On March 29, the Appalachian LCC Executive Committee met at the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia to thank the dedicated service and valuable leadership of our outgoing Chair and Vice Chair. Each were given a crystal plaque with a beautiful Appalachian scene in the background. For David, a stream to commemorate his background in fisheries, and Paul a mountainous landscape of West Virginia. Etched into the crystal were the words “with gratitude for exemplary leadership and support of the Appalachian Landscape Conservation Cooperative.” Each then shared a few words about the critical role the LCC is playing in moving landscape conservation forward in the Appalachians and stressed the wonderful experience they had working with such dedicated and passionate individuals in the conservation community through the LCC.
The meeting also provided the Executive Committee an opportunity to discuss future research direction of LCC funding, the development of engagement committees to address key issues, and identifying additional focal areas and networks to focus LCC capacity in strengthening conservation planning. Representatives from state natural resource agencies of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and National Park Service were in attendance. Overall, the meeting helped to tee up presentations and the direction of discussions to take place at the full Appalachian LCC Steering Committee meeting at NCTC from June 5-6.
The events demonstrated the need behind working at a landscape scale to better plan and manage for the conservation of essential natural and cultural resources. More specifically, it showcased Appalachian LCC derived tools and resources that can enhance collaboration between federal, state, and local entities and aid conservation planning efforts that transcend state lines. A total of 67 people representing 26 organizations participated in these two events.
Each event was tailored to participants based on their feedback obtained prior to the meeting. The meetings included presentations, hands on case scenarios, facilitated discussions and break-out sessions. Drs. Paul Leonard and Daniel Hanks of Clemson University were present at the Crossville event to present and discuss the science behind the Appalachian LCC Integrated Landscape Conservation Design (Phase II LCD) effort. Participants walked through case scenarios of how Phase II of the LCD can be used in their conservation planning efforts at the local and regional level and had the opportunity to individually work with the recently developed online tool of the LCD.
Staff are presently receiving evaluations from participants that will help enhance future Appalachian LCC workshops across the region. If interested in collaborating with the LCC to organize similar workshops in your area, contact Communications Coordinator Matthew Cimitile, email@example.com.
These videos from partners showcase the conservation work taking place in the region and provides a means of engaging the broader public on the many values of nature the River Basin provides to communities.
The inventory was identified at the annual Tennessee River Basin Network meeting as a valuable resource to develop. Partners then submitted their existing films pertaining to aquatic biodiversity, conservation challenges, and projects improving the environment and quality of life around the Basin. These short videos range from projects improving conditions for Eastern brook trout and hellbenders to challenges presented by droughts and increasing demand for freshwater. They are found on the Network’s website, housed within the Appalachian LCC Web Portal.
The roundtable brought together a variety of experts with diverse viewpoints and experiences from across multiple disciplines focused on emerging risks and measured responses. Jean took part in a roundtable discussion on “Building Adaptive Capacity into Conservation and Natural Resource Management Plans.” She highlighted the work of the Appalachian LCC Landscape Conservation Design as a new model; one working with partners to deliver actionable science to resource managers based on predictive modeling and tools, and delivering these through conservation networks to enhance capacity for on-the-ground conservation.
The LCC has focused on a set of emerging risks (energy development, water control and stress, urban expansion) and is promoting a Landscape Conservation Design as the framework to deliver or enable appropriate measured responses. The Design is a series of maps or data layers that illustrate the location of key focal landscapes and priority resources that can inform public land managers and private landowners about the quality, quantity, and location of habitat needed to protect biodiversity. In developing the Design, the LCC worked with non-traditional sources of information (such as recreational cavers for mapping cave and karst needs) and identified research gaps (for example reliance on soil moisture data was driven by what was available at the right scale and resolution; had to develop own stream classification system).
Jean stressed at the roundtable that “A core part of any research focused on decision-making and societal responses has to make sure those science-based responses are implemented. We must recognize that responses are local, but landscape-level collaboration is required if we are to achieve conservation in the 21st Century to secure healthy and resilient landscapes across the region.”
