Greg Wathen's Posts (49)

If not for the GCPO LCC, ............

“In baseball, you don’t know nothing.” Yogi Berra

If you haven’t heard the news, LCC’s are targeted for elimination in the Trump Administration’s FY18 federal budget, which was submitted to Congress a few weeks ago, and would (theoretically) begin October 1, 2017. From a federal budgeting perspective, it’s like the opening pitch in a 9-inning baseball game, and Congress is up to bat next. Ultimately, Congress has the responsibility of passing a federal budget and submitting it to the President for his signature. So, there are still quite a few innings to go before we will know the final outcome of this ball game. Even so, the opening play is not a great place to start for LCC’s.

In the meantime, as the budgeting drama plays out, I have been thinking more deeply on what the landscape conservation community would look like without LCC’s.  A question that we sometimes ask ourselves is “If not for LCC’s, ……….. (fill in the blank)”. Here are a couple thoughts on that question:

  • If not for the GCPO LCC, our partners would not have the knowledge and tools they need to address the effects of climate change on fish and wildlife. For me personally, this has always been the most compelling reason for the existence of LCC’s, to help our partners better understand how climate change is affecting the fish and wildlife resources they are charged to protect and sustain. The tools and geospatial products that our LCC produces are all aimed at helping our partners better understand the effects of future change, and climate is one of the biggest factors influencing future change impacts on fish and wildlife.  Our tools also facilitate better decisions on actions that our partners can take to mitigate those impacts, or to help fish and wildlife to adapt to changes.

    Over the years, I have been told more than once by various partners how glad they are that the LCC is worrying about climate change, because within their own organizations they often don’t have the capacity to address the issue, or they lack the political support to take it on. The GCPO LCC has worked with many of our partners to facilitate climate-smart thinking and conservation planning. A great example of this work is the Gulf Coast Vulnerability Assessment, a multi-LCC effort that was awarded the inaugural Sam D. Hamilton Award for Transformational Conservation Science in 2015. Those of us who were fortunate enough to work with Sam Hamilton during our careers, know how passionate he was about the issue of climate change.

  • If not for the GCPO LCC, our partners would not have access to dozens of new geospatial data products that provide new and better understanding of the 180-million acre landscapes that encompass the GCPO geography. From the longleaf and shortleaf pine systems, to the tidal marshes of the Gulf Coast, to the big river systems, to the forests and streams of the Ozarks, your GCPO LCC staff have worked diligently to compile, analyze, and synthesize existing and new datasets into landscape-scale assessments of ecological function. These datasets in turn have been integrated into a Conservation Blueprint for the GCPO, which provides a first ever vision of conservation priority based on ecological functionality and conservation opportunity. All these datasets are available to our partners through our web-based Conservation Planning Atlas. Over the next few months, our LCC science team will be finalizing a first-ever State of the GCPO report, which will summarize all this geospatial data and information into one, easy to read and understand document.

At this juncture, there are more questions than answers as to the future of LCCs, including the GCPO LCC. My crystal ball is definitely hazy right now, but as I noted in the beginning of this blog, we are in the early stages of the budgeting process for FY18, and it really is anybody’s guess as to when and how Congress will take up the budgeting issue. Nevertheless, there are already changes afoot within the Dept. of Interior and Fish & Wildlife Service, which will also have important implications for LCCs. In the Southeast, FWS Regional Director Cindy Dohner is being re-assigned to Assistant Director of International Affairs. I’ve had the privilege of working with Cindy over the years in my position of GCPO LCC Coordinator, and she has been a consistent champion and advocate for LCCs, the Service’s Science Applications program, and the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy. Her leadership and unwavering support will be sorely missed.

In closing, it’s worth noting that the LCC program, since its inception in 2009, has already established an important legacy in landscape conservation. When the National Academy of Sciences, at the request of Congress, completed its review of LCCs in 2015, they noted that the nation “needs to take a landscape approach to conservation and that the U.S. Department of the Interior is justified in addressing this need with the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.” They further recognized that “the LCC Network is unique in that no other federal program is designed to address landscape conservation needs at a national scale, for all natural and cultural resources, in a way that bridges research and management efforts.” With that in mind, the GCPO LCC staff plans to spend the next few months working hard to complete some important projects we had already initiated, cataloguing various databases, documents and reports to ensure their continued availability to our partners, and engaging with our partners to ensure that a solid foundation for landscape conservation can endure into the future. And, we’ll keep trying to answer that question, “If not for the LCC, …………...”.

 

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Next month, the GCPO LCC will hold its annual spring Steering Committee retreat in Panama City, FL, May 17-18, 2017. This will be our LCC’s 7th spring meeting, and it seems like it was only yesterday that we first got together as a Steering Committee in Eureka Springs, AR, in 2011. Time flies when you’re having fun!

This year we’ll be meeting jointly with the East Gulf Coastal Plains Joint Venture (EGCP JV), and will be discussing opportunities for collaborative conservation across our two partnerships. We have already been collaborating with the EGCP JV on a few projects in the past, but I think it’s time for us to be thinking on how to make that collaboration even more effective. With the current political climate in Washington, and the very real possibilities, or perhaps certainties, of declining budgets in the next few years, this could be a timely discussion.

