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Using data to coordinate Connecticut River conservation

Team develops network of ecologically high priority areas in the Connecticut River watershed

  • Kim Lutz, director of the Connecticut River Program with the Nature Conservancy, poses for a portrait Saturday along the river at the Elwell Recreation Area boat dock in Northampton. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Kim Lutz, director of the Connecticut River Program with the Nature Conservancy, poses for a portrait Saturday along the Norwottuck Rail Trail at Elwell Recreation Area in Northampton. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Kim Lutz, director of the Connecticut River Program with the Nature Conservancy, poses for a portrait Saturday along the river at the Elwell Recreation Area boat dock in Northampton. DAN LITTLE

  • Kim Lutz, director of the Connecticut River Program with the Nature Conservancy, poses for a portrait Saturday along the Norwottuck Rail Trail at Elwell Recreation Area in Northampton. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Maritza Mallek, of the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, right, looks over information with Tracy Copeland, senior fishery biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, about streams where brook trout are likely to be found, and where poor-functioning culverts may inhibit fish passage Friday at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services building in Hadley. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Maritza Mallek, of the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, right, looks over information with Tracy Copeland, senior fishery biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, about streams where brook trout are likely to be found, and where poor-functioning culverts may inhibit fish passage Friday at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services building in Hadley. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Andrew Milliken, from left, Scott Schwenk, and Nancy McGarigal, pose for a portrait Friday at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services building in Hadley. Milliken is coordinator for the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, Schwenkis the science coordinator for the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, and McGarigal is the natural resource planner for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region, Refuge System. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Nancy McGarigal, from left, Andrew Milliken, and Scott Schwenk, pose for a portrait Friday at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services building in Hadley. Milliken is coordinator for the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, Schwenkis the science coordinator for the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, and McGarigal is the natural resource planner for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region, Refuge System. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Nancy McGarigal, from left, Andrew Milliken, and Scott Schwenk, pose for a portrait Friday at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services building in Hadley. Milliken is coordinator for the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, Schwenkis the science coordinator for the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, and McGarigal is the natural resource planner for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region, Refuge System. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • This wood thrush is among the rerpesentative species studied in developing the “Connect the Connecticut” conservation plan. COURTESY U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

  • This box tortoise is among the rerpesentative species studied in developing the “Connect the Connecticut” conservation plan. COURTESY U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

  • This Eastern brook trout is among the representative species studied in developing the “Connect the Connecticut” conservation plan. COURTESY U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

  • A team of more than 30 partners spent more than a year producing a conservation plan for the Connecticut River watershed which covers 11,250 square miles in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut. COURTESY U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE



For the Gazette
Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Connecticut River watershed is a vast and diverse landscape covering 11,250 square miles in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut.

In a region this size, effectively conserving biodiversity and protecting natural resources is a complicated task, but a new conservation design called "Connect the Connecticut" provides a strategic, large-scale road map to bolster the sustainability and resilience of the region into the future.

Created by a diverse team of environmental professionals, led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, “Connect the Connecticut” outlines a network of ecologically high priority areas in the Connecticut River watershed.

This landscape conservation design brings together a trove of innovative and overlapping tools including detailed maps, geospatial data, biological, ecological and climatological information, as well as computer modeling, to help protect and sustain wildlife, habitats, ecosystems and environmental processes across the watershed.

William Labich, a senior conservationist with the Connecticut-based Highstead Foundation, described “Connect the Connecticut”  as “seamless, wonderful science-based data sets that most land trusts don’t have access to.”

Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge manager Andrew French said that this newly available information will help the refuge in pinpointing the most important regions for conservation and help in developing plans for those areas.

“When we developed our Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the refuge, we relied on first-hand experience and individual expert advise to determine how and where to delineate over 22 important conservation focus areas in the watershed,” French said “If the ‘Connect the Connecticut’ was available five years ago, it would have saved us a tremendous amount of time. Using these tools now will be very helpful for us as we move forward with our land acquisition plans.”

The partnership of 30 state and federal agencies, academic institutions, and non-governmental organizations worked together for over a year putting together this unique design, made specifically for the watershed.

"It is very rare for state and federal agencies to collaborate across four different states," said William Labich, a senior conservationist with the Connecticut-based Highstead Foundation. "It was amazing, and the chance to participate was very compelling."

