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States join forces to (flow) chart a course for regional conservation

The team of partners involved in the Regional Conservation Opportunity Areas (RCOAs) effort convened this summer to outline the best approach for developing a landscape conservation design for the Northeast that reflects shared conservation priorities across the region.

What would happen if you erased the boundaries between the 13 states stretching from Virginia to Maine and looked across the entire landscape for the best places to address regional conservation goals?

That’s the vision for Regional Conservation Opportunity Areas (RCOAs) project, a collaborative effort to identify areas in the Northeast where the actions of individual states to protect core landscapes, enable wildlife connectivity, restore threatened ecosystems, and support Regional Species of Greatest Conservation Need and associated habitats would have the greatest impact.

But the challenging first step in identifying these areas is to determine the best methods for doing so.

During a three-day workshop hosted by the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) in July, the team of experts from states, conservation organizations and universities that are involved in the project met to work through the many decisions needed to lay the groundwork for long-term success in a project with a far-reaching vision.  

Although by the end of the workshop, participants were joking about the critical role that flowcharts played in facilitating the complex process, it was the potential outcomes for conservation that kept the collaborative momentum alive.

“This is something that has never been done before,” said Kate Moran, a Wildlife Biologist with the Connecticut Wildlife Division. “Conservation has been very isolated from state to state, but when you consult with each other, you realize that there are regional conservation opportunities that you might not have seen before.”

She pointed to a recent success story where Connecticut and Massachusetts conserved neighboring parcels of grassland habitat along the state boundary, resulting in a larger swath of continuous habitat than either state could have protected alone. In that case, it was fortuitous timing, but Moran said the RCOA effort would make more of these kinds of collaborations possible across the entire region.

Pat Woerner of the New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Endangered Nongame Species Program reinforced the importance for state’s to understand their unique roles in advancing regional conservation. “We obviously all have local priorities that drive our work, and the regional connections are often lost in that shuffle, so this is a project that allows us to contextualize our work within the larger region.”

Woerner pointed out that another important outcome of the RCOA effort is that it is facilitating the synthesis of disparate conservation datasets from across the region. Once centralized and combined, he said the information will be more meaningful and better able to inform wildlife conservation on the ground.  

The products of the RCOA effort - including a spatially delineated network of areas, and accompanying datasets - will also provide additional resources to complement the tools used by individual states to justify conservation decisions among stakeholders in their own jurisdictions.

“One of the big issues all state wildlife agencies have is our very limited funding mechanisms, so we’re constantly on the lookout for other funding resources and for partners that can help us do work with what money we have,” said Chris Burkett, Wildlife Action Plan coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Fisheries.

While he said State Wildlife Action Plans carry a lot of weight towards demonstrating the investmentment value of proposed conservation efforts, the products of the RCOA effort will bolster the case.

“This isn’t just a state priority; it’s a regional priority. So now we can say: If we conserve this habitat or species, more than just the people of Virginia, the people of the Northeast are better off,” said Burkett. “We are always looking for that next boost, for that quantifiable statement of priority.”

Over the course of the workshop, teams of participants shared recommendations for how to meet each of the four fundamental objectives of the project: protecting core landscapes, enabling wildlife connectivity, restoring threatened ecosystems, and supporting Regional Species of Greatest Conservation Need and associated habitats. They then outlined a methodology for the RCOA approach, which North Atlantic LCC staff are working to synthesize into draft form.

More than just the foundations of a methodology, Moran said they left the workshop with a clear vision for the future of the project.

“This is our second workshop, and the giant leap that we’ve taken from two days ago to now is amazing,” she said. “Prior to this workshop, it was all in our heads, and now we have something to grab onto.”

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