The GCPO LCC has met jointly with other partnership-based conservation organizations in the past. In 2013, we met jointly with the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership, and last year we had a joint session with the Gulf of Mexico Alliance and Gulf Coast Prairie LCC. These joint meetings, while sometimes more complicated to organize, are always productive sessions, and they provide a great forum for dialogue and exchange of ideas, and ultimately for better collaboration and conservation outcomes.

In addition, our joint discussions with the EGCP JV Management Board, our GCPO Steering Committee meeting will include discussions on aquatic resource conservation, with input from the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership (SARP) and Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee (LMRCC), and we’ll have a session on ecosystem services and human dimensions. You can read more about our ecosystem services work in Gregg Elliott’s article in this month’s newsletter. It’s an exciting area of work for the GCPO, and I’m hopeful that it will help our partners become more proficient in incorporating ecosystem services into their conservation portfolios.

The draft agenda for our GCPO/EGCP JV meeting is posted on our Steering Committee page on the GCPO LCC website. We’ll be updating the agenda as the meeting gets closer. Also, if you’re planning to attend, we have a block of rooms available at the Sheraton Bay Point Resort in Panama City – rooms are available at the federal government per diem rate of $115.00/night (plus tax). The Sheraton is right on the Gulf Coast, so it’s a great place to bring your family, and you can stay on a day or two after the meeting to enjoy the Gulf Coast and all it has to offer. If you’re planning to attend, be sure to make your reservations now – our room block expires April 24, 2017.

Hope to see you in Panama City!

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Transitioning into 2017

A few weeks ago, the GCPO LCC staff gathered in Starkville, MS, for a 2-day staff retreat, where we started laying out our work plans and priorities for 2017. Our staff, because we work for multiple partner agencies and are physically located in offices across the LCC, get together frequently for staff conference calls, and we also come together a couple times a year for in-person staff retreats. We have found this to be an effective way of working together, and to keep up with what each of us is working on.

This year, the focus of our discussions is on transition. I had laid out a vision for that transition in a presentation I made to the Steering Committee last fall. That presentation recognized that our LCC had just completed its Conservation Blueprint 1.0, and we had also completed most of our Ecological Assessments work, which fed into the Blueprint. These were major milestones for our partnership, and they were important contributions to the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy (SECAS). The question before us now was “Where should we focus our attention now?” Answering that question was the primary purpose of our meeting in Starkville. Our discussions were focused on 3 large topics: 1) Building towards a Blueprint 2.0; 2) Ecosystem services and human dimensions; and 3) Landscape conservation design.

  1. Building towards a Blueprint 2.0 – enhancing, improving, and updating the Blueprint will continue to be a primary focus for the GCPO LCC. As we move forward, that will entail the incorporation of species-habitat models into the Blueprint. Those models will more explicitly articulate the relationship between priority species habitat needs, and the availability of that habitat, both currently and in the future, in the LCC. To accomplish this work, the GCPO LCC is securing the services of 2 post-doctoral positions, one focused on terrestrial species and the other on aquatics, for the next 2 years.

  2. Ecosystem Services and Human Dimensions – our Strategic Plan identifies ecosystem services as an important science undertaking for the GCPO LCC. We have funded one research project on Ecosystem Services that was wrapped up recently, and which I believe will really help us in forging ahead in this important area. Mapping the potential ecological services in the GCPO, and better understanding landowners’ preferences on ecological services that they might want to provide on their lands, provide our science staff a good foundation for developing strategies for promoting various conservation practices in our region. These strategies can be linked up to our Blueprint information to build a more effective and sustainable landscape.
  3. Landscape Conservation Design (LCD) – last fall, our Steering Committee heard from Tina Chouinard of the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS or Service) about the Service’s new direction in implementing their Strategic Growth Policy. A new guidance document on Landscape Conservation Design released by the Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System in October 2016, provides direction by which NWRs should participate in LCD processes, and articulates the responsibilities of the USFWS in the “collaborative processes and product development associated with LCD." The Guidance document further suggests that NWRs should work with LCCs or other “landscape-scale partnership that facilitates cooperation, collaboration, and coordination across multiple stakeholders in developing a Landscape Conservation Design.” The GCPO has approximately 60 NWRs, so there is going to be a tremendous need in our LCC for NWRs to be involved in the LCD process that we’re undertaking.

    To be effective and to meet the larger purpose of an LCD, the GCPO’s LCDs must include more than NWRs in designing a landscape of the future. Our other partners, such as the Forest Service and state partners, have significant land holdings in the GCPO. There are also vast acreages of private lands in our geography, some held by corporate interests, and other partners such as tribes have smaller acreages that are nonetheless significant in a landscape conservation design.  LCCs attempt to bring all these pieces of the puzzle together into a coherent vision of a sustainable landscape.