The Cooperative is proud and excited to announce that our new Facebook page has officially gone live, allowing partners and followers an opportunity to engage and be a part of the conversation about landscape conservation in the Appalachians.
For our Facebook page, we will focus on our partner’s achievements that are helping to protect valued resources and biological diversity of the Appalachians and sustain the benefits of healthy and resilient ecosystems to human communities. We will spotlight science delivery workshops and collaboration activities of LCC staff and partners that are bringing conservation scientists and managers from various organizations and institutions together to identify shared areas of interest, develop tools and products necessary for action, and help coordinate conservation planning. Finally, the Appalachians consist of beautiful landscapes and unique wildlife and we will be sure to highlight as many of them as possible.
Come find us at https://www.facebook.com/applcc/ or just search AppLCC on Facebook and join the community today. And feel free to join the conversation; we want to hear from you as much as we want you to hear from us.
Marilyn is a Fish and Wildlife Biologist/GIS Specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a joint position with the Appalachian LCC and the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program stationed in Gloucester, Virginia. She serves as the GIS Analyst/Data Manager for the Appalachian LCC interpreting the technical needs of the cooperative, providing mapping tools and training for the partnership, and working towards the expansion of LCC work to identify and support focal landscapes and conservation networks as part of a collaborative effort with the Partners Program and the Virginia Field Office's listed species recovery efforts. In her role as a Partners biologist, she provides technical and financial assistance for wildlife habitat restoration and improvement projects throughout Virginia, as well as GIS and website support for the Virginia Field Office.
Before joining the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2002, Marilyn interned for the Red Wolf Recovery Program at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. In December 2002, she joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's South Florida Ecological Services Office in Vero Beach, Florida, and served as an endangered species biologist working primarily on the recovery of bats, reptiles, and plants.
David is the Deputy Regional Director of the Mid-Continent Region at OSMRE and was a key member of our community, participating in many of our Steering Committee meetings, providing feedback on technical oversight teams that made deliverables from our funded research projects that much better, and overall gave great guidance that informed LCC decision making and trajectory.
Dave had this to say about the LCC: “I thoroughly enjoyed discussions and the science. The Appalachian LCC has successfully developed several outstanding products and made considerable progress achieving many of its mission goals. I am very glad to be a part of it.”
Thanks Dave for everything and enjoy a much-deserved retirement.
Dave will be replaced on the Steering Committee by Lois Uranowski, Division Chief of Technical Support for Mid-Continent Region of OSMRE.
Next month, the GCPO LCC will hold its annual spring Steering Committee retreat in Panama City, FL, May 17-18, 2017. This will be our LCC’s 7th spring meeting, and it seems like it was only yesterday that we first got together as a Steering Committee in Eureka Springs, AR, in 2011. Time flies when you’re having fun!
This year we’ll be meeting jointly with the East Gulf Coastal Plains Joint Venture (EGCP JV), and will be discussing opportunities for collaborative conservation across our two partnerships. We have already been collaborating with the EGCP JV on a few projects in the past, but I think it’s time for us to be thinking on how to make that collaboration even more effective. With the current political climate in Washington, and the very real possibilities, or perhaps certainties, of declining budgets in the next few years, this could be a timely discussion.
The GCPO LCC has met jointly with other partnership-based conservation organizations in the past. In 2013, we met jointly with the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership, and last year we had a joint session with the Gulf of Mexico Alliance and Gulf Coast Prairie LCC. These joint meetings, while sometimes more complicated to organize, are always productive sessions, and they provide a great forum for dialogue and exchange of ideas, and ultimately for better collaboration and conservation outcomes.