Kim Lutz, director of the Connecticut River Program with the Nature Conservancy in Northampton, said that bringing many people to the table with varied backgrounds and experience played a key role in creating a workable design.

"Fish and Wildlife was really committed to engaging all kinds of stakeholders in the process," Lutz said. "They didn't want it to be a tool that just sits on the shelf."

Nancy McGarigal, a natural resource planner with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley, noted that many of the participants are also members of the Friends of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, a coalition of organizations cooperating to provide support for the refuge, which comprises 36,000 acres within watershed.

"We were very fortunate to start out with the partnerships in the friends of Conte,” McGarigal said. “They have a great community that was already well established." 

Two goals

“Connect the Connecticut” has two primary goals –to sustain a diverse selection of intact, connected, and resilient ecosystems that provide important ecological services such as clean water, flood protection, and lands for farming, forestry, and recreation; and to maintain healthy and diverse populations of fish, wildlife, and plant species.

Focusing on ecologically important, intact and connected areas in the watershed, is the most effective long-term approach for sustaining fish, wildlife, ecosystems, and natural resources across the area over time. Sustaining these large robust areas will give fish, wildlife and the natural landscape a better opportunity to adapt to the effects of environmental change, allowing them to be more resilient against the pressures of land development and climate change.

"We are not saying in any way that these are the only places that need conservation, we are just saying that these are the best of the best, " McGarigal said.

"These are the places that we cannot afford to lose," added David T. Eisenhauer, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley.

To identify these networks of high priority areas, the team used unique terrestrial, aquatic, multi-species, and climate models developed by the Designing Sustainable Landscapes project through the Landscape Ecology Lab at the University of Massachusetts, as well as regional scientific research and data from the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Geological Survey.

"We now have the science to help us do this for the first time," Eisenhauer said. "Easily in twenty years this is not going to be an unusual way of doing business, but being able to pull this together and look at it on a regional scale, is a new thing."

Kevin McGarigal is the director of the UMass Landscape Ecology Lab, and the husband of Nancy McGarigal.

"We were the technical lead on the ‘Connect the Connecticut’ project," McGarigal said.

“Connect the Connecticut” was originally a pilot program for a much larger landscape conservation design which is now being created by the Designing Sustainable Landscapes project for the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative. 

"That information is now available for us to use at a scale of the New England region," Andrew Milliken, coordinator of the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative said. "We are now developing tools to predict how development and climate will change the landscape."

The North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative "provides a partnership in which the private, state, tribal and federal conservation community works together to address increasing land-use pressures and widespread resource threats and uncertainties amplified by a rapidly changing climate."

The "products" or tools produced by the “Connect the Connecticut” partnership can be viewed at connecttheconnecticut.org. Individuals, communities and environmental groups, organizations and agencies are invited to make informed decisions about conservation, planning, and development in the watershed. 

"We are very excited about the products. They dovetail very nicely with the work being done at the Conte Refuge," Nancy McGarigal said.

Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut, said that having the information provided by the plan can be used to help make decisions about funding requests.

"When someone has applied for funding, this information helps to evaluate whether or not they have a good project," Comins said.

"We are also hoping that this can spark proactive activity. Local land trusts and conservation organizations can look around  and analyze unprotected parcels and talk to owners about their value," he said.

Visitors to the “Connect the Connecticut” website can view the terrestrial and aquatic core area networks. People can examine factors such as the ability of plants and animals to move or disperse through a specific location; the impacts of road passages, culvert upgrades and dam removals; and the likely effects of development, climate change and sea level rise on particular ecosystems by the year 2080.

They will also be able to explore the relative habitat quality for 14 different species - each considered a representative for a larger group of species with similar ecological needs and uses throughout the watershed.

These species are American woodcock, black bear, Blackburnian warbler, Blackpoll warbler, Eastern meadowlark, Louisiana waterthrush, marsh wren, moose, Northern waterthrush, prairie warbler, ruffed grouse, wood duck, wood thrush and wood turtle.

Lutz said that the Friends of Conte will be involved in publicizing the design, doing trainings on using the products, and trying the products themselves to see how they link up to existing priorities.

"We have created the blueprint, now we have to start building the neighborhood," Eisenhauer said.

Fran Ryan can be reached at Fryan.gazette@gmail.com.