Transition can be an uncomfortable exercise, especially when priorities change, and as I write this, we are still in the very earliest stages of President Trump’s administration and transition. I’m sure that much of the uncertainty surrounding the current transition will clear up as new leadership gets installed in the Department of the Interior, and as priorities and policies are communicated to our federal partner agencies. In the meantime, the priorities of the GCPO LCC remain the same as they were in 2016, and as directed by our Steering Committee’s decisions over the years. We’ll continue to provide science-based products, tools and recommendations to achieve our vision “to ensure natural and cultural landscapes capable of sustaining healthy ecosystems, clean water, fish, wildlife, and human communities in the 180-million acre Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks region through the 21st century.”

Up next: Read about a new online tool and datasets that will help coastal communities transition into a focus on resilience to sea level rise.

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"This country has gotten where it is in spite of politics, not by the aid of it. That we have carried as much political bunk as we have and still survived shows we are a super nation." Will Rogers (1932)

Well, the world of conservation was certainly thrown a curve ball on November 8, 2016. The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States was unexpected by many people. For those of us in the conservation profession, it raises many questions on what the new President-elect’s priorities will be for our country. If the rhetoric of the campaign is any indication, conservationists have a right to be concerned.

I was thinking about all this as I traveled to the University of Tennessee at Martin last month, about a week after the election. My purpose for the trip was to speak to Dr. Eric Pelren’s Wildlife Policy class at UTM. I’ve previously enjoyed this experience, and enjoy the opportunity to meet his students and discuss some of the contemporary issues that are important in today’s conservation world.

The long arc of conservation history

This year presented a different kind of opportunity. The divisiveness and outright ugliness of the Presidential campaign, the stark differences between the two major party candidates on conservation issues, and the surprising outcome of the election caused anxiety for many people. But it also presented an opportunity to gain some different perspectives, through the eyes of the next generation of conservation leaders. Knowing that I’m rapidly approaching the twilight of my career, I was more interested in knowing what was on the minds of college-age students who are preparing to start their own careers in conservation. What were their concerns? What were their aspirations? What issues do they see on the horizon? And, what was the first spark that inspired them to pursue a career in conservation?

My talk focused on the history of migratory bird conservation and landscape-scale conservation, but really it was about the long arc of conservation history, using the story of Joint Ventures and Landscape Conservation Cooperatives to illustrate the progress of the last 35 years, which builds on a larger conservation story of what has transpired before, 

To prepare for the class, I asked the students to read 4 papers: 

  1. Baxter Open Letter to the Directorate.pdf provides 130 year historical context and challenges USFWS to meet the needs of the future;
  2. DOI Secretarial Order 3289 establishing LCCs and Climate Science Centers, a fundamentally new direction for the department; 
  3. Congressionally requested National Academy of Sciences Review of LCCs (summary), concluded that landscape-scale conservation/LCCs are important conservation priorities for the nation; and 
  4. An article (Scarlett_et_al-2016-Frontiers_in_Ecology_and_the_Environment.pdf) on the emergence of Network Governance in large landscape conservation, about emerging innovations in conservation governance that are enabling public-private partnerships to find new solutions to pressing problems.

Student perspectives: what’s important to the next generation

After the class, I invited the students to provide their perspectives on the conservation issues of the day, what their key issues and hopes are, and what inspired them to get into conservation.  Following is a summary of their responses:

  • What resonated most to you from reading the 4 conservation papers? – Many reacted to the Baxter Open Letter, saying that it had opened their eyes to the long-term history of conservation, and created a better understanding how conservation paradigms have changed over the last century. It also created an understanding of the continuing need to adapt to new times and challenges. One student wrote that the paper “opened my eyes up and lit a fire in me to help out even more” in protecting the natural resources that others have worked so hard to restore and maintain in the past.
  • What do you think are the most pressing conservation issues in the 21st century? – Reacting to the Presidential election, students expressed concerns about who the next Secretary of Interior would be, and what direction the country would take in conservation. Also, issues such as sprawling urbanization, loss of forests, population growth, and climate change were mentioned as important. The declining number of sportsmen was identified as an important challenge for state fish & wildlife agencies, and the North American model of wildlife conservation, that relies on this constituency for funding and relevance.
  • What are your personal goals, both short and long-term, in conservation? – Most of the students mentioned getting a job in the conservation field as their most important short-term goal. For longer term goals, there were a range of thoughts: post graduate degree in wildlife or advancement in a conservation organization; tackling larger conservation issues such as restoring bobwhites; being a mentor to the next generation of conservationists that will follow them; working on global conservation initiatives to conserve wildlife habitat or mitigate the effects of climate change.
  • What caused you to get into conservation as a profession? – Consistently, students identified a mentor, usually their father, who provided that first spark that got them interested in wildlife conservation as a potential career interest. Some students grew up in a state park, or close to a park where they could be outdoors and explore nature. All of the students wrote of the importance of being introduced to the outdoors at an early age, and how much they loved various outdoor activities, whether it be camping, hunting, fishing, or caving.

