Editorial: Data can aid conservation efforts

  • The Connecticut River flows under the French King Bridge.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

With self-driving cars not far down the road, it’s no surprise that mapping software and big sets of data influence life today. The digital revolution puts knowledge at our fingertips.

One interesting example is the approach environmental planners and conservationists are taking to a treasured New England resource: the Connecticut River watershed.

For years, work to protect natural places and species across the 7.2 million-acre watershed has been a bit like the story of the blind men and the elephant. While researchers had their hands in the same big river, they were shaping their own conclusions. For that reason, findings in far-flung corners of these 11,250 square miles didn’t always connect.

Today, those working to protect the environment of the Connecticut River have a new way of getting on the same page, thanks to the “Connect the Connecticut” project. The effort, and its website of the same name, makes sets of data available to all.

It’s such a breakthrough that science nerds, particularly map-lovers, may want to sit down.

Like any useful tool, it isn’t about the technology itself, it’s what it can accomplish.

The Connect the Connecticut project, led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, arrives at an important time. It will allow more than 30 institutional partners to get a read on the threat that climate change poses to key natural resources in the watershed, of which the Pioneer Valley is fully a part.

Andrew French, who works out of Hadley as manager of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, notes that five years ago, when he and others set out to identify nearly two dozen natural places most worthy of protection, their work had to rely largely on individual expertise. Today, the same effort would be able to tap into sophisticated shared computer modeling that pulls in all sorts of relevant data to protect wildlife, habitats and ecosystems.

As is the case with science, the best answers are usually the ones that incorporate the most evidence. By going to a common base of data, people charged with protecting natural resources in four states can more readily work together — from schools like the University of Massachusetts Amherst to state and federal governments and to private organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Audubon Connecticut. It’s been hard for wildlife officials in Connecticut to collaborate with peers in New Hampshire. This system makes that easier.

While the technology has evolved, a key goal remains: pinpointing the places most in need of conservation and protection, particularly at a time when a changing climate is expected to put pressure on biodiversity. David T. Eisenhauer, a public affairs officer with Fish and Wildlife, calls these “the places that we cannot afford to lose.”

“The best of the best,” says Nancy McGarigal, a natural resource planner with the federal agency.

That’s a big win for scientists, but this resource isn’t just for researchers.

Ordinary citizens interested in environmental protection can visit connecttheconnecticut.org to learn more. Those who want to dive in can download large data sets and use them to pursue interests, just as the partner agencies are doing. A “Data & Tools” tab brings up a variety of maps. Often, online resources like this can be dense, but this site provides a smart tutorial on moving around in the map. We tested one that depicts rivers, lakes and ponds and used it to visit an editor’s rural home address. By adjusting map layers, users can fetch up piles of information on minute places around the valley.

Kim Lutz, director of the Connecticut River Program for the Nature Conservancy, says the team that created Connect the Connecticut wanted to get everyone interested in the river’s well-being involved — and using the data sets. “They didn’t want it to be a tool that just sits on the shelf.”

One person involved says the science that underlies Connect the Connecticut will seem commonplace in 20 years but is rare today.

In the commercial world, maps like these will be critical to driverless cars. If all goes well with that, riders won’t find themselves dunked into brooks and streams that feed the Connecticut.

People will appreciate that, and the salamanders will too.