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Community shapes conservation vision for the Susquehanna River

By considering social and ecological data in a new regional planning effort, the Chesapeake Conservancy is strengthening the long-term conservation outlook for the Susquehanna River watershed.

For the Maryland-based Chesapeake Conservancy, “Envision the Susquehanna” is more than just a catchy name for the landscape conservation effort they are leading in the eponymous watershed. It’s an invitation to be a part of it. One that the project's organizers have extended to hundreds of people living and working in the Susquehanna River basin since the effort got off the ground in 2013.

People including 965 residents who participated in a regional phone survey, 62 informal and formal community conservation leaders who took part in interviews, 25 representatives from agencies and nonprofits who serve on the project’s Advisory Council, and the five partners on the project’s core team.

With support from a Science Delivery grant from the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, the Chesapeake Conservancy has undertaken an intense community engagement campaign to identify both the natural and cultural resource priorities that will provide the foundation for the project, and the people who will be key to its long-term success.

“It’s about understanding values and attitudes,” said Chesapeake Conservancy Director of Programs Joanna Ogburn. “How people feel about the river, if they think things are getting better or worse, what activities are desirable, which partners are amenable,” to name a few.  

Through this approach, the Chesapeake Conservancy’s demonstration project does more than just illustrate how North Atlantic LCC science can be applied for regional conservation planning – it shows that this science becomes much more meaningful when it aligns with and complements community-based conservation values.

By giving as much attention to the human dimensions of conservation in the watershed as to ecological and historical data, the project leaders can look objectively at where priorities intersect, and figure out the most effective places to start the process of long-term planning.

Easier said than done in a 20,000-square-mile watershed, but as the Conservancy’s second landscape conservation project, Envision the Susquehanna is benefiting from lessons learned in Envision the James, which completed its planning phase in 2013.

“Although we had a lot of success reaching constituents in the James River project, we wanted to make the engagement component of Envision the Susquehanna more robust so we could identify with confidence those who we haven’t been able to reach, and figure out how we can try to reach out to them,” explained Ogburn. 

To add more statistical weight to the process, the team worked with Dr. Brandn Green, the Director of the Place Studies Program at the Bucknell Center for Sustainability and the Environment, who applied social science research methods to better understand what types of conservation activities residents, practitioners, and leaders are interested in seeing in their communities.

The Conservancy also enlisted the help of the polling institute at Lycoming College to conduct the phone survey, which was administered in all counties bordering the Susquehanna River.

These measures have helped them to be more inclusive, but Ogburn pointed out that even if you have reached a representative population, the ongoing challenge is keeping these people engaged throughout a long-term regional scale planning process. That’s why the Chesapeake Conservancy has used a portion of the Science Delivery grant to support a suite of its own “demonstration” projects.

“The idea is to keep the energy going, build trust, and to show people a commitment of resources on the ground,” said Ogburn, noting, “We have already helped protect land in upper reaches of the Susquehanna near Cooperstown, N.Y., created a public access in Jersey Shore, Penn., and are now in the midst of a cultural heritage project relocating petroglyphs from the river to Susquehanna State Park in Maryland.”

It’s probably no accident that the suite of demonstration projects encompasses a range of different conservation priorities – from land protection to recreation to cultural preservation – and certainly serendipitous that one of the projects involves symbolically displaying historic artifacts that were literally resurrected from the river.

Credit: Chesapeake Conservancy

The stone petroglyphs, discovered in the water near a dam construction site, are thought to have been carved by Algonquin Indians more than a millennium ago. A thousand such stone carvings have been found in or along the river, and provide a tangible link to a part of history that Project Manager Carly Dean said resonates broadly with residents today.

“We found consistently in every community that the greatest interest for promoting historical tourism in the Susquehanna is through American Indian history,” said Dean, adding that Advisory Council member Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force, which represents six American Indian nations, will provide guidance on how to incorporate that history into the plan.

Dean said seeing these common threads emerge from communities throughout the vast watershed has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the engagement campaign.

“These consistent responses mean that we can use those themes as a way to link between all of our communities.” And any threads that can link all of the communities together will help to fortify the plan overall.

The community input has also helped the team identify data gaps, primarily related to cultural data, and then begin to respond to those needs as through their collaboration with Dr. Katherine Faull, Director of the Program in Comparative Humanities at Bucknell. With the help of her students, Dr. Faull has mapped important historical sites - including petroglyphs, American Indian paths, and colonial structures – providing cultural data in a spatial format that will be used in conjunction with ecological data to identify the highest priority landscapes for conservation.

Ecological data is where the North Atlantic LCC provides another key contribution.  

“The great thing about the LCC is that we are dealing with such a huge landscape, encompassing three states, and it’s really nice to be able to bring regional context to the initiative,” said Ogburn.

While she acknowledged that for decision making at the local level, there will always be certain data sources that practitioners will turn to first, “To be able to understand from a large landscape perspective how to start prioritizing, that’s something new that North Atlantic LCC brings to the table, and it’s really exciting.”

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