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Conservation in a Changing World
Peter Howell — Executive Vice President Conservation Capital Programs, Open Space Institute

Climate change poses vexing challenges for the land trust community. Chief among them is the issue of permanence. Land trusts like the Open Space Institute are primarily focused on permanent protection, through the purchase of land and easements. But given climate change, which lands should we protect? And how can we be assured that the lands we protect today will harbor or attract biodiversity tomorrow? How can we deliver on this larger concept of permanence?

...how can we be assured that the lands we protect today will harbor or attract biodiversity tomorrow?Of course, not every land trust is focused on conserving biodiversity. Many trusts protect lands for recreation, their aesthetic value, or for water quality and quantity. But as the climate warms, there is increasing pressure on land trusts to demonstrate that their work is relevant to climate adaptation-of both wildlife and humans—and thus is addressing the major issue of our time.

The good news is that advances in science are illustrating the important role for land protection in facilitating wildlife adaptation to climate change. With support from various foundations and the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast Landscape Conservation Cooperative,my organization is wrestling with understanding and translating a range of cutting edge climate science that can help land trusts determine which are the most important places to protect and why.

There is no shortage of information available about climate change. Various organizations, including The Nature Conservancy and the National Wildlife Federation, have released helpful guides on how to understand and facilitate climate-smart climate adaptation. It’s the subject of many sessions at land trust gatherings, and few land trust practitioners can afford to ignore the evolving science about climate change.

New research on terrestrial resilience developed by The Nature Conservancy is helping to identify places where natural communities will thrive well into the future. The idea is to protect those places most likely to harbor a wide variety of natural communities even though the composition and location of those communities will most likely change in ways we cannot predict. In a nutshell, resilience boils down to three things: complexity, connectedness, and geology. The more “complex” a landscape—the more slopes, valleys, cliffs it has—the more species can adapt when change occurs. The more “connected” a landscape—the fewer the roads, buildings, etc.—the more species can move around and access these complex features. Geology plays a critical role, as different geologies and soils support different kinds of plants and animals. Protecting a range of geology types is critical to maintaining the full suite of biodiversity. Indeed, as a community, we have protected a lot of mountain peaks and coastal landscapes.We now need to do a better job of protecting, for example, lower level mountains, limestone valleys, and silt flood plains that could be crucial to facilitating wildlife adaptation to climate change.

With funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Open Space Institute is testing the application of this science by providing capital grants to land trusts to protect resilient landscapes in four focus areas of the east, and providing smaller grants to incorporate the science into conservation plans and guide public and private funders. It’s a grand experiment that both requires a new way of thinking about “place” and very practical ground-truthing to make sure the science makes sense.

This approach—focusing on the enduring features of the land— provides a complement to the more species-based approach that underlies traditional vulnerability assessments. The latter are used frequently to identify how changes in temperature and precipitation are likely to affect the distribution of species across the landscapes. While predicting such changes can be problematic and the focus on species movements may obscure what’s enduring about certain places, such assessments are an important piece of the puzzle.With the support of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, we’re hoping to utilize these and other science and data to provide decision-makers with the information they need to make better choices about conservation on the ground.

In the end, to paraphrase hockey great Wayne Gretzky’s comment about skating and the puck, we will measure our success by whether we can help land trusts to protect the lands where biodiversity will be, not just where it has been.
 
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