In addition, our joint discussions with the EGCP JV Management Board, our GCPO Steering Committee meeting will include discussions on aquatic resource conservation, with input from the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership (SARP) and Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee (LMRCC), and we’ll have a session on ecosystem services and human dimensions. You can read more about our ecosystem services work in Gregg Elliott’s article in this month’s newsletter. It’s an exciting area of work for the GCPO, and I’m hopeful that it will help our partners become more proficient in incorporating ecosystem services into their conservation portfolios.
The draft agenda for our GCPO/EGCP JV meeting is posted on our Steering Committee page on the GCPO LCC website. We’ll be updating the agenda as the meeting gets closer. Also, if you’re planning to attend, we have a block of rooms available at the Sheraton Bay Point Resort in Panama City – rooms are available at the federal government per diem rate of $115.00/night (plus tax). The Sheraton is right on the Gulf Coast, so it’s a great place to bring your family, and you can stay on a day or two after the meeting to enjoy the Gulf Coast and all it has to offer. If you’re planning to attend, be sure to make your reservations now – our room block expires April 24, 2017.
Hope to see you in Panama City!
For Shannon O’Quinn, a watershed specialist at the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Tennessee River provides much more than a livelihood. “It is a special place to my family,” he says. “It is where we live and play and work to ensure the river stays healthy for people and wildlife.”
Considering that the Tennessee River Basin is one of the most biologically diverse watersheds in North America, that’s a critically important job. Winding its way through roughly 650 miles and encompassing over 41,000 square miles, the Basin is home to 270 species of fish and over 100 species of mussels. For comparison, the state of Wisconsin, which includes portions of the Upper Mississippi River, Lake Superior, and Lake Michigan is only home to 160 fish species. In China, there are only 60 species of mussels. In Europe, just 12.
Nearly as diverse as the wildlife within the Basin are the people and organizations working to conserve it. During the last several years, the Appalachian Landscape Conservation Cooperative – a coalition of scientists and resource managers from federal, state, NGO and academic institutions – has worked with this thriving conservation community with the goal of continuing momentum in this biological hotspot. The Tennessee River Basin Network unites nearly 40 federal, state and local organizations working within the Basin to identify common goals; determine specific actions to achieve those goals; and share resources and lessons learned along the way to protect the landscape that unites them.
“We cannot be successful implementing watershed improvements on our own,” O’Quinn says. “To truly succeed, we and other partners have to pool together and share our experience and resources.”
To help connect and inspire conservation organizations throughout the Basin, the Network has developed two tools to improve collaboration and help partners focus on share priorities. A Conservation Action Map showcases where actions are being implemented in the Basin and how is involved in various projects. More than a map, it's a vehicle to show and tell the story of concurrent efforts in the watershed, and to enhance the efficiency of the Network's collective action by sharing information, reducing duplication, and creating and strengthening partnerships.
The Network also recently unveiled a film inventory showcasing the ecology, threats, conservation efforts, and sense of pride in the Tennessee River Basin. The collection encompasses more than 40 videos from partners that showcase the conservation work taking place in the region and provides a means of engaging the broader public on the many values of nature the River Basin provides to communities. These short videos range from projects improving conditions for Eastern brook trout and hellbenders to challenges presented by droughts and increasing demand for freshwater. Both the Conservation Action Map and film inventory are found on the Network’s website, housed within the Appalachian LCC Web Portal.
“The Network is providing an opportunity for partners and stakeholders throughout this large and diverse region to talk to one another more regularly,” O’Quinn says. “This helps build relationships and forge action that can only make all of our efforts that much stronger for protecting and improving the health of the Tennessee River.”
It takes a village to protect a hotspot of biodiversity and keep a unique place healthy for people to work, play, and live. And the more that village can work together, the greater the chances of success.
Remember the story of the blind men and the elephant? In it, a group of blind men each feel a different part of an elephant so they end up having widely different interpretations of what the whole elephant looks like. There exists a similar situation with land conservation in the Gulf of Mexico region.