Resting easy in uncertain times

Clearly, we are in for some uncertain times as a new Administration takes office in Washington, DC and begins to implement its priorities for the country. I’m sure there will some changes that I will disagree with vehemently, but I remain hopeful that some of the more damaging changes will either be short-lived or abandoned altogether, and I also have hope that some positive changes will be implemented as well. I appreciate the UT-Martin students for their willingness to voice their opinions and perspectives on the current state of affairs in conservation. We owe it to this next generation of conservation leaders to both share our experiences on lessons learned throughout our careers, but also to hear them out on their own concerns and priorities as they prepare to launch their careers.

I am also able to rest a little easier knowing that when measured against the long arc of conservation history, the next 4 years is but a short blip, and progress will continue to be made. In the last century, our profession has weathered a financial depression, two World Wars, and numerous other setbacks, but has nonetheless continued to make progress in conserving fish and wildlife. I expect that we will continue that tradition as we move forward. With that in mind, it’s time for us to all roll up our sleeves and to work even harder to ensure that our next generation of conservation leaders have a conservation legacy on which to build.

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Last week was a big week for the Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks LCC. First, we had a celebration of the first 5 years of the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy, a.k.a. SECAS, at the Annual Conference of the Southeastern Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies in Baton Rouge, LA. That was followed by our own GCPO LCC Steering Committee meeting, where we unveiled our Version 1.0 of the GCPO’s Conservation Blueprint.

A few highlights from both of these important events:

First, SECAS - the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy was first introduced at the SEAFWA Annual Conference in Nashville, TN, in 2011. It was also introduced to the GCPO LCC Steering Committee at that same meeting, and the GCPO LCC later committed to support SECAS at our Spring 2012 meeting in Five Rivers, AL. The GCPO LCC Steering Committee has subsequently re-affirmed its support for SECAS several times over the years since 2011. This year, 2016, represents an important 5-year milestone for SECAS - in 2011, we told the SEAFWA Directors that we needed 5 years to develop the initial products envisioned for SECAS, including a Blueprint of conservation priorities for the southeast. Back in 2011, LCCs were still in their early stages of formation, and it was difficult to envision exactly what a conservation Blueprint might look like, and how it might work across 6 LCCs in the southeast, some of which hadn’t even been stood up at the time.

At last week’s SEAFWA Conference, a SECAS Leadership Summit was held on Monday afternoon, October 17. This was really a celebration of SECAS and the progress that’s been made to date, but it was also an opportunity to discuss where SECAS goes from here. We unveiled SECAS Blueprint 1.0, which is a testament to our progress, but also a realization that the Blueprint is not the totality of SECAS, nor is it the conservation landscape of the future. We’ve still got work to do to get SECAS to that point, but we’ve come a long ways towards accomplishing that goal. What impressed me most about the Leadership Summit was the genuine enthusiasm and interest expressed by various state and federal leaders, and the recognition of how important the SECAS vision will become. In our changing southeastern landscapes, the world is being defined by multiple sectors, with little regard for fish and wildlife. SECAS is an opportunity for the fish and wildlife community to define that future landscape for the resources that we treasure, for the generations that will come along after us. You can read more about the SECAS Leadership Summit in Gregg Elliott’s SECAS article.

At the GCPO LCC Steering Committee meeting, we unveiled our own GCPO LCC Conservation Blueprint v1.0. Our Blueprint represents thousands of hours of work by our conservation science staff, and the input of hundreds of folks from the GCPO LCC partnership, and it is built on the foundation of our Strategic Plan and Integrated Science Agenda, which were developed back in 2013. The GCPO Blueprint represents the foundation for our future conservation planning in the GCPO LCC, into which we will be transitioning in the coming year. I laid out for the Steering Committee some areas of focus for the next several years: 1) Updating the Blueprint through refining and updating landscape endpoints, and strengthening our species-habitat endpoints; 2) Developing a Monitoring framework; 3) Incorporating Ecosystem Services and Human Dimensions more fully into our conservation planning frameworks; 4) Developing LCC-supported Landscape Conservation Designs; and 5) Connecting up to other large, regional-scale efforts to develop an ecologically connected landscape. These thoughts are depicted in a Prezi presentation that I gave to our Steering Committee last week, which you can access here. We’ll be following up with more details on these areas of focus in the coming months.

At the Steering Committee meeting, we also approved our new Operational Procedures, which includes an expansion of the Steering Committee to include representation from tribes, Climate Science Centers, fish habitat partnerships, and joint ventures. We’ll also be reaching out to other potential partners that can broaden the scope and breadth of the GCPO LCC partnership. I think these changes will strengthen our Steering Committee, and broaden the voices of engagement that are so necessary for our continuing relevance in a changing world. So stay tuned for future announcements on GCPO LCC Steering Committee representation.

