was purchased as a priority for marsh migration.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Maine Coast Heritage Trust

Recognizing that many land trusts in Maine were focused on coastal resilience, the Trust designed a “master class” to foster peer-to-peer learning.

“As we all deal with this emerging area of work, there is so much opportunity for us to learn from each other,” Gabrielson observes. “OSI’s support helped us deepen and broaden our knowledge and outreach on this topic considerably.”

Over multiple sessions held between 2019 and 2021, the master class brought together staff from seven coastal Maine land trusts to learn and network with experts from state agencies, academia, and environmental nonprofits.

The curriculum, documented in a case study produced by the Land Trust Alliance, covered topics such as integrating sea level rise data into conservation planning, identifying funding sources for coastal resilience projects, harnessing the potential for salt marshes to store and sequester carbon, and crafting effective climate communications.

New Insights Around Combatting Climate

One of the most profound takeaways from the course, Gabrielson reports, was an increased understanding of how tidal marsh restoration can further conservationists’ land protection work.

“As land trusts, we were used to the model of buying land and letting natural processes unfold, especially when it comes to wetlands,” Gabrielson states. “We’ve learned that with these impacted systems, it makes sense to play a more active role in restoring marshlands.”

Through engagement with experts like Susan Adamowicz, Salt Marsh Ecosystem Scientist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Dr. Beverly Johnson, Professor of Earth and Climate Sciences at Bates College, the participants learned that in many cases, Maine’s salt marshes have been highly impacted through a long legacy of agricultural alterations.

Farmers throughout the state largely stopped maintaining agricultural dikes and ditches in the early 20th century, but many of the structures remain, negatively impacting the health of the marsh and breeding habitat for species like the salt marsh sparrow. Left alone, these altered ecosystems would naturally re-vegetate in 40-60 years; but given the more immediate threat of sea level rise, the time to act is now.

With the help of Adamowicz and Johnson, Maine Coast Heritage Trust and Crabtree Neck Land Trust are undertaking a marsh restoration project this summer at the Old Pond Preserve in Hancock, Maine, re-establishing tidal channels and revegetating areas of open water with the goal of restoring habitat in two to five 5 years, and creating a model for similar conversation.

To further support the implementation of concepts covered in the master class, OSI invited participating land trusts to apply for small grants. In 2021, OSI awarded Kennebec Estuary Land Trust a planning grant to further the 12 Rivers Conservation Initiative — a collaboration of six land trusts working to accelerate conservation across a 44-town area in mid-coast Maine — building on previous mapping and analysis also completed with support from OSI, and the Land Trust Alliance.

“The Maine Coastal Resilience master class offered an exceptionally compelling model for meaningful climate action,” says Hallie Schwab, Conservation Planning Manager for OSI. “There is so much we can learn from each other about how land conservation and proactive planning can help take on the very real threats of climate change. The Open Space Institute is thrilled to play a role in connecting land trusts with each other and with leading experts working to protect communities now and in the long run.”

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