Although there are a large number of land conservation plans already in existence across the Gulf, many are limited either geographically or organizationally. The Strategic Conservation Assessment for Gulf Lands (SCA) project is aimed at developing decision support tools that can lead to better-informed decisions about land conservation because they reflect a Gulf-wide perspective -- that is, a view of the whole elephant.
The SCA is a three-year, $1.9 million project funded by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (RESTORE Council) that will combine the land conservation plans already in existence to create three decision support tools:
- prioritization criteria that can be used to evaluate existing land conservation projects;
- a map that can be used to identify land conservation possibilities;
- and a user-interface that will allow the map to be used to examine the multiple tradeoffs with various land conservation options.
Reports will accompany each tool to explain how to use them.
Mississippi State University (MSU) will be doing most of the work, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be assisting and administering the funds. A working group will provide broad oversight of the project, and will include representatives from the Service, MSU, the RESTORE Council, and each of the four Gulf-related Landscape Conservation Cooperatives. The project officially begins May 1.
The results of this project will be useful to the public, says Chris Pease, a member of the Service’s Gulf Restoration Team and of the working group. That’s because the tools could make clear why a particular piece of land was chosen for conservation and another wasn’t. “They will be able to help guide and explain the decision-making process,” he says.
The project will involve soliciting input from individuals outside of the working group at stakeholder meetings, with at least four planned in each of the five Gulf states. Kristine Evans, an MSU assistant professor who will be working on the project, says they will be “strategically targeting a cross-section of stakeholders” so that the meetings will reflect the diversity of the Gulf and take into account both ecological and socioeconomic perspectives.
John Tirpak, a member of the Service’s Gulf Restoration Team and the project lead, stresses that use of the SCA products will be voluntary. “We’re not forcing anyone to use it,” he says. ”Even the RESTORE Council doesn’t have to. We’re hoping that they will, because we will have created tools that they’ll find useful.” Similarly, all land conservation will be voluntary.
Pease adds that the SCA “will take disparate pieces of information (habitat, adjacency, sea rise models, ecosystem services, costs, etc.) and provide options on possible wholes.” In other words, it illustrates the axiom that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts “
Just like in the story of the blind men and the elephant.
The GCPO LCC Steering Committee spring meeting dates are May 17-18, with Tuesday and Friday, May 16 & 19, as travel dates. We will be meeting jointly with the EGCP JV on Thursday, May 18 (the EGCP JV will continue their meeting on the morning of Friday, May 19).
We have secured a hotel room block for our GCPO LCC and EGCP JV meetings in Panama City, FL. The Sheraton Bay Point Resort is about 15 minutes from our meeting venue, Gulf Coast State College, and offers rooms at the federal government per diem rate of $115.00 (single/double occupancy). The cutoff date for our Room Block is April 24, 2017.
Detailed agenda forthcoming.
A multi-year project involving three separate research institutions, thousands of private landowners, and hundreds of conservation providers across much of the Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks (GCPO) geography was completed in 2017. The components of the project include:
A high-level mapping of ecosystem service supply in the GCPO region conducted by Lydia Olander and Sara Mason and their team from Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
A survey of landowners’ reasons for owning lands, concerns, interaction with conservation programs, and valuation of key ecosystem services conducted by Robert Grala and Jason Gordon of Mississippi State University
A social network analysis of conservation service providers within the region conducted by Chris Galik of Duke/NC State University
What are ecosystem services and what makes them tricky?
Ecosystem services (ES) are the benefits people obtain from nature, both commodities with recognized monetary value and non-market benefits that are sometimes deemed priceless (such as beauty). As we continue to lose ecosystem services due to environmental fragmentation and degradation, finding new ways to sustain and support such services becomes important. One way to do this is for those who benefit from those services (e.g. downstream users of the water and the general public) to help support and pay those who produce ecosystem services (e.g. good land stewards who prevent runoff into streams and provide habitat for endangered species).
The Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozarks Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GCPO LCC) commissioned this study because we recognize that in a region where landownership is largely private (~90%), successful natural resource conservation must leverage the collective efforts of private landowners. To do so, conservation practitioners must understand and appreciate what drives landowner management decisions and determine how these values can then be translated into specific results, often in the form of ecosystem goods and services.
Finding the win-win-win
Existing datasets, many of which were identified by using the Environmental Protection Agency’s EnviroAtlas, were used to develop a coarse-scale map of ecosystem service supply and the potential for conservation or restoration. These maps and their underlying datasets, along with the explanatory manuscript from Duke’s Nicholas Institute, are hosted in a new Ecosystem Services Gallery on the GCPO LCC Conservation Planning Atlas.
The Nicholas Institute assessed nine ecosystem services (see Table 1) in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley or MAV and East/West Gulf Coastal Plains. These maps not only paint a picture of what types of services are abundant or important and where, they also will allow LCC partners to begin identifying sites where conservation action can achieve multiple objectives, i.e. the “win-win-win.”
The Nicholas Institute provided three “Example Use-Cases” illustrating this concept. For example, datasets can show the best watersheds to target for restoration aimed at improving water quality by reducing nonpoint source runoff. Next, by combining additional layers, sites could be ranked on the basis of other “co-benefits” provided in those watersheds (e.g. infiltration capacity for replenishing groundwater, pollinator habitat, and biodiversity).
“What was nice about this study,” Olander said, “is it combines survey work with mapping of services, giving us the ability to understand what people care about and where to appropriately target programs of interest to communities.” She cautioned, however, that the coarse scale of these maps means they are only a starting point. “To better assess a project’s or program’s Return on Investment (ROI), a next step in this process could be to drill down on the landowner surveys for better targeting of conservation, combined with more in-depth ecological analyses in key areas.”
Designing incentive or ES trading programs would require much more in-depth modeling, analyses, and landowner surveys (see, for example, this Nicholas Institute modeling study on Water Quality Trading). There are a variety of programs currently in existence that address the issue of how to balance the mismatch between ES “suppliers” and “beneficiaries.” These include both voluntary and regulatory trading programs, as well as direct payment for service programs -- and many of these focus on water quality.
Going to the source: what do landowners think?
The purpose of conducting a survey,” said Robert Grala “was to find out the attitudes and needs of landowners. Knowing what they think, what help they need, and what priorities they have will make almost any private land conservation program more effective.”
A survey of approximately 6,000 landowners owning a total of ~424,000 acres within the GCPO region assessed attitudes on a variety of issues in each of the following areas and associated habitat types:
East Gulf Coastal Plain/open pine stands
Mississippi Alluvial Valley/bottomland hardwoods
The top reasons cited for owning land were:
legacy to heirs
appealing visual appearance
The top concern expressed by landowners within the GCPO region -- who rated themselves on average as “extremely concerned” -- was drinking water quality.
Moderate concerns included:
drinking water quantity
loss of forest, farmland, natural areas, wildlife habitat, and pollinators
Landowner values extend beyond income, but some landowners are “cut off”
One striking result of the survey is the revelation that many top landowner values and concerns do not relate specifically to land-based income production. One method used in this study for determining the value of non-market ecosystem services such as aesthetic appeal or wildlife habitat is to determine an average “willingness to accept” price at which a landowner would be willing to forego property income in return for providing another service (for example, delaying harvest of trees to provide wildlife habitat).
“Monetary compensation is one aspect of conservation,” Grala said, “but not necessarily the whole. Many landowners are interested in preserving ecosystem services, so perhaps they need more technical information, help with management plans, or simply awareness that programs exist to assist landowners with these needs.”
In particular, a portion of landowners, roughly 50%, rarely interact with conservation agencies or professional organizations that have access to this kind of information. “They are cut off,” said Grala. “Extension works to reach landowners through workshops, everyone has their established methods, but we may need new media to reach out more effectively.”
