Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks LCC News

Seeking Candidates for 4 Gulf Strategic Conservation Assessment positions

We are very pleased to announce four position opportunities to support the Strategic Conservation Assessment of Gulf Coast Landscapes (SCA) project. The Restore Council approved the SCA project as one among a suite of projects in the 2015 initial Funded Priorities List. This project will coalesce existing conservation and socioeconomic priorities into conservation planning decision support tools to aid the Restore Council and their stakeholders in identifying high priority lands for voluntary conservation efforts. The SCA project is being led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Gulf Restoration Team and administered through a cooperative agreement with Mississippi State University, with support from the four Gulf Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.

1) Seeking Statements of Interest for SCA Assessment Coordinator

 As previously advertised, the SCA project team is seeking Statements of Interest (SOIs) for a qualified individual or contracting organization to take on a lead role as Assessment Coordinator for this project. This individual or organization must have extensive experience in project coordination, organization of stakeholder meetings, and landscape-level natural resource conservation planning, preferably along the Gulf of Mexico coast.  Additional information and detailed submission instructions for the Assessment Coordinator role can be found in the SOI description and template, which is available for direct download link at: http://tinyurl.com/Gulf-SCA-Coordinator. Review of SOIs will begin May 15, 2017.  Interested applicants are strongly encouraged to consult with U.S. Fish and Wildlife project lead John Tirpak (john_tirpak@fws.gov) or MSU project lead Kristine Evans (kristine.evans@msstate.edu) prior to a Statement of Interest submission.  

 

2)  Seeking Postdoctoral Associate in Ecological Modeling

The SCA project team is seeking a Postdoctoral Associate in Ecological Modeling to be based out of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Mississippi State University.  The Postdoctoral Associate must hold a Ph.D. in biological or environmental engineering, geography, geosciences, ecology, environmental science/management, or other related fields. ABD candidates will also be considered. The ideal candidate will have some combination of the following skills: spatially explicit ecological modeling, landscape conservation, MCDA, programming (especially Python), and web-based app development. Expertise with geographic information systems (GIS) and other related software applications and technologies is also required.  Additional information and detailed submission instructions can be found in the link to the Post Doc Position Description (PostDoc_Position_Description_SCA.pdf). Review of applicants will begin June 7, 2017.  If you have any questions, are interested in submitting an application, or have a suggested candidate, please contact Anna Linhoss (alinhoss@abe.msstate.edu) .  Applicants must complete an application through the MSU HRM website (http://explore.msujobs.msstate.edu/cw/en-us/job/495521/postdoctoral-associate-eng) to be considered, but should also email a copy of the cover letter and resume/CV directly to alinhoss@abe.msstate.edu

 

3)  Seeking Research Associate – Geospatial Analyst

The SCA project team is seeking a Geospatial Analyst Research Associate to be based out of the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Aquaculture at Mississippi State University.  The applicant must hold minimally a B.S. in a relevant field (e.g., geography, geosciences, ecology, environmental science/management, coastal or marine ecology, wildlife and fisheries science) and a minimum of 3 years of relevant; or a M.S. degree and minimum of 1 year of relevant experience and demonstrated competency.  A strong background and expertise with geographic information systems (GIS) and other related software applications and technologies is required.  The ideal candidate will also have some combination of experience developing web-enabled geospatial data applications, expertise in other GIS software applications and html programming applications, as well as experience working in Gulf Coast landscape conservation, large-scale data applications, spatially explicit ecological modeling, multi-criteria decision analysis, and interacting with stakeholders.  Additional information and detailed submission instructions can be found in the linked GIS Analyst Position Description (GISAnalyst_ResearchAssociate_SCAproject_Description.pdf). Review of applicants will begin June 7, 2017.  If you have any questions, are interested in submitting an application, or have a suggested candidate, please contact Kristine Evans (kristine.evans@msstate.edu).  Applicants must complete an application through the MSU HRM website (http://explore.msujobs.msstate.edu/cw/en-us/job/495589/research-associate) to be considered, but should also email a copy of the cover letter and resume/CV directly to kristine.evans@msstate.edu.

4)  Seeking Ph.D. Student in Coastal Ecological Modeling and Geospatial Application Development

The SCA project team is seeking a Ph.D. student to be based out of either the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering or the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Aquaculture at Mississippi State University.  The student will work with SCA staff to develop a suite of ecological models and associated geospatial applications predicting ecosystem, species, and/or socioeconomic response to potential Gulf Coast system stressors and planned coastal restoration activities. The Ph.D. student must hold a Master’s degree in geography, geosciences, ecology, environmental science/management, biological/environmental engineering, coastal or marine ecology, wildlife and fisheries science, or other related fields with competitive GPA and GRE scores. Research experience with predictive ecological modeling and geographic information systems (GIS), and a demonstrated publication record are preferred. Additional information and detailed submission instructions can be found in the linked Ph.D. student Position Description (PhDPosition_Description_SCAproject.pdf). Review of applicants will begin June 7, 2017.  If you have any questions, are interested in submitting an application, or have a suggested candidate, please contact Kristine Evans (kristine.evans@msstate.edu) (Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture) or Anna Linhoss (alinhoss@abe.msstate.edu) (Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering) at Mississippi State University.

Equal Opportunity 

Mississippi State University is an equal opportunity employer, and all qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, ethnicity, sex (including pregnancy and gender identity), national origin, disability status, age, sexual orientation, genetic information, protected veteran status, or any other characteristic protected by law. We always welcome nominations and applications from women, members of any minority group, and others who share our passion for building a diverse community that reflects the diversity in our student population.

 

We would greatly appreciate it if you could forward this email among your networks and to anyone you feel may be interested.

 

Thank you for your interest and help in spreading these great opportunities.

Time flies when you’re having fun: the GCPO LCC’s 7th annual spring meeting!

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!

A Holistic View of Gulf Coast Landscapes through the Strategic Conservation Assessment

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. 

