Director of Science, Wildlife Conservation Society Adirondack Program
It should come as no surprise that the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Adirondack Program was one of the primary science contributors for the development of Nature’s Network. WCS has been a global leader in conservation since its founding in 1895, and has long made use of regional science in its efforts to inform and achieve landscape-scale conservation goals in 16 focal areas around the world. The Adirondack Program was established in 1994 to foster an interdisciplinary approach to conservation focusing on long-term benefits for people and wildlife in one of the largest protected landscapes in the nation.
When the WCS Adirondack Program was invited to become a member of the North Atlantic LCC, a regional partnership that facilitated the Nature’s Network project, it seemed like a natural fit. An area of regional ecological significance with strong community identity, the Adirondack Park is a prime place to put regional datasets to work to meet local needs. As part of the North Atlantic LCC, WCS not only helped to identify key investments for addressing critical science needs in the region, it was an early adopter of the resulting science products.
Leading by example
With a Science Delivery grant from the North Atlantic LCC, the Adirondack Program developed a gallery for municipalities in New York State that provides free access to the best available information in the region on the regional value of locally occurring natural resources, including several datasets that are part of the Nature’s Network package: the Index of Ecological Integrity, Terrestrial Resilience, and Local Connectedness.
Just as with Nature’s Network, the goal of the gallery is to help communities see how they fit into the big landscape picture and learn how to act locally to support regional biodiversity.
But for Director of Science Michale Glennon, it was her early exploration of the Northeast Terrestrial Habitat Map, developed by The Nature Conservancy with support from the LCC in 2011, that provided the catalyst for joining the Nature’s Network team. “It is such a powerful tool for demonstrating the status of habitat conservation in the Northeast region,” she said. The mapped habitat types are drawn from the Northeastern Terrestrial Habitat Classification System, which also provides supporting data for components of Nature’s Network, such as the Index of Ecological Integrity.
Though not a data developer herself, Michale’s experience with GIS and remote sensing equipped her to serve as an advisor throughout the science development process. From offering expertise on questions related to land-use management and ecological integrity, to addressing the challenge of appropriately documenting information, to helping to disseminate the resources through workshops and trainings, she is an instrumental part of Nature’s Network.
On the ground, and on the books
Glennon has presented on potential applications for science from Nature’s Network to land trusts and municipalities in New York state, some of which are already using the information to understand the landscape value of their natural assets and act strategically to protect them, including through legislation. As a result of a stakeholder-driven process informed by WCS outreach, the Adirondack Park Agency Act has revised the application requirements for permits to build new subdivisions in the park in order to add more scientific rigor to the process.
“This is a big step forward for New York State,” said Director of the WCS Adirondack Program Zoe Smith. “The APA Act is over 40 years old. Leveraging Nature’s Network and other work from this partnership is providing an opportunity for the agency to apply modern science in its decision making for protecting one of the most connected and resilient landscapes in the northeast.”
The amendment stipulates that developments of a certain size and intensity be designed in accordance with an ecological preservation and forest stewardship plan “taking into account, but are not limited to” wildlife corridors, habitats, ecological resources, and large intact forest tracts, all of which can be identified using landscape scale datasets.
In the context of such a requirement, Glennon pointed out, “Nature’s Network could inform the process of conducting ecological site assessments in a consistent way.”
Better accounting of natural assets
Nature’s Network has also provided a decision-support tool to help land-use managers assess the ecological value of their lands more efficiently and effectively than they could do with limited in-house resources. Consider the Boreas Ponds tract, the last in a series of purchase by New York State from The Nature Conservancy totaling 69,000 acres, and the state’s largest land acquisition in more than 100 years.
Adding more than 20,000 acres to the constitutionally protected New York State Forest Preserve, the Boreas Ponds tract is a huge natural asset. But the land also represents a new management challenge; the Adirondack Park Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection need to understand the ecological characteristics of this landscape before they can determine allowable uses.
To inform the complex land-classification process, the WCS Adirondack Program conducted a scientific analysis of the Boreas Pond tract making extensive use of Nature’s Network datasets. Using the best available regional science, they were able to examine fine-scale ecological resources within the boundaries of the Boreas tract, and consider the parcel in the larger context of existing Forest Preserve lands in the Adirondacks.
The results indicate that the Boreas tract contains significant and important ecological characteristics worthy of consideration in future decisions on its classification and management. Among the findings was that the tract scores high in terms of its resilience to climate change impacts, and its importance to local and regional scale ecological connectivity.
The Boreas Ponds tract assessment served as an important demonstration of the ways in which newly available, high quality, regional-scale public datasets can inform important management decisions in the Adirondacks and beyond. The final report is available on the Adirondack Council website.