In closing, I just want to give a big shout out to Cynthia Edwards, who has functioned as our SECAS Coordinator for the last 18 months. Cynthia has done an outstanding job of coordinating all the various interests and entities involved in SECAS, and brought us safely into harbor with the release of the SECAS Blueprint v1.0, and the successful hosting of last week’s SECAS Leadership Summit. It was a huge undertaking, but Cynthia was more than up to the task, and I’m extremely proud and grateful for all that she accomplished to make it all happen. Well done, Cynthia!

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Summer Vacations, and Landscapes Transformed

I went on Shore, & passed thro the plain passed Several noles to the top of a high artificial Noal from the top of this noal I had an emence, extensive & pleaseing prospect, of the Countrey around, I could See the meandering of the Little River for at least 10 miles winding thro  a meadow of 15 or 20000 acres of high bottom land covered with Grass about 4 1/ 2 feet high, the high lands which rose irregularly, & were toped with Mounds or antent Graves which is to me a Strong evidence of this Countrey haveing been thickly Settled.  Captain William Clark,  July 12, 1804 (excerpt from The Journals of Lewis and Clark)

So – how did you spend your summer vacation? I used to hate those “start of the year” school assignments where we were supposed to chronicle our adventures, family trips, or just spending time hanging out. This year, however, I’m happy to report that my summer vacation was actually pretty relevant to my work in the GCPO LCC. For at least the last 15 years, I’ve been interested in learning more about the Lewis & Clark Expedition of 1804-1806: I’ve read the historical accounts of the Corps of Discovery, and have always been fascinated by the incredible challenges, successes, and stories that came out of the iconic expedition to explore the vast Louisiana Purchase. So, my family and I decided to explore the L&C National Historic Trail, driving the backroads along the Missouri River, and stopping at various historical and interpretive sites along the way.

 

Our trip started at the Gateway Arch and Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in Saint Louis, MO, and proceeded up the Missouri River all the way to Fort Mandan in North Dakota, where L&C spent the winter of 1804-05. Along the way, we learned about some of the major stories of the Corps of Discovery, read L&C’s journal entries, and saw many of the same landscapes
that they saw and described in their journals. We learned about Sergeant Charles Floyd, the only man to be lost on the entire 3-year journey (most likely died from a ruptured appendix), and visited the monument in his memory in Sioux City, Iowa. We learned about Private George Shannon, who at 19 years old, was lost out on the prairies of present-day South Dakota for more than 2 weeks and nearly starved to death because he had run out of bullets for his rifle. We learned about Sacajawea and her French trader husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, and their infant son, Jean Baptiste, who Sacajawea would carry on her back from Ft. Mandan to the Pacific Ocean and back. Sacajawea’s importance to the Corps’ success has been written about extensively – being a member of the Shoshone tribe, she was familiar with much of the mountainous terrain they would have to traverse, and the Corps would also need to procure horses from the Shoshones for the arduous journey across the mountains.

On our trip, I was most struck by the landscapes that we drove through, seeing the vast acreages of fertile farmlands in Missouri and Iowa, and giving way to the more wide open plains of South and North Dakota. Reading through the accounts of L&C, and their descriptions of what they saw, it was fascinating to reflect on how those landscapes have been transformed over the last 200 years. The Missouri River itself has been transformed; its length is about 25% less than it was during L&C's expedition modified through channel alterations and dams, which have provided irrigation, flood control, and hydroelectric power. Along the Missouri River valley, we saw vast acreages of corn and soybeans, thousands and thousands of acres, and the infrastructure to support the huge agricultural system. The agricultural landscape is further being transformed by the need for new energy sources. Ethanol, the corn-based bio-fuel, has been an important factor in the ever expanding acreages of corn in the Midwest, and wind farms are springing up in many locations across the landscape.

I guess it goes without saying that the last 200 years have represented a continuum of landscape transformation, a continuum which began long before Lewis & Clark’s expedition, and will continue on into the future. Which makes me wonder: what will the Missouri River landscape look like in 2216? What forces of change will exert their influence on the region’s climate, and flora and fauna? How will the agricultural and energy systems that are having such a dominant influence on today’s landscapes change in response to new climatic, economic and political forces? These are large questions, obviously, and unanswerable for the most part I suppose. Nevertheless, they are fun to ponder.

For next summer’s vacation, our family plans to continue our exploration of the L&C Trail, picking it up again in Montana, and following it out to the Pacific Coast where they spent the winter of 1805-06. It will be another opportunity to learn about the history of our nation and its native cultures, read about the landscapes of 200 years ago, and ponder life’s larger questions. I can't wait!

Head to my L&C album on Flickr to see the rest of my photos.

