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Connect the Connecticut provides guidance for sound investments to protect Long Island Sound

Information from the landscape conservation design for the Connecticut River watershed is being used to identify candidate projects for a grant program focused on reducing runoff into Long Island Sound by protecting private forestlands threatened by development.
Connect the Connecticut provides guidance for sound investments to protect Long Island Sound

Habitat maps for a six bird species, including wood thrush, developed for Connect the Connecticut are being used to determine eligibility for an NRCS grant program.

When Highstead Foundation and six other partners applied to the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service to chair the Long Island Sound Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), Senior Conservationist Bill Labich was acting on behalf of 19 regional conservation partnerships that work within the watershed boundaries. As the coordinator of the Regional Conservation Partnership (RCP) Network, Labich was looking for ways to secure funding for the kind of land protection efforts these entities are known for: connecting habitat for locally and regionally significant wildlife species.

Since only a third of the $10 million grant focused on reducing nitrogen-laced runoff into the Sound through permanent land protection, the challenge was to make the most of every federal dollar to protect habitat capable of supporting rare, threatened, and endangered species. With the pending intersection of investments by state and federal agencies, foundations, and the nineteen RCPs in the watershed, Labich saw an important opportunity approaching: the alignment of public and private funding to begin implementing Connect the Connecticut.

A landscape conservation design for the Connecticut River watershed developed by partnership of state and federal agencies and non-governmental organization partners, Connect the Connecticut encompasses priority habitat for a suite of representative species based on the best available regional data from North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative. It also happens to overlap with the Long Island Sound watershed.

As a member of the core team of partners that led the development of Connect the Connecticut, Labich recognized the potential to put the design to work. Working with representatives from U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NRCS, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and forest agencies in every state in the watershed, Labich designed a pre-screening application process for Healthy Forest Reserve Program easements. Before Labich and his partners in the Long Island Sound RCPP announced a request for proposals for the Healthy Forest Reserve Program (HFRP) on June 1st, they set a high bar for applicants.

They needed to be able to compare parcels of private forestland containing habitats capable of supporting rare species that were also threatened by development and part of larger networks. They needed a way to focus on a handful of species of conservation need species for which landowners would restore and manage habitat. And, they needed a scientific basis to select applications. Fortunately, they had one solution for all three needs: Connect the Connecticut.

"We used Connect the Connecticut and other North Atlantic LCC data sets to help ensure our pre-screening application would result in clarity about a parcel’s eligibility and that high-scoring parcels reflected our ecological and large landscape values, as evidenced by the attributes identified in these datasets,” said Labich.

The committee used the landscape capability maps for six bird species that are included in Connect the Connecticut as eligibility criteria for the HFRP and used the network of priority core areas and connectors outlined in the design as additional ranking criteria for assessing the value of a project on a landscape scale.

“If your parcel includes habitat for a species like wood thrush, you are eligible. If it’s in a Tier 1 or Tier 2 core area, you get added points for the parcel’s strategic conservation value,” Labich explained.

After the enrollment period closed in August, the committee scored and ranked the applications by state and forwarded nine project to NRCS (two in Connecticut, two in Massachusetts, one in New Hampshire, and four in Vermont) totaling 3500 acres. Of the total acreage, 695 are in Tier 1 cores, 863 in Tier 2 cores, and 636 are in connectors. 

While the conservation of parcels based on data from Connect the Connecticut is not a done deal, Labich said, “We are hot on the trail of implementation.”

He pointed out that just getting people in the conservation community acquainted with the design is a big step for developing buy in, especially because the program represents a new frontier.

“This is the first time the Healthy Forest Reserve Program is being used for easements in New England or New York, so we are pioneers in helping to make sure it functions well here,” said Labich. “Even though they haven’t yet started signing people on for easements, the folks from NRCS are loving it.”

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