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After years long "Envisioning" process, partners release comprehensive vision for Susquehanna River

The Chesapeake Conservancy has released a vision document for conservation in the Susquehanna River watershed that synthesizes input from an in-depth community engagement campaign, identifies recommendations for addressing shared conservation priorities, and responds to a need for better data and tools.

When describing the unique role the Chesapeake Conservancy plays in regional conservation, Joel Dunn likes to say his organization works at the intersection of “macro” and “micro” conservation; the Envision the Susquehanna initiative is a case in point.

The first time I encountered the president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy in 2014, he was presenting the nascent conservation effort for the Susquehanna River watershed at the macro level -- federal, state, nonprofit, and university partners, collaborating to conserve a 27,500 square-mile basin -- in a macro context -- the Large Landscapes Conference in Washington, D.C.

Today Dunn can reference a site identified as a high priority for in-stream restoration work to benefit Eastern brook trout in a tributary of the Susquehanna so small, it doesn’t even have a name.

“We have really ratcheted down from the grand scale of the watershed, to key regional stakeholders, to community groups, to individual landowners,” said Dunn.

It was no small task. Beginning in 2013, the Conservancy carried out an exhaustive community engagement campaign with support from the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) to identify the biggest natural and cultural resource priorities in the Susquehanna River watershed, and the key partners with a stake in its future across the spectrum. From a core team of advisors representing the National Park Service, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition for Environmental Studies, the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership, and the Wildlife Management Institute, to a cross-section of real people who live and work in the watershed.

“We conducted a phone survey with 1,000 residents, interviewed dozens of land-use stakeholders, led workshops in 17 communities in the watershed, and digested 36 open space plans that had been created for different sections of the river to pull out commonalities among them,” said Dunn.

Susquehanna River near Hyner, Penn. (Bucknell)This week, the Conservancy released a new Vision document for Susquehanna River conservation that synthesizes all of the input gathered from the watershed community, and maps out recommendations for addressing shared conservation priorities under the umbrella of five theme areas: American Indian Heritage and History, Recreation and Public Access, Working Lands, Stormwater and Flooding, and Wildlife Habitat.

But more than just analyzing of community conservation values, the document responds to community conservation needs.

“Throughout all of this engagement, we heard a consistent, sustained request for better, higher resolution data, and easier to use tools,” said Dunn. And so in parallel to the effort to distill conservation priorities, the Conservancy focused on removing technological barriers that stood in the way of addressing them. They developed high resolution land cover and stream channel data for the entire watershed, and an interactive decision-support tool for identifying restoration opportunities as part of the Nature’s Network suite of regional conservation products.

“Never before has this kind of data been available to local communities, and that’s what brought them into the conversation,” explained Project Manager Carly Dean. “This information is helping them more easily answer questions that they have had for a long time,” she said, pointing out that they have already heard feedback about the utility of the restoration tool for getting site-specific information on the likes of species distribution and ownership.

“We are at an exciting time where we are working with partners to figure out how to prioritize where dollars are spent, and we are starting to have project-scale data that helps us make those decisions,” Dean said. Supplying that kind of “micro” information is essential to engaging communities in what she calls “precision conservation” -- the right practices, in the right places, at the right scale.

“Through precision conservation, we can see more impactful results,” she said.

How precise?

Dean pointed to a project in Centre County, Penn., involving five contiguous landowners who all use their lands for agriculture to varying degrees. “This portion of the river has the highest quality cold-water habitat designation for the watershed, and this is the only stretch that is considered impaired,” said Dean. “Although there aren’t brook trout in this section of the river, they have been documented upstream and downstream, and we believe by improving this stretch we can bridge the gap between those populations.”

Three of the landowners participated in a workshop led by the Conservancy and partners in January to understand individual priorities that can be included in the prioritization of restoration opportunities along concentrated flow paths on agricultural land. “They contributed their thoughts on what makes a priority a priority, and what information they would want to know in order to make a decision about conservation on their land,” said Dean.

With input from local stakeholders, the Conservancy prioritized 43,833 Best Management Opportunity areas for improving water quality that had been identified in the focal areas of Clinton and Centre counties using 40 water quality and wildlife datasets assessed, including several developed by the North Atlantic LCC such as Local Connectedness and Brook Trout Habitat Suitability.

“People are really interested in brook trout and the LCC datasets have been helpful to communicate the potential to restore habitat for this species,” said Dean. “It has been exciting to present both specific and large data sets and get feedback on how valuable the information is, and then to work with local communities to figure out how to use information on wildlife and water quality to prioritize conservation at the project scale, and apply it to actions on the ground.”

But the work doesn’t end with implementation. “Once we have prioritized and planted the trees on the riverbank, let’s engage our university partners to do the necessary monitoring to validate the effectiveness of these measures,” said Dean, adding after a pause, “We actually have a team out there monitoring today.” A group of professors and students from the Susquehanna Heartland Coalition for Environmental Studies.

When thousands of people were invited to “envision” the Susquehanna in 2013, few probably imagined that this degree of precision could be applied to sustaining a large, complex watershed. And it couldn’t have without coupling macro and micro conservation, an approach that Dunn hopes will provide a model for other initiatives of this scale across the region.

“The thought was that by combining community engagement and data, we could have a bold and supported vision that would benefit everybody, and allow us to make a stronger pitch to expand resources needed for conservation and restoration,” said Dunn. “We are on the edge of something great, not just for Susquehanna, but for the entire Northeast.”










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