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A few takeaways from last month’s GCPO/GCP/GOMA joint meeting:

  • The Tuesday joint sessions on the Gulf and Bottomland Hardwood systems were well-attended, and certainly showed a high level of interest in what’s going on with LCC-associated projects. For the Gulf session, it was an opportunity for us to highlight some of the research that LCCs have been involved with over the last several years, and which have recently come to a conclusion. The Gulf is an area in which we have been very active, and it was gratifying to see how these projects that we have supported are beginning to paint a picture of a forward-looking conservation path. I thought that Dr. Virginia Burkett, in her comments to close out the session, was very timely in her observations that we have come a long way in the Gulf in understanding the implications of sea level rise and land use change on the natural resources of the Gulf. She challenged the group to continue making progress, and to move beyond sea level rise in planning for the future conservation landscape of the Gulf. For instance, storms and wildfires are important episodic events that can have big impacts on the landscape – how do we plan for those events and make our landscapes and communities more resilient to those events?
  • One other comment by Dr. Burkett that perked up my ears had to do with carbon; the recent COP21 Agreement in Paris allows for the creation of international carbon markets, so there is increasing anticipation on what that could mean for the United States and our future carbon markets. This reminds me that in the Lower Mississippi Valley there has been a lot of interest in establishing a viable carbon market for at least a decade now; there have also been some notable successes with carbon sequestration projects in restoring bottomland hardwoods in the LMV. I haven’t really kept up with where markets for carbon sequestration projects are in recent years, but Virginia’s comments about carbon certainly rekindles my interest in the topic.
  • The Tuesday afternoon session on Bottomland Hardwood systems and Hydrology was really interesting to me, prompting more questions than answers, I think, but it was good to get those questions out on the table. Our land managers are telling us that they’re seeing changes on the ground in how bottomland hardwood restoration projects perform, but they’re really not sure why those changes are occurring – they suspect that changes in hydrology might be part of the issue. This session helped us to start identifying some of the questions, and gave exposure to the issues. There will be a symposium on the Bottomland Hardwood/Hydrology issue at the upcoming SEAFWA Conference this October, where we can continue these discussions.  It’s my hope that we’ll be able to find some funds to support future research into this area, and unravel some of the answers on how bottomland hardwood systems interact with hydrological systems.
  • Our Wednesday/Thursday Steering Committee sessions had excellent presentations and discussion by our Steering Committee members and other partners, and I think will really help to set the direction of this LCC for the next couple of years. Our GCPO LCC Science staff has done an outstanding job over the last year and a half of completing the ecological assessments of our priority habitat systems, and engaging our partners in developing a first draft GCPO LCC Blueprint. We had an excellent presentation by Dr. Tom Bonnot of the University of Missouri, which illustrated an innovative landscape conservation design approach for achieving landscape-scale conservation in the Ozark Highlands region (AR, MO, OK) of the GCPO (note: there is a webinar scheduled for July 20, 2016 - DATE CHANGED - at 11am that will present the results of this work). We plan to expand this approach to other sub-geographies in our LCC.
  • We also presented a new communications strategy to the Steering Committee, a more refined and focused approach to communications that not only measures our communications outputs, but more importantly also attempts to evaluate the outcomes of our communications. And finally, we introduced some ideas about better incorporating human dimensions and social sciences into our conservation planning, and beginning to think about how we might better integrate ecosystem services into our conservation toolbox.  We agreed to collaborate with the Gulf Coast Prairie LCC to establish a joint human dimensions work group and will look for opportunities to bring ecosystem services into our conservation portfolios.

All in all, it was a really productive week in Baton Rouge, incredibly busy, but very productive.  We’ll be back there in the fall for the Southeastern Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies Annual Conference.  We’ll have our Steering Committee meeting there and also opportunities to learn more about the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy, where we’ll roll out the SECAS Blueprint 1.0, and there will also be a symposium on the issue of Forested Wetlands and Hydrology, building on the joint session that we hosted last month.  I hope to see you all there – it should be a great meeting in Louisiana!

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Creating a Shared Vision in the GCPO LCC

Few, if any, forces in human affairs are as powerful as shared vision.  Peter Senge

Next month, the GCPO and Gulf Coast Prairie LCCs will be convening in Baton Rouge, LA, to engage in Steering Committee discussions.  It’s our annual spring/summer retreat, where we really dig into the most important questions and issues facing the GCPO partnership, and I’m looking forward to getting together once again with our Steering Committee and other partners.  This year, we'll be meeting in conjunction with the Gulf of Mexico Alliance’s All-Hands Meeting, which will provide our Steering Committee an excellent opportunity to learn more about what’s going on with conservation in the Gulf of Mexico, and network with Gulf conservation partners with whom we might not normally cross paths.  Indeed, a portion of our meeting will be devoted to the Gulf, and all the work that’s going on in that important area.  We're indebted to GOMA, especially to Laura Bowie, the Director of GOMA, for her generous offer to provide access to their venue for our first day of meetings.  Our joint meeting with the Gulf Coast Prairie LCC Steering Committee will allow us to discuss questions of mutual interest, such as the future of bottomland hardwood systems in our two LCCs. It's our hope that these discussions will lay a foundation for continuing the collaborative efforts between our 2 LCCs.

 

The theme for this year’s Steering Committee meeting is “Creating a Shared Vision for the GCPO LCC”, which I think reflects well on where we are right now in the GCPO.  Our mission, as articulated in our Strategic Plan, is to “define a shared vision for sustainable natural and cultural resources; design strategies to achieve that vision; and deliver results on the ground through leadership, partnerships, contributed resources, evaluation and refinement over time.”  The theme of our meeting really addresses the first part of that mission statement: defining a shared vision.  We have been working towards a shared vision for some time now. Indeed, all of our work as a partnership up to now has helped to lay the foundation for developing our shared vision. 

