You are here: Home / News & Events / All News Items / As innovative landscape design takes shape, partners focus on next steps

As innovative landscape design takes shape, partners focus on next steps

Partners in the Connecticut River Watershed Landscape Conservation Design Pilot are thinking big picture even as they make detailed decisions about species and habitat goals for the watershed.

One month after the first unveiling of conservation design tailored to meet the needs of species and ecosystems, partners in the Connecticut River Watershed Pilot met to work through questions key for finalizing the modeling framework, and ensuring its broader applicability.

Decisions about the scale of the design products, and how to incorporate rare species and natural communities into the design, could have implications well beyond the reaches of the Connecticut River. Although the pilot focuses on a specific watershed, one of the overarching goals of the partners is to develop a package of conservation design tools that can be adapted to use in other parts of the region.

Using a suite of 14 focal species selected to serve as the best representatives of important terrestrial and aquatic organisms and habitats, and using evaluations of the integrity and resiliency of ecosystems in the watershed, the project is piloting a conservation approach that allows partners to work together towards multiple shared regional priorities.

The species- and ecoystem-based objectives create a framework for identifying “core areas” – pieces of land that offer the greatest potential to fulfill long-term conservation objectives in the watershed as part of an interconnected network.

The Designing Sustainable Landscapes project team, led by Professor Kevin McGarigal at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, developed the models that are being used to delineate the core areas, and has continued to refine them based on Core Team input. During the meeting at the end of October, McGarigal provided a tour of the four elements that make up the landscape conservation design package:

  1. Core areas, defined above
  2. Connectors, or paths, to create a contiguous network of core areas
  3. Opportunities for restoration and management, such as culvert removal
  4. Conservation overlays, such as data on rare species


All components contribute to a landscape-level picture that can help regional stakeholders make informed conservation decisions. But to be useful, the products must address diverse needs at relevant scales.

Encompassing representatives from private organizations and state and federal agencies, the Pilot’s Core Team is well equipped to consider diverse needs. Guided by the overarching question, “Is it transferable?” partners are deliberating final details in two main areas:

1. Rare species and natural communities

In addition to accounting for the needs of all representative species and associated ecosystems in the final design, the team is evaluating options for addressing the needs of rare species and natural communities through the design.

Rare species and natural communities are high priorities for states, but also inherently challenging to protect. They often occur in small areas that may be isolated from large intact landscapes. As a result, partners spent a long time discussing how best to incorporate rare species and natural communities into the design without creating a restrictively small and fragmented network of core areas.

As the Core Team considered the issue, McGarigal offered perspective through an analogy he said occurred to him while baking the night before. “Think of core area as M&Ms in a cookie,” he said. “Everyone wants more M&Ms, but it’s the cookie matrix that holds it all together.” In other words, even if the core area network is made up of a large number of small pieces, they all will contribute conservation value to the larger landscape. 

Bill Labich who represents the Highstead Foundation as part of the Core Team, said the analogy is exactly what conservation practitioners in the field want to hear. “They are working on a parcel-by-parcel basis, but they still need to be able to relate it to a greater whole,” he said, “This is wonderful.”

The team ultimately decided to factor in rare natural communities when selecting core areas for ecosystems, and to keep rare species data separate, but available as an informative overlay.

2. Distribution of core areas

Another goal of the partners is to ensure that core areas are well distributed across the entire watershed, which can help capture the area’s full range of biodiversity. A distributed set of core areas could also ensure that “stepping stones” are in place to allow animals and plants to disperse to new areas, as may be necessary in a changing climate.

With that in mind, partners deliberated upon the strengths and weaknesses of various ways to distribute core areas across the landscape. The main approach under consideration is to divide the watershed into smaller units, and then establish core areas in each subunit. But what subunits should be used?

One option on the table is the set of ecoregions developed by The Nature Conservancy, which divides the U.S. into large ecologically defined areas of land or water, such as the North Atlantic Coast.  Another option is to use one of the watershed levels defined by the U.S. Geological Survey in the Hydrologic Unit Codes (HUCs) classification system. At the conclusion of the meeting, a consensus was building toward watershed (HUC) based units to help achieve a resilient, connected network of core areas.

Looking ahead

During the next few months, the Core Team will make final decisions related to restoration priorities, landscape change, and scaling, in preparation for release of the initial version of the Connecticut River Watershed Landscape Conservation Design in early 2015. 

Project deliverables include maps and models that show options for prioritizing conservation actions in the Connecticut River watershed, and documentation of the landscape conservation design process to inform other planning and design efforts in the region. 

Document Actions