GCPO LCC Steering Committee to meets May 17-18 in Florida

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 Marketing Approach to Conservation: the region’s first quantitative assessment of ecosystem service supply, demand, and values from private landowners

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
Ozark Highlands/grasslands

The top reasons cited for owning land were:
long-term investment
family tradition
legacy to heirs
personal recreation
healthy soils
clean water
wildlife habitat
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
chemical drift
wildfires
insect pests
invasive species
soils erosion
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.

Seeking Statements of Interest for Gulf Strategic Conservation Assessment Project Coordinator

On December 9, 2015, the Restore Council approved the Strategic Conservation Assessment of Gulf Coast Landscapes (SCA) as one among a suite of projects approved in the 2015 final Funded Priorities List.  This project will coalesce identified conservation and socioeconomic priorities into a unified conservation planning decision support tool to aid the Restore Council and Gulf coast stakeholders in identifying high priority lands for voluntary conservation efforts.  The SCA project is being led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Gulf Restoration Team and administered through a cooperative agreement with Mississippi State University, with support from the five Gulf Landscape Conservation Cooperatives. 

The SCA project leadership team is seeking statements of interest for a qualified individual or contracting organization to take on a leadership role as of Assessment Coordinator for the SCA project.  This individual or organization must have extensive experience in coordination of stakeholder meetings and landscape-level natural resource conservation planning, preferably along the Gulf of Mexico coast.  Please see the Request for Statements of Interest description and template for detailed submission instructions available for download here: AssessmentCoordinator_Description_SCA_SOI_Final.docx.  Applicants are strongly encouraged to consult with a member of the project team (USFWS Project Officer, John Tirpak [John_tirpak@fws.gov], or MSU project lead Kristine Evans [kristine.evans@msstate.edu]) prior to statement of interest submission. 

Statements of interest will be reviewed starting May 15, 2017.

GCPO LCC and the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative meet in Starkville

Exciting things are happening in the world of grassland conservation. Dwayne Estes and Theo Witsell have been traveling across the Southeast promoting their vision for a Southeastern Grassland Initiative. Three months ago, GCPO LCC communications specialist Gregg Elliott and I saw them present their ideas to Memphis area planners and conservationists at Shelby Farms Park Conservancy. On Monday, February 27th, they came to Starkville, Mississippi to network with a greater portion of the GCPO staff and a handful of Mississippi State University faculty members involved in the science of grassland ecology. The meeting was attended by representatives of Central Hardwoods Joint Venture; Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks; Mississippi Natural Heritage Program; University of Central Florida; US Fish and Wildlife Service; and Wildlife Mississippi. Mississippi State University faculty attending included representatives from the Mississippi Entomological Museum; the Department of Landscape Architecture; the Department of Biological Sciences; and the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Aquaculture.

I kicked off the meeting with a presentation on the contribution of the GCPO LCC to grassland conservation. Last year we produced a Grassland Condition Index data layer for our 180-million-acre geography, and that layer was folded into the broader Conservation Blueprint, which addresses the condition of our nine priority systems in the context of threats such as climate change and urbanization as well as positive elements in the landscape such as the conservation estate and species distribution models. I shared the fact that our Conservation Blueprint is nested in a larger Southeastern Conservation Adaptation Strategy (SECAS) data product guiding landscape conservation across fifteen states and six Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.

Regional scale challenges to grassland conservation include a lack of consensus in the scientific community as to how to categorize them as ecological systems (chiefly because they tend to grade continuously into savanna, woodland, and forest in the landscape, but also due to regional variations in substrate, topography, hydrology, and vegetation), and the lack of a repeatable method for delineating the openings on the ground in our maps (different individuals and organizations include or exclude various zones of woody vegetation when drawing grassland boundaries). These issues frustrate our effort to obtain a baseline measure of how much grassland currently exists and the condition of the patches. We have numerous organizations working on grassland conservation across the region at multiple scales: some groups are focused on a single patch, some on a specific region (such as the Black Belt), and some address only those patches within a particular state. I made the point that at times it seems that these organizations are as disjunct as the patches themselves. Until the Southeastern Grassland Initiative (SGI) took shape last year, there was no organized effort to coordinate grassland conservation specifically across the entire Southeast. The network of partnerships already established by the LCCs is a natural complement to the vision and mission of the SGI.

Botanical Explorers

After I spoke, Dwayne Estes, professor of the Center of Excellence for Field Biology at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee and botanical explorer for the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT), described the recent and growing appreciation and acknowledgment of southeastern grasslands.  He recalled that, as an elementary school student, he was taught that at the time of the arrival of the first Europeans in North America, the eastern forests were so dense that a squirrel could travel tree-to-tree from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. Multiple accounts of vast grasslands by early settlers and explorers indicate that such a squirrel probably would have had to have taken a very circuitous route, chiefly following the riparian zones. Dwayne’s overview of historical grasslands focused on Kentucky and Tennessee and was supported by many references to old parcel surveys and the journals and letters of early settlers. He described the development of the Southeastern Grassland Initiative last year, with early support by Austin Peay State University, philanthropic organizations, and corporate sponsors. The Initiative’s supported projects include preservation, restoration, re-creation, rescue, seedbanks, education, and market-based initiatives such as grass-fed cattle.

Theo Witsell, Grassland Biodiversity Explorer for SGI, then elaborated on the research priorities for the Initiative. The Initiative is planning to develop an inventory of grassland biodiversity by identifying all major grassland habitat types in the region, and also to conduct detailed studies both of current lands and of the historic records. These studies will improve the existing grassland fidelity index, which measures the degree to which each plant species is obligated to grassland habitats. Theo and Dwayne have discovered numerous undescribed plant species while conducting inventories on grasslands, and they expect to find more. High rates of endemism and biodiversity in southeastern grasslands contribute to the overall biodiversity of the region, which has been recognized recently as the world's 36th biodiversity hotspot by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). Theo also showed us examples of grassland habitat restoration guides he has published for landowners and the public.