 

Unpacking the definition of “shared vision”

Just think about it:  vision implies something visual, something you can see and respond to.  In the GCPO LCC, we’ve been working hard to produce that visual element of our work, first through the process of completing Ecological Assessments for our priority systems, then through the Blueprint Workshops we’ve held over the last few months.  At our upcoming Steering Committee meeting, we’ll see the results of those workshops and view the maps that depict the GCPO LCC’s Blueprint Version 1.0 for our priority habitat systems.  But it won’t be a complete picture because the word “vision” also implies a forward looking goal or direction.  Our Blueprint Version 1.0 will only depict the current picture of our GCPO landscapes, as best as we can determine right now, and based on our current state of knowledge, understanding, and available information and technology.  We need to transform that snapshot of the current landscape into a vision of a sustainable landscape for the future: what do we want that landscape to look like, and how do we incorporate future changes into the equation?  We’re not there yet, but we’ll have a presentation on a process that we’ve been piloting in the Ozarks, a process which we believe can be expanded to the rest of the GCPO.

 

The second part of “shared vision” is the shared part.  “Shared” implies collaboration and ownership and is every bit as important as the actual vision itself.  In essence, a shared vision really demonstrates the collaborative power of the LCC.  We need to ensure that our partners have every opportunity to come to the table and provide their input and perspectives into the building of our vision. 

 

Since the inception of this LCC, we’ve worked hard to engage our partners throughout this process, beginning with the development of the Integrated Science Agenda, Landscape Endpoints, and Draft Blueprint.  There have been numerous levels of partner engagement, including the Steering Committee, Advisory Council, Adaptation Science Management Team, and other groups like the Geomatics Working Group.  We've had good engagement, but it hasn't been complete engagement of the partnership, which speaks to the importance of continuous outreach to our partners, old and new.  To address that need, we'll be presenting an updated communications strategy for the Steering Committee's consideration.  This updated strategy is designed to strengthen and expand our partnership, deepen our outreach efforts to our existing partners, improve the effectiveness of our communications tactics, and establish outcome measures that can be evaluated over time.  It's all about helping us to create a vision that is truly shared across the GCPO LCC partnership.

 

I'm looking forward to this year's Steering Committee meeting in Baton Rouge.  It should be an outstanding meeting in a great venue next to the Mississippi River.  I hope to see you there!

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GCPO LCC Steering Committee and Partners – just wanted to drop you a short note to provide some important information on our upcoming Spring Steering Committee Meeting, scheduled for Tuesday-Thursday, June 14-16, 2016, in Baton Rouge, LA, in conjunction with the Gulf of Mexico Alliance’s (GOMA) All-Hands Meeting.  GOMA has graciously extended an invitation to us to use their venue, the Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center, on Tuesday, June 14, the day before the All Hands Meeting starts.  This year, we will meet jointly with the Gulf Coast Prairie LCC on Tuesday, June 14, then relocate out to the Louisiana Dept. of Fish Wildlife Headquarters, to conduct the remainder of our GCPO LCC business on Wednesday afternoon thru Thursday morning, June 15-16.  Following are some web links to the GOMA meeting, and Lodging Information, and a draft agenda for your reference in making travel arrangements:

  1. Gulf of Mexico Alliance All Hands Meeting - http://www.gulfofmexicoalliance.org/announcements/events/2016-all-hands-meeting/
  2. Lodging - Hotel accommodations are through the Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center.  For reservations by phone, call 800-955-6962. The group code is GMA2 for the discount government rate or GMA for the discount non-government rate. Dates available are June 13 – 17, 2016. For online reservations, go here. The group rate deadline is May 20, 2016.

 

 

Spring 2016 Meeting

Draft Skeleton Agenda

Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozarks LCC/Gulf Coast Prairie LCC/
Gulf of Mexico Alliance

Baton Rouge, LA

June 14-16, 2016

Meeting Venue: This year’s spring retreat will be held in conjunction with the Gulf of Mexico Alliance’s All-Hands Meeting, at the Hilton Capitol Center, Baton Rouge, LA. 

Here is a map and summary of Baton Rouge restaurants prepared by GOMA!

 

Monday, June 13, 2016 – Travel Day

Tuesday, June 14, 2016 – 8:00 am – 5:00 pm (Hilton Capitol Center)

8:00 am - 12:00 pm - Gulf of Mexico Adaptation Strategy (this will be a 4-hour session, to highlight the various projects that we have supported on the Gulf, and start a discussion on what’s next, how do we integrate these projects and use the results to help develop a Gulf of Mexico Adaptation Strategy?)

View/download the morning agenda: "Future Gulf of Mexico direction"

12:00 – 1:30 – Lunch

1:30 – 5:00 pm - Joint GCPO/Gulf Coat Prairie LCC Steering Committee Meeting1.      