Talking to landowners and talking to ourselves
In addition to the landowner surveys, a second survey of conservation practitioners in the GCPO region (including local, state, and national NGOs, private sector organizations and consultants, state agencies, federal agencies, and extension service) provided the basis for an analysis of the relationships between conservation organizations and the attributes of the networks they comprise.
This type of network analysis can serve several purposes:
Identify potential “bottlenecks” in program implementation
Assess gaps in representation and opportunities to enhance a network of practitioners
Highlight opportunities to better integrate management efforts across spatial, ecological, and organization scales
The GCPO network analysis found different patterns of interaction as reported by landowners and those reported by practitioner organizations working in the region. Specifically, landowners generally reported interacting more with extension and industry organizations, while conservation practitioners interacted more with state and federal agencies. Survey results also suggest that landowner preferences may not be fully appreciated by conservation practitioner respondents. Christopher Galik, who led the analysis, noted that “conservation practitioners may be overestimating the frequency that landowners work with government agencies, while underestimating the role of private sector, extension, or industry organizations.”
Among conservation practitioners, the analysis suggests a well-connected network among the state and federal organizations critical to development and delivery of conservation programs in the GCPO LCC region. Though a well-connected network may be beneficial for the diffusion of innovative practices, they may be less suited to facilitate coordinated programming. “There is a need to continue efforts to coordinate activities at the regional scale, an important component of practice-driven, ecosystem-level management,” Galik concluded.
Recent surveys showed the yellow lance mussel has lost 57 percent of its historical range. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is proposing that it be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Today’s warranted finding and listing proposal are the result of a review conducted by a Species Status Assessment team composed of experts from state and federal government agencies and academic institutions. The assessment included a comprehensive review of scientific information as well as an evaluation of current population status and projected trends in population levels based on threats to the yellow lance. The ESA defines threatened species as those that are likely to become endangered throughout all or a significant portion of its range within the foreseeable future. The yellow lance meets the definition of a threatened species.
Conserving and restoring freshwater mussel populations is important and benefits wildlife and people who live, work and recreate in areas near mussel habitats. Mussels filter and purify water, decrease downstream transport of nitrogen by storing nutrients in their tissue, and their shells provide habitat for other organisms. Mussels were once a food for Native Americans, and now many animals including otters and raccoons rely on them for food.
The yellow lance mussel exists in the Patuxent, Rappahannock, York, James, Chowan, Tar, and Neuse River basins in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. It is also native to the Potomac River, but hasn’t been reported in recent years.
The yellow lance faces threats from water pollution coming directly from sites such as sewage treatment plants and solid waste disposal sites, or from runoff caused by road drainage, private wastewater discharges, or other sources; erosion; or dams which affect both upstream and downstream mussel populations by disrupting natural flow patterns, scouring river bottoms, changing water temperatures, and fragmenting habitat.
If the yellow lance mussel is listed as threatened, the Service will develop a recovery plan and pursue cooperative conservation initiatives designed to reverse population decline and improve habitat conditions. The Service and state wildlife agencies are working with numerous partners to meet both species and habitat needs in aquatic systems from Maryland to North Carolina. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission is bolstering existing populations of yellow lance mussels in the wild. Also, a group of federal and state entities and non-profit conservation groups who make up the Upper Tar Collaboration is planning landscape scale conservation to benefit the yellow lance in the Upper Tar Watershed in North Carolina.
The Service will publish its proposal to list the yellow lance as threatened in the Federal Register tomorrow, beginning a 60-day comment period in which the public is invited to submit scientific or technical information that will aid the agency in reaching its final decision. The proposed rule may be viewed today in the Federal Register Reading Room and will officially publish on April 5, 2017. Public comments on this proposal can be made until June 5, 2017.
All documents and supporting information for the proposed rule can be found at http://www.regulations.gov. In the search box enter Docket No. FWS–R4–ES–2017-0017 and click the “Search” button. Written comments also may be mailed or hand-delivered to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–R4–ES–2017–0017, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.