Green roofs and Grasshoppers

Mississippi State faculty members shared their research related to grassland ecology and conservation. Tim Schauwecker, associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, highlighted student work on green roofs (birds more frequently visit green roofs, both those planted with the traditional sedum cover and those planted with prairie grasses, than conventional roofs), the use of General Land Office survey notes to find prairie patches in the Jackson Prairie Belt, and the development of a biodiversity index for the city of Starkville. Tim also described recent work on a management plan for the Catalpa Creek watershed, which contains extensive agricultural research fields on the MSU campus, and a planned Wetland Education Theatre with a native grass component to be installed at his Department’s facilities.

Jovonn Hill and Richard Brown described work done at the Mississippi Entomological Museum, housed on the Mississippi State University campus. The GCPO LCC uses species habitat models based mostly on birds. Dwayne and Theo focus primarily on the rare and endemic plants. Insects play an important ecological role, both as pollinators and as a food source for other species. Those of us largely unfamiliar with the science learned a great deal. Many insects -- grasshoppers were a prominent example -- occur only in grasslands, some only in the Black Belt, and some only on particular single patches such as Osborn prairie, a relict patch under TVA power lines a couple of miles northeast of Starkville. Some occur in only one county in Mississippi and one county in Minnesota.

As with the relictual plant species mentioned in my description of the SePPCon conference, this pattern of very rare species occurring at locations very far apart indicates that the species is very old and that the particular location is a remnant of a larger ecological system that was intact long ago. Twenty thousand years ago states such as Illinois and Oklahoma, where tallgrass prairie was extensive at the time of European settlement, were occupied by coniferous forests, and the prairies of the Southeast were refugia for most of the grassland species that colonized the Midwest when the forests and glaciers receded northward. Information on just how these species migrated, whether they dispersed through the grasslands of Tennessee and Kentucky or whether they expanded into the Piedmont and Appalachian regions and then westward across present-day New York, is contained in the genetic markers of the species found on the relict sites.

Staying Genetically True and Other Challenges Ahead

Understanding of the genetics and the use of local genotypes in restoration is important, because success is more likely when species adapted to those local conditions are used. In practice, the local genotypes are difficult to obtain. Seed collection, germination, caring for and transporting the plugs, are all labor intensive processes. In many situations, a private landowner has no choice but to use plant stock from another state. Furthermore, so-called conservative plant species, those restricted to a very particular habitat, can be “uncooperative” when encouraged to expand. Simply expanding the size of the opening by thinning and removing the tree cover is not enough to expand the relict patch because the rare species have trouble competing against the more weedy early successional vegetation.

Above: Cara Joos, Science Coordinator for the Central Hardwoods Joint Venture, makes a point to the group.

In the follow-up discussion, three main challenges to a regional approach to grassland restoration and conservation were identified:

  1. The popularity of the field of science once known as “Natural History,” an integrated science that considers biotic and abiotic interactions (plants, animals, the physical environment), is declining. Biology departments are increasingly focused on specialized fields such as molecular biology. As current biologists with expertise in field-based research retire, fewer are coming along to take their place.
  2. Plants with local genetic characteristics are vital for quality restoration work. Companies exist that will collect seed and propagate plants from local stock, but at significant cost.
  3. A baseline assessment, a current inventory, requires a mapping methodology that can parse out warm season and cool season, or native and non-native grasslands, efficiently across large landscapes. This is a known issue in the geospatial science and conservation community, and we continue to seek solutions.

In the end, all partners came away with a better understanding of the current and potential state of regional scale grassland conservation. The staff of the GCPO LCC was very impressed with the depth of botanical knowledge that grounds the Southeastern Grassland Initiative and the possible applications of that knowledge, such as the on-going effort to digitize and geo-tag the thousands of grassland obligate specimens found in the many herbaria of our region. Dwayne and Theo of the SGI expressed appreciation for the geospatial science products developed by the LCC and their potential applications. And we were all impressed by the work done by the Department of Landscape Architecture and Entomological Museum here at Mississippi State University and how their projects can strengthen and enhance our conservation work. This meeting laid the groundwork for what we hope is a highly effective regional partnership as we move forward to conserve this ecologically important and highly imperiled feature of the southeastern landscape.

GCPO LCC and the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative meet in Starkville

Exciting things are happening in the world of grassland conservation. Dwayne Estes and Theo Witsell have been traveling across the Southeast promoting their vision for a Southeastern Grassland Initiative. Three months ago, GCPO LCC communications specialist Gregg Elliott and I saw them present their ideas to Memphis area planners and conservationists at Shelby Farms Park Conservancy. On Monday, February 27th, they came to Starkville, Mississippi to network with a greater portion of the GCPO staff and a handful of Mississippi State University faculty members involved in the science of grassland ecology. The meeting was attended by representatives of Arkansas Heritage Commission; Central Hardwoods Joint Venture; Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks; Mississippi Natural Heritage Program; University of Central Florida; US Fish and Wildlife Service; and Wildlife Mississippi. Mississippi State University faculty attending included representatives from the Mississippi Entomological Museum; the Department of Landscape Architecture; the Department of Biological Sciences; and the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Aquaculture.

I kicked off the meeting with a presentation on the contribution of the GCPO LCC to grassland conservation. Last year we produced a Grassland Condition Index data layer for our 180-million-acre geography, and that layer was folded into the broader Conservation Blueprint, which addresses the condition of our nine priority systems in the context of threats such as climate change and urbanization as well as positive elements in the landscape such as the conservation estate and species distribution models. I shared the fact that our Conservation Blueprint is nested in a larger Southeastern Conservation Adaptation Strategy (SECAS) data product guiding landscape conservation across fifteen states and six Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.

Regional scale challenges to grassland conservation include a lack of consensus in the scientific community as to how to categorize them as ecological systems (chiefly because they tend to grade continuously into savanna, woodland, and forest in the landscape, but also due to regional variations in substrate, topography, hydrology, and vegetation), and the lack of a repeatable method for delineating the openings on the ground in our maps (different individuals and organizations include or exclude various zones of woody vegetation when drawing grassland boundaries). These issues frustrate our effort to obtain a baseline measure of how much grassland currently exists and the condition of the patches. We have numerous organizations working on grassland conservation across the region at multiple scales: some groups are focused on a single patch, some on a specific region (such as the Black Belt), and some address only those patches within a particular state. I made the point that at times it seems that these organizations are as disjunct as the patches themselves. Until the Southeastern Grassland Initiative (SGI) took shape last year, there was no organized effort to coordinate grassland conservation specifically across the entire Southeast. The network of partnerships already established by the LCCs is a natural complement to the vision and mission of the SGI.