Requests for a public hearing must be made in writing by May 22, 2017, to the above address. Persons who use a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) may call the Federal Information Relay Service (FIRS) at 800–877–8339.
For the first time, monitoring data collected by the USGS and 73 other organizations at almost 1,400 sites have been combined to provide a nationwide look at changes in the quality of our rivers and streams between the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act and 2012.
Federal, state, and local agencies have invested billions of dollars since passage of the Act to reduce the amount of pollution entering rivers and streams that millions of Americans rely on for drinking water, recreation, and irrigation. Tracking changes in the quality of these waterways over multiple decades is crucial for evaluating the effectiveness of pollution control efforts and protecting the nation’s water resources into the future.
The interactive map can be used to see whether 51 water-quality constituents, like nutrients and pesticides, and 38 aquatic-life metrics, like the types and numbers of fish, macroinvertebrates, and algae, have increased, decreased, or remained the same at nearly 1,400 sites between 1972 and 2012. For example, the phaseout of the insecticide diazinon for residential and some agricultural uses was initiated in 2000 and has led to widespread reductions in concentrations in U.S. streams, which can be seen on the map during the trend period from 2002 to 2012.
The map summarizes the first phase of the study— in which the USGS identifies streams that have been monitored consistently for long periods and reports the trends in those streams. In the second phase, to take place over the next several years, the USGS will assess whether and where billions in investments in pollution control have been effective, identify major causes of trends in U.S. stream quality, provide details on which chemicals are increasing or decreasing, and highlight whether any drinking water sources or aquatic ecosystems are at increased risk.A new USGS interactive map provides a long-term look at changes in the quality of our nation’s rivers and streams, using data from over 70 organizations. Go online and see how 51 water-quality metrics and 38 aquatic-life metrics at nearly 1,400 sites have changed over the last 40 years. This map was developed by the USGS National Water-Quality Assessment Project, which conducts regional and national assessments of the nation’s water quality to provide an understanding of current water-quality conditions, whether conditions are getting better or worse over time, and how natural processes and human activities affect those conditions.
Petty and his brothers own seven miles of riverfront, much of it covered one recent morning in bright green winter wheat, along both sides of the Conasauga. The mountains of the Chattahoochee National Forest offer a postcard-perfect backdrop. The rural idyll, though, belies the river’s trauma. Sedimentation, pesticides, chicken litter and industrial runoff threaten one of the nation’s most biologically diverse streams. The Conasauga is also one of the Southeast’s most threatened river basins, according to a new study, with the extirpation in recent years of possibly one-fourth of its fish and mussel species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Nature Conservancy will soon ratchet up conservation measures intended to protect the river and keep at-risk critters from being listed as endangered. Cindy Dohner, regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Southeast, says private landowners can help “conserve as many at-risk species as possible through voluntary and innovative measures."
Jimmy Petty is doing his share. He and brothers Don and Jerry participate in a handful of federal, state and nonprofit water-quality measures to control runoff from their 5,000-acre farm and forest.
“Daddy always said if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you. That pertains to the river too,” Petty says.
The Conasauga needs all the help it can get.
Beginning amid the 4,000-foot peaks of the Cohutta Wilderness Area, the river dips into Tennessee before turning south, passing the Petty’s farm and, eventually, reaching Dalton. It joins, 95 miles from its source, the Coosawattee River to form the Oostanaula River before flowing into Alabama (as the Coosa River).
The Conasauga River flows from the Cohutta Wilderness in northern Georgia into Tennessee before turning south. Map by Roy Hewitt, USFWS.
The aquatic biodiversity of the Conasauga watershed is “exceptional” with at least 76 species of native fishes and 18 species of native mussels. The more-heralded Upper Colorado River Basin, by contrast, contains 14 species of native fish.