The View of a Botanical Explorer

After I spoke, Dwayne Estes, professor of the Center of Excellence for Field Biology at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee and botanical explorer for the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT), described the recent and growing appreciation and acknowledgment of southeastern grasslands.  He recalled that, as an elementary school student, he was taught that at the time of the arrival of the first Europeans in North America, the eastern forests were so dense that a squirrel could travel tree-to-tree from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. Multiple accounts of vast grasslands by early settlers and explorers indicate that such a squirrel probably would have had to have taken a very circuitous route, chiefly following the riparian zones. Dwayne’s overview of historical grasslands focused on Kentucky and Tennessee and was supported by many references to old parcel surveys and the journals and letters of early settlers. He described the development of the Southeastern Grassland Initiative last year, with early support by Austin Peay State University, philanthropic organizations, and corporate sponsors. The Initiative’s supported projects include preservation, restoration, re-creation, rescue, seedbanks, education, and market-based initiatives such as grass-fed cattle.

Theo Witsell, botanist with the Arkansas Heritage Commission, then elaborated on the SGI research priorities. The Initiative is planning to develop an inventory of grassland biodiversity by identifying all major grassland habitat types in the region, and also to conduct detailed studies both of current lands and of the historic records. These studies will improve the existing grassland fidelity index, which measures the degree to which each plant species is obligated to grassland habitats. Theo and Dwayne have discovered numerous undescribed plant species while conducting inventories on grasslands, and they expect to find more. High rates of endemism and biodiversity in southeastern grasslands contribute to the overall biodiversity of the region, which has been recognized recently as the world's 36th biodiversity hotspot by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). Theo also showed us examples of grassland habitat restoration guides he has published for landowners and the public.

Green roofs and Grasshoppers

Mississippi State faculty members shared their research related to grassland ecology and conservation. Tim Schauwecker, associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, highlighted student work on green roofs (birds more frequently visit green roofs, both those planted with the traditional sedum cover and those planted with prairie grasses, than conventional roofs), the use of General Land Office survey notes to find prairie patches in the Jackson Prairie Belt, and the development of a biodiversity index for the city of Starkville. Tim also described recent work on a management plan for the Catalpa Creek watershed, which contains extensive agricultural research fields on the MSU campus, and a planned Wetland Education Theatre with a native grass component to be installed at his Department’s facilities.

Jovonn Hill and Richard Brown described work done at the Mississippi Entomological Museum, housed on the Mississippi State University campus. The GCPO LCC uses species habitat models based mostly on birds. Dwayne and Theo focus primarily on the rare and endemic plants. Insects play an important ecological role, both as pollinators and as a food source for other species. Those of us largely unfamiliar with the science learned a great deal. Many insects -- grasshoppers were a prominent example -- occur only in grasslands, some only in the Black Belt, and some only on particular single patches such as Osborn prairie, a relict patch under TVA power lines a couple of miles northeast of Starkville. Some occur in only one county in Mississippi and one county in Minnesota.

As with the relictual plant species mentioned in my description of the SePPCon conference, this pattern of very rare species occurring at locations very far apart indicates that the species is very old and that the particular location is a remnant of a larger ecological system that was intact long ago. Twenty thousand years ago states such as Illinois and Oklahoma, where tallgrass prairie was extensive at the time of European settlement, were occupied by coniferous forests, and the prairies of the Southeast were refugia for most of the grassland species that colonized the Midwest when the forests and glaciers receded northward. Information on just how these species migrated, whether they dispersed through the grasslands of Tennessee and Kentucky or whether they expanded into the Piedmont and Appalachian regions and then westward across present-day New York, is contained in the genetic markers of the species found on the relict sites.

Staying Genetically True and Other Challenges Ahead

Understanding of the genetics and the use of local genotypes in restoration is important, because success is more likely when species adapted to those local conditions are used. In practice, the local genotypes are difficult to obtain. Seed collection, germination, caring for and transporting the plugs, are all labor intensive processes. In many situations, a private landowner has no choice but to use plant stock from another state. Furthermore, so-called conservative plant species, those restricted to a very particular habitat, can be “uncooperative” when encouraged to expand. Simply expanding the size of the opening by thinning and removing the tree cover is not enough to expand the relict patch because the rare species have trouble competing against the more weedy early successional vegetation.

Above: Cara Joos, Science Coordinator for the Central Hardwoods Joint Venture, makes a point to the group.

In the follow-up discussion, three main challenges to a regional approach to grassland restoration and conservation were identified:

  1. The popularity of the field of science once known as “Natural History,” an integrated science that considers biotic and abiotic interactions (plants, animals, the physical environment), is declining. Biology departments are increasingly focused on specialized fields such as molecular biology. As current biologists with expertise in field-based research retire, fewer are coming along to take their place.
  2. Plants with local genetic characteristics are vital for quality restoration work. Companies exist that will collect seed and propagate plants from local stock, but at significant cost.
  3. A baseline assessment, a current inventory, requires a mapping methodology that can parse out warm season and cool season, or native and non-native grasslands, efficiently across large landscapes. This is a known issue in the geospatial science and conservation community, and we continue to seek solutions.

In the end, all partners came away with a better understanding of the current and potential state of regional scale grassland conservation. The staff of the GCPO LCC was very impressed with the depth of botanical knowledge that grounds the Southeastern Grassland Initiative and the possible applications of that knowledge, such as the on-going effort to digitize and geo-tag the thousands of grassland obligate specimens found in the many herbaria of our region. Dwayne and Theo of the SGI expressed appreciation for the geospatial science products developed by the LCC and their potential applications. And we were all impressed by the work done by the Department of Landscape Architecture and Entomological Museum here at Mississippi State University and how their projects can strengthen and enhance our conservation work. This meeting laid the groundwork for what we hope is a highly effective regional partnership as we move forward to conserve this ecologically important and highly imperiled feature of the southeastern landscape.

Dead Zone Redemption

A great post from The Nature Conservancy's Bryan Piazza, director of freshwater and marine science for TNC's Louisiana program on working smart to address Gulf hypoxia.  Bryan cites Landscape Conservation Cooperatives as important partners to in scientific targeting to "align along our shared nutrient reduction goals to ensure that our collective efforts have maximum impact in the primary focus states and throughout the Mississippi River Basin."

Read the full Dead Zone Redemption blog post.

Dead Zone Redemption

A great post from The Nature Conservancy's Bryan Piazza, director of freshwater and marine science for TNC's Louisiana program on working smart to address Gulf hypoxia.  Bryan cites Landscape Conservation Cooperatives as important partners to in scientific targeting to "align along our shared nutrient reduction goals to ensure that our collective efforts have maximum impact in the primary focus states and throughout the Mississippi River Basin."

Read the full Dead Zone Redemption blog post.

GCPO LCC solicits Statements of Interest for research projects

/**/ /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/

The long-range vision for the GCPO LCC’s Conservation Blueprint is to develop a strategic framework for collaborative conservation. It is envisioned that the strategic framework will allow the proactive assessment of conservation or other land use change outcomes in terms of the objectives of the partnership (e.g. reversing declines of a particular species).  Currently, the GCPO LCC lacks objectives or species-habitat models for most of the species identified in its draft Integrated Science Agenda. The GCPO LCC’s Blueprint Development Team identified this need as its highest priority to address in 2017.  (The Team includes the GCPO LCC’s  Adaptation Science Management Team plus staff from Joint Ventures, the Southeastern Aquatic Resource Partnership, State Wildlife Action Plans, and the National Wildlife Refuge Inventory & Monitoring program.)

To meet this need, the GCPO LCC is soliciting Statements of Interest (SOIs) to identify potential investigators for one or more projects addressing the LCC’s need for models of species-habitat relationships. Funding for projects will be contingent upon sufficient appropriations. You can download the full request and submit an SOI at http://fwrc.msstate.edu/gcpolcc/.  

GCPO LCC solicits Statements of Interest for research projects

/**/ /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/

The long-range vision for the GCPO LCC’s Conservation Blueprint is to develop a strategic framework for collaborative conservation. It is envisioned that the strategic framework will allow the proactive assessment of conservation or other land use change outcomes in terms of the objectives of the partnership (e.g. reversing declines of a particular species).  Currently, the GCPO LCC lacks objectives or species-habitat models for most of the species identified in its draft Integrated Science Agenda. The GCPO LCC’s Blueprint Development Team identified this need as its highest priority to address in 2017.  (The Team includes the GCPO LCC’s  Adaptation Science Management Team plus staff from Joint Ventures, the Southeastern Aquatic Resource Partnership, State Wildlife Action Plans, and the National Wildlife Refuge Inventory & Monitoring program.)

To meet this need, the GCPO LCC is soliciting Statements of Interest (SOIs) to identify potential investigators for one or more projects addressing the LCC’s need for models of species-habitat relationships. Funding for projects will be contingent upon sufficient appropriations. You can download the full request and submit an SOI at http://fwrc.msstate.edu/gcpolcc/.  

How to make local governments want more green infrastructure

/**/ /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ /**/ /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/

What if key communities and homeowners along the Gulf Coast knew they had an opportunity to save up to 20% per year on flood insurance premiums?  And what if that opportunity translated into a decreased risk of flooding?  Would they take steps to realize those savings?

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and researchers at Texas A&M University are betting yes.  With support from a multi-LCC grant and funding from the Knobloch Foundation, their community resilience project has recently identified just such an opportunity.

Using open space protection to save on flood insurance and conserve nature

Using existing datasets, they developed a model that predicts lands with a high probability of flooding.  Next they used land cover data and maps to identify unprotected areas with high conservation value for land trusts across the region.  By combining these two sets of results, they were able to identify 421 watersheds out of ~2600 across the Gulf as the most effective for land conservation to protect communities from flooding and conserve open space for fish and wildlife.  A mapping platform that hosts these data is available at TNC’s Coastal Resilience 2.0 mapping tool

“Floods are a real and growing problem along the Gulf coast and land conservation is an effective way to reduce flood risk,” says Dr. Christine Shepard, Director of Science for the Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico Program. “We have an opportunity in the Gulf of Mexico to increase community resilience by preserving open spaces in areas of high flood risk.  The science shows us where we can do this in a way that also benefits fish and wildlife.”

Why does land conservation lower insurance premiums?

As the TNC report Protecting Open Space & Ourselves states, “Open space enables the critical natural functions of wetlands to persist; the water storage capacity of the landscape is maximized and flooding beyond the extent of the actual protected area can be reduced.”  Not only that, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) voluntary Community Rating System (CRS) gives communities points for flood mitigation activities, including open space protection, which can earn their citizen’s an insurance discount of up to 20%.

These discounts are based on good science.  The 2012 study “Open space protection and flood mitigation: A national study” found that from 1999 to 2009, a point increase in the CRS system significantly decreased the observed amount of insured flood damage in floodplain areas.

To get a sense of the magnitude of the opportunity here, within (or partially within) the 421 high opportunity Gulf watersheds lie 343 municipalities, counties, and parishes.  Yet, as of 2014 only 100 of those communities were enrolled in the CRS program.  Even those 100 communities only earned an average of 131 out of a possible 2,020 points for open space preservation.  

Will communities take advantage of this new knowledge?

A hammer is only useful when someone picks it up to drive a nail.  Accordingly, the Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks LCC is providing additional support to ensure that Gulf communities can begin to use this new flood protection analysis.  The Nature Conservancy will be engaging the residents and officials of three or more localities through a series of workshops in the spring of 2017.  They are working with partners who will use the experience to engage additional communities elsewhere. (For more information or to nominate your community, email cshepard@tnc.org.)