The Conasauga, though, is imperiled. Jason Wisniewski, an aquatic zoologist with the Georgia DNR, estimates that the river once supported at least 33 species of mussels. Today, maybe 23 species remain with seven mussels (including the Coosa moccasinshell and the Georgia pigtoe) listed as endangered.
Three federally listed fish (including the Conasauga logperch) also make the endangered list.
“It’s one of the most diverse eco-systems in the country with quite a few species that are endemic,” said Robin Goodloe, a supervisory biologist with the Service in Athens, Ga. “And for several species that previously occurred, to a large extent, in the Upper Mobile River Basin, the Conasauga is the only place where they are left.”
The Tennessee Aquarium and the University of Georgia recently analyzed nearly 300 Southeastern watersheds across 11 states to determine which were most imperiled and in need of help. The study, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, was based on a simple calculus: 3 points were assigned for each endangered species in the watershed; 2 points for each threatened species; and 1 point for each vulnerable, or potentially, at-risk, species.
The Conasauga ranked as the seventh most imperiled watershed. Overall, the Alabama River Basin, which includes the Conasauga, and the Tennessee River Basin fare the worst.
“Relative to other areas of the United States, the Southeast has little land in national parks or other forms of protected areas and receives a disproportionately small percentage of federal expenditures for endangered species protection,” reads the report entitled The Southeastern Aquatic Biodiversity Conservation Strategy. The Conasauga, in particular, is bedeviled by agricultural runoff; sedimentation; pesticides; herbicides; Roundup-ready seeds; and chicken litter which fertilizes the crops.
Studies show that glyphosate (Roundup) and phosphorous (chicken debris) harm fish and mussels. Drainage ditches that carry a field’s runoff towards the Conasauga and its tributaries, as well as inadequate river buffers, exacerbate the river’s woes. Further degradation could push at-risk species, including the holiday, bridled and trispot darters, onto the endangered list.
The Service’s at-risk plate is already full. Environmental groups, since 2011, have requested that Fish and Wildlife evaluate nearly 500 species to determine if they are “threatened” or “endangered.” The Southeastern U.S. is home to roughly 60 percent of the possible listings. The Service, though, in concert with state agencies, private landowners, businesses, and others, determined that 97 of the proposed species don’t need federal protection.
Fish and Wildlife and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will soon offer private landowners additional financial incentives to conserve land voluntarily so species won’t have to be listed. The Working Lands for Wildlife program, for example, already targets the holiday, bridled and trispot darters, and the Conasauga, for conservation. The goal: wildlife-friendly improvements to 10,800 acres within two years. The Pettys, the largest private landowners in the Conasauga watershed, will continue to do their share. They long ago enrolled their 14 miles of river frontage into the USDA conservation reserve program. They allowed a 35-foot buffer of trees – poplars, oaks, river birch, sweet gums – to regrow along both sides of the river. Another 30 feet remains un-farmed and serves as additional buffer.
The conservation program pays the Pettys about $30 an acre annually; they could make a lot more farming to the river’s edge. Instead, they’ve added rock filter dams to slow runoff through ditches; prudently managed, burned and replanted their 500-acre forest; and recycled dairy water to repeatedly rinse out the stalls.
In 2006, the Pettys won Georgia’s first Environmental Stewardship Award.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever broached a subject with them that they weren’t willing to entertain,” said Cindy Askew, the USDA’s conservationist in Northwest Georgia. “If you give them an option for something beneficial, they’re almost always going to be interested. I give them all the credit in the world.”
Jimmy Petty crossed the cement bridge over his stretch of the Conasauga and pointed to the spot below where his children were baptized. A rope swing hung invitingly from an oak. Fishing for catfish and floating the river on lazy summer days are but two of the many pleasures the Conasauga affords the Pettys.
“We don’t intend on quitting the conservation programs,” Jimmy Petty said. “They protect the river. And they make for good habitat for deer, fish and other wildlife.”