This project will also be integrating information developed by the multi-LCC Tidal Wetland Migration project.  “Mike Osland has great information showing which open space areas are important for wetland migration as sea level rises,” says Shepard.  “We would also like to identify which watersheds are most resilient to climate change and sea level rise by incorporating information on future development and where future flood claims are likely to be, combined with Mike’s information.  Right now we have the data but not the funding to take these additional steps.”

Gray or green?

This approach to flood risk reduction is one type of “green infrastructure” that is increasingly being deployed worldwide.  Dr. Shepard explains, “Gray vs. green infrastructure choices are local decisions that must be made based on local circumstances, including the level of risk reduction desired and what is to be protected - is it critical infrastructure?  Also the amount of funding is a factor because gray infrastructure, such as a sea wall, tends to be far more resource intensive and requires maintenance.  Many solutions could be hybrid.  Green infrastructure is not a magic bullet, but it should absolutely be one of the tools to achieve flood protection.”

From 1996 to 2007, communities within the ~2,600-watershed Gulf of Mexico study area experienced the largest amount of insured property damage in the U.S.  As the first of its kind to examine undeveloped lands across these Gulf watersheds, this coastal resilience study is a great addition to the flood protection toolbox.

Up next: Read how small changes in temperature and/or rainfall along the Gulf can lead to large changes in ecosystem structure and function.

How to make local governments want more green infrastructure

/**/ /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ /**/ /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/ --> /**/

What if key communities and homeowners along the Gulf Coast knew they had an opportunity to save up to 20% per year on flood insurance premiums?  And what if that opportunity translated into a decreased risk of flooding?  Would they take steps to realize those savings?

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and researchers at Texas A&M University are betting yes.  With support from a multi-LCC grant and funding from the Knobloch Foundation, their community resilience project has recently identified just such an opportunity.

Using open space protection to save on flood insurance and conserve nature

Using existing datasets, they developed a model that predicts lands with a high probability of flooding.  Next they used land cover data and maps to identify unprotected areas with high conservation value for land trusts across the region.  By combining these two sets of results, they were able to identify 421 watersheds out of ~2600 across the Gulf as the most effective for land conservation to protect communities from flooding and conserve open space for fish and wildlife.  A mapping platform that hosts these data is available at TNC’s Coastal Resilience 2.0 mapping tool

“Floods are a real and growing problem along the Gulf coast and land conservation is an effective way to reduce flood risk,” says Dr. Christine Shepard, Director of Science for the Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico Program. “We have an opportunity in the Gulf of Mexico to increase community resilience by preserving open spaces in areas of high flood risk.  The science shows us where we can do this in a way that also benefits fish and wildlife.”

Why does land conservation lower insurance premiums?

As the TNC report Protecting Open Space & Ourselves states, “Open space enables the critical natural functions of wetlands to persist; the water storage capacity of the landscape is maximized and flooding beyond the extent of the actual protected area can be reduced.”  Not only that, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) voluntary Community Rating System (CRS) gives communities points for flood mitigation activities, including open space protection, which can earn their citizen’s an insurance discount of up to 20%.

These discounts are based on good science.  The 2012 study “Open space protection and flood mitigation: A national study” found that from 1999 to 2009, a point increase in the CRS system significantly decreased the observed amount of insured flood damage in floodplain areas.

To get a sense of the magnitude of the opportunity here, within (or partially within) the 421 high opportunity Gulf watersheds lie 343 municipalities, counties, and parishes.  Yet, as of 2014 only 100 of those communities were enrolled in the CRS program.  Even those 100 communities only earned an average of 131 out of a possible 2,020 points for open space preservation.  

Will communities take advantage of this new knowledge?

A hammer is only useful when someone picks it up to drive a nail.  Accordingly, the Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks LCC is providing additional support to ensure that Gulf communities can begin to use this new flood protection analysis.  The Nature Conservancy will be engaging the residents and officials of three or more localities through a series of workshops in the spring of 2017.  They are working with partners who will use the experience to engage additional communities elsewhere. (For more information or to nominate your community, email cshepard@tnc.org.)

This project will also be integrating information developed by the multi-LCC Tidal Wetland Migration project.  “Mike Osland has great information showing which open space areas are important for wetland migration as sea level rises,” says Shepard.  “We would also like to identify which watersheds are most resilient to climate change and sea level rise by incorporating information on future development and where future flood claims are likely to be, combined with Mike’s information.  Right now we have the data but not the funding to take these additional steps.”

Gray or green?

This approach to flood risk reduction is one type of “green infrastructure” that is increasingly being deployed worldwide.  Dr. Shepard explains, “Gray vs. green infrastructure choices are local decisions that must be made based on local circumstances, including the level of risk reduction desired and what is to be protected - is it critical infrastructure?  Also the amount of funding is a factor because gray infrastructure, such as a sea wall, tends to be far more resource intensive and requires maintenance.  Many solutions could be hybrid.  Green infrastructure is not a magic bullet, but it should absolutely be one of the tools to achieve flood protection.”

From 1996 to 2007, communities within the ~2,600-watershed Gulf of Mexico study area experienced the largest amount of insured property damage in the U.S.  As the first of its kind to examine undeveloped lands across these Gulf watersheds, this coastal resilience study is a great addition to the flood protection toolbox.

Up next: Read how small changes in temperature and/or rainfall along the Gulf can lead to large changes in ecosystem structure and function.

GCPO LCC Gets a New Geomatics Coordinator

It’s a time of transition for the GCPO. Dr. Kristine Evans left her position as Geomatics Coordinator in December to pursue her dreams as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Aquaculture at Mississippi State University. The LCC made great strides under her leadership and we are very grateful that she will continue to serve the LCC as a liaison to MSU.

There was strong competition among the applicants for the Geomatics Coordinator. In the final analysis, Dr. Toby Gray rose to the top. He brings a deep passion for conservation and strong geospatial skills to the team. Since 2014, Toby has been working as a researcher for the LCC, primarily focused on completing the Ecological Assessments for Grasslands and Open Pine. 

We are happy to announce that Dr. Gray has verbally accepted the Geomatics Coordinator Position.  Barring any delays, Toby will officially take the mantle by March 1st. Given his familiarity with the LCC, we know that Toby will hit the ground running. In fact, he is already working to host a Grasslands Conservation Workshop for the end of February. You can contact Toby at toby@gri.msstate.edu for more information.

Toby is very excited about the opportunities that lay ahead. In his own words:

“I have been very fortunate to have spent the past two-and-a-half years as a Research Associate for the Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozarks Landscape Conservation Cooperative. Getting to know so many of our partners across the region and developing a greater understanding of the challenges to science-based landscape conservation design, not to mention walking through and observing so many representative landscapes up close, has been a great experience. I have also benefitted greatly by having an excellent geomatics coordinator, project leader, wildlife biologist, and collaborator in Dr. Kristine Evans in the office right next door to mine. When it comes to using geospatial data to answer questions and develop tools to serve the cause of landscape conservation, the challenges loom large. Raw data are ubiquitous, housed in many different locations, in many different formats, and developed under varying protocols to serve many different purposes. Conservation is applied across the region by a diverse constellation of partners working at different scales in different ecological systems for different agencies, universities, and organizations. To meet these challenges, we have an excellent staff here at the GCPO LCC, with strong connections to a network of skilled scientists, universities, and research institutes. We have very sophisticated geospatial tools, with more tools coming online almost monthly. This is a very exciting time to be working in geospatial science, and, for me, there is no other field in which I would like to apply my expertise more than that of large landscape conservation.”

Up next: Read about how to make local governments want more green infrastructure 

GCPO LCC Gets a New Geomatics Coordinator

It’s a time of transition for the GCPO. Dr. Kristine Evans left her position as Geomatics Coordinator in December to pursue her dreams as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Aquaculture at Mississippi State University. The LCC made great strides under her leadership and we are very grateful that she will continue to serve the LCC as a liaison to MSU.

There was strong competition among the applicants for the Geomatics Coordinator. In the final analysis, Dr. Toby Gray rose to the top. He brings a deep passion for conservation and strong geospatial skills to the team. Since 2014, Toby has been working as a researcher for the LCC, primarily focused on completing the Ecological Assessments for Grasslands and Open Pine. 

We are happy to announce that Dr. Gray has verbally accepted the Geomatics Coordinator Position.  Barring any delays, Toby will officially take the mantle by March 1st. Given his familiarity with the LCC, we know that Toby will hit the ground running. In fact, he is already working to host a Grasslands Conservation Workshop for the end of February. You can contact Toby at toby@gri.msstate.edu for more information.

Toby is very excited about the opportunities that lay ahead. In his own words:

“I have been very fortunate to have spent the past two-and-a-half years as a Research Associate for the Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozarks Landscape Conservation Cooperative. Getting to know so many of our partners across the region and developing a greater understanding of the challenges to science-based landscape conservation design, not to mention walking through and observing so many representative landscapes up close, has been a great experience. I have also benefitted greatly by having an excellent geomatics coordinator, project leader, wildlife biologist, and collaborator in Dr. Kristine Evans in the office right next door to mine. When it comes to using geospatial data to answer questions and develop tools to serve the cause of landscape conservation, the challenges loom large. Raw data are ubiquitous, housed in many different locations, in many different formats, and developed under varying protocols to serve many different purposes. Conservation is applied across the region by a diverse constellation of partners working at different scales in different ecological systems for different agencies, universities, and organizations. To meet these challenges, we have an excellent staff here at the GCPO LCC, with strong connections to a network of skilled scientists, universities, and research institutes. We have very sophisticated geospatial tools, with more tools coming online almost monthly. This is a very exciting time to be working in geospatial science, and, for me, there is no other field in which I would like to apply my expertise more than that of large landscape conservation.”

Up next: Read about how to make local governments want more green infrastructure 

Transitioning into 2017

A few weeks ago, the GCPO LCC staff gathered in Starkville, MS, for a 2-day staff retreat, where we started laying out our work plans and priorities for 2017. Our staff, because we work for multiple partner agencies and are physically located in offices across the LCC, get together frequently for staff conference calls, and we also come together a couple times a year for in-person staff retreats. We have found this to be an effective way of working together, and to keep up with what each of us is working on.

This year, the focus of our discussions is on transition. I had laid out a vision for that transition in a presentation I made to the Steering Committee last fall. That presentation recognized that our LCC had just completed its Conservation Blueprint 1.0, and we had also completed most of our Ecological Assessments work, which fed into the Blueprint. These were major milestones for our partnership, and they were important contributions to the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy (SECAS). The question before us now was “Where should we focus our attention now?” Answering that question was the primary purpose of our meeting in Starkville. Our discussions were focused on 3 large topics: 1) Building towards a Blueprint 2.0; 2) Ecosystem services and human dimensions; and 3) Landscape conservation design.

  1. Building towards a Blueprint 2.0 – enhancing, improving, and updating the Blueprint will continue to be a primary focus for the GCPO LCC. As we move forward, that will entail the incorporation of species-habitat models into the Blueprint. Those models will more explicitly articulate the relationship between priority species habitat needs, and the availability of that habitat, both currently and in the future, in the LCC. To accomplish this work, the GCPO LCC is securing the services of 2 post-doctoral positions, one focused on terrestrial species and the other on aquatics, for the next 2 years.

  2. Ecosystem Services and Human Dimensions – our Strategic Plan identifies ecosystem services as an important science undertaking for the GCPO LCC. We have funded one research project on Ecosystem Services that was wrapped up recently, and which I believe will really help us in forging ahead in this important area. Mapping the potential ecological services in the GCPO, and better understanding landowners’ preferences on ecological services that they might want to provide on their lands, provide our science staff a good foundation for developing strategies for promoting various conservation practices in our region. These strategies can be linked up to our Blueprint information to build a more effective and sustainable landscape.
  3. Landscape Conservation Design (LCD) – last fall, our Steering Committee heard from Tina Chouinard of the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS or Service) about the Service’s new direction in implementing their Strategic Growth Policy. A new guidance document on Landscape Conservation Design released by the Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System in October 2016, provides direction by which NWRs should participate in LCD processes, and articulates the responsibilities of the USFWS in the “collaborative processes and product development associated with LCD." The Guidance document further suggests that NWRs should work with LCCs or other “landscape-scale partnership that facilitates cooperation, collaboration, and coordination across multiple stakeholders in developing a Landscape Conservation Design.” The GCPO has approximately 60 NWRs, so there is going to be a tremendous need in our LCC for NWRs to be involved in the LCD process that we’re undertaking.

    To be effective and to meet the larger purpose of an LCD, the GCPO’s LCDs must include more than NWRs in designing a landscape of the future. Our other partners, such as the Forest Service and state partners, have significant land holdings in the GCPO. There are also vast acreages of private lands in our geography, some held by corporate interests, and other partners such as tribes have smaller acreages that are nonetheless significant in a landscape conservation design.  LCCs attempt to bring all these pieces of the puzzle together into a coherent vision of a sustainable landscape.

Transition can be an uncomfortable exercise, especially when priorities change, and as I write this, we are still in the very earliest stages of President Trump’s administration and transition. I’m sure that much of the uncertainty surrounding the current transition will clear up as new leadership gets installed in the Department of the Interior, and as priorities and policies are communicated to our federal partner agencies. In the meantime, the priorities of the GCPO LCC remain the same as they were in 2016, and as directed by our Steering Committee’s decisions over the years. We’ll continue to provide science-based products, tools and recommendations to achieve our vision “to ensure natural and cultural landscapes capable of sustaining healthy ecosystems, clean water, fish, wildlife, and human communities in the 180-million acre Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks region through the 21st century.”

Up next: Read about a new online tool and datasets that will help coastal communities transition into a focus on resilience to sea level rise.

Transitioning into 2017

A few weeks ago, the Science Team for the GCPO LCC gathered in Starkville, MS, for a 2-day staff retreat, where we started laying out our work plans and priorities for 2017. Our staff, because we work for multiple partner agencies, and are physically located in offices across the LCC, get together frequently for staff conference calls, and we also come together a couple times a year for in-person staff retreats. We have found this to be an effective way of working together, and to keep up with what each of us is working on.

This year, the focus of our discussions is on transition. I had laid out a vision for that transition in a presentation I made to the Steering Committee last fall. That presentation recognized that our LCC had just completed its Conservation Blueprint 1.0, and we had also completed most of our Ecological Assessments work, which fed into the Blueprint. These were major milestones for our partnership, and they were important contributions to the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy (SECAS). The question before us now was “Where should we focus our attention now?” Answering that question was the primary purpose of our meeting in Starkville. Our discussions were focused on 3 large topics: 1) Building towards a Blueprint 2.0; 2) Ecosystem services and human dimensions, and; 3) Landscape conservation design.

  1. Building towards a Blueprint 2.0 – enhancing, improving, and updating the Blueprint will continue to be a primary focus for the GCPO LCC. As we move forward, that will entail the incorporation of species-habitat models into the Blueprint. Those models will more explicitly articulate the relationship between priority species habitat needs, and the availability of that habitat, both currently and in the future, in the LCC. To accomplish this work, the GCPO LCC is securing the services of 2 post-doctoral positions, one focused on terrestrial species and the other on aquatics, for the next 2 years.

  2. Ecosystem Services and Human Dimensions – our Strategic Plan identifies ecosystem services as an important science undertaking for the GCPO LCC. We have funded one research project on Ecosystem Services that was wrapped up recently, and which I believe will really help us in forging ahead in this important area. Mapping the potential ecological services in the GCPO, and better understanding landowners’ preferences on ecological services that they might want to provide on their lands, provide our science staff a good foundation for developing strategies for promoting various conservation practices in our region. These strategies can be linked up to our Blueprint information to build a more effective and sustainable landscape.
  3. Landscape Conservation Design (LCD) – last fall, our Steering Committee heard from Tina Chouinard of the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS or Service) about the Service’s new direction in implementing their Strategic Growth Policy. A new guidance document on Landscape Conservation Design released by the Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System in October 2016, provides direction by which NWRs should participate in LCD processes, and articulates the responsibilities of the USFWS in the “collaborative processes and product development associated with LCD. The Guidance document further suggests that NWR’s should work with LCC’s or other “landscape-scale partnership that facilitates cooperation, collaboration, and coordination across multiple stakeholders.in developing a Landscape Conservation Design”. The GCPO has approximately 60 NWR’s, so there is going to be a tremendous need in our LCC for NWR’s to be involved in the LCD process that we’re undertaking.

    To be effective and to meet the larger purpose of an LCD, the GCPO’s LCDs must include more than NWRs in designing a landscape of the future. Our other partners, such as the Forest Service and state partners, have significant land holdings in the GCPO. There are also vast acreages of private lands in our geography, some held by corporate interests, and other partners such as tribes have smaller acreages that are nonetheless significant in a landscape conservation design.  LCCs attempt to bring all these pieces of the puzzle together into a coherent vision of a sustainable landscape.

Transition can be an uncomfortable exercise, especially when priorities change, and as I write this, we are still in the very earliest stages of President Trump’s administration and transition. I’m sure that much of the uncertainty surrounding the current transition will clear up as new leadership gets installed in the Department of the Interior, and as priorities and policies are communicated to our federal partner agencies. In the meantime, the priorities of the GCPO LCC remain the same as they were in 2016, and as directed by our Steering Committee’s decisions over the years. We’ll continue to provide science-based products, tools and recommendations to achieve our vision “to ensure natural and cultural landscapes capable of sustaining healthy ecosystems, clean water, fish, wildlife, and human communities in the 180-million acre Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks region through the 21st century.”