  1.  Forest Wetlands Hydrology in an Era of Climate Change
  2.  Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy Update (Cynthia Edwards)
  3.  Other topics of mutual concern? (SECAS; integrating landscape conservation design across the 2 LCCs?)

View/download the afternoon agenda: *updated agenda* - The Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy and Bottomland Hardwood Riverine Hydrology

5:00 pm - Adjourn (Group Dinner/Social)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

8:30 - 11:30 am (Hilton Capitol Center)

  • Gulf of Mexico Alliance – Plenary Session

11:30 am - 1:00 pm - Lunch (on your own)

1:30 - 5:00 pm (LA Dept of Wildlife & Fisheries) - GCPO LCC Steering Committee Meeting

  • Draft Blueprint
  • ASMT Meeting - results
  • Communications Strategy

Thursday, June 16, 2016 (LA Dept of Wildlife & Fisheries)

8:00 am – 12:00 pm - GCPO LCC Steering Committee Meeting

  • Budget Overview/Project Recommendations
  • Overview of projects ongoing or completed
  • Steering Committee Charter
    • Vice-chair election

Noon – adjourn (travel home, or attend GOMA Meeting)

 

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In early March, I attended a workshop on the Mississippi River Basin/Gulf Hypoxia Initiative project, which has been expertly led by our LCC neighbors to the north, the Eastern Tallgrass Prairie & Big Rivers LCC, since 2013.  The workshop was a culmination of more than 2 years of hard work, in which representatives from 7 LCCs spanning the enormous Mississippi River Basin, and from across a broad spectrum of interests in Gulf Hypoxia, worked to integrate fish and wildlife interests into nutrient reduction strategies that are aimed at reducing hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico.  The Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks LCC has had a longstanding interest in Gulf Hypoxia, dating all the way back to the spring of 2012, when the GCPO LCC Steering Committee determined that Gulf Hypoxia was an issue of importance, and directed that the Adaptation Science Management Team report back to the Steering Committee on how the issues of nutrient management/water quality, wetland restoration, and ecosystem services within the GCPO LCC landscape should be addressed collectively to have the greatest impact on the Gulf, particularly with respect to hypoxia. These three issues should be considered part of a larger set of issues that the ASMT should address in answering the question, “What kinds of landscape planning tools would be appropriate for tackling these issues across the entire LCC?” We haven’t yet reported back to the Steering Committee, but thanks to the work of the MRB/GHI project, we should be able to take the next steps towards that report in the not too distant future.

One of the products unveiled at the MRB/GHI Workshop was a new Precision Conservation Blueprint tool, which was developed by Michael Schwartz of The Conservation Fund.  This geospatial tool, which can be accessed through Databasin, contains a wealth of geospatial products, including water quality layers, agricultural system layers, geophysical layers, fish & wildlife focal areas, and many others. All told, over 100 different geospatial layers are organized within the MRB/GHI group, making it easy for Databasin users to locate the datasets that they’re most interested in. And, because it’s in Databasin, it’s super easy to create custom maps and to add other geospatial layers that might be useful for your own use.  For instance, in the GCPO LCC, we have a new Draft Blueprint of our 9 priority habitat systems. If I’m interested in overlaying the Draft Forested Wetlands Blueprint layer on top of the MRB/GHI Focus Area layer, it's a very simple process. The beauty of Databasin is its easy access to an enormous number of datasets (at last count, over 14,000), and you don't have to be an expert in GIS to use it. 

Hypoxia is one of those tough issues that's difficult to get your mind totally around, but when you start to think about it deeply, you come to understand that it is a systems-scale issue that is connected to some really powerful drivers. My own understanding on hypoxia has been re-shaped by this more comprehensive perspective of systems-scale thinking. An article I read in Scientific American about a year ago, It’s Time to Rethink America’s Corn System, helped me come to a new understanding: Hypoxia is not the real problem, but really a symptom of a much larger systemic issue, with connections to energy policy, agricultural economic policies, and even health care. Ultimately, the solutions to hypoxia will be developed through changes to those systems. There is simply too much money being pumped into those other systems to be countered by the relatively small amount of conservation dollars that are being spent to achieve our nutrient reduction targets.

So where does this leave us with regard to hypoxia and fish & wildlife objectives in the GCPO? When we first started this effort, our goal was to integrate fish & wildlife habitat objectives into water quality solutions that are focused both on agricultural systems, and targeted in watersheds that contribute significantly to Gulf hypoxia. I think that approach is still correct, and I think that we can demonstrate how fish & wildlife habitat restoration can provide benefits in the reduction of nutrient loads in our streams and rivers, especially at the local watershed scale. We also need to understand if nutrient reduction will improve fish & wildlife habitats, especially for aquatic organisms.  All of these can be valuable outcomes of Mississippi River Basin/Gulf Hypoxia project, and will help us to better target our conservation dollars into areas where we can realize multiple benefits. But, as it relates to Gulf Hypoxia, if the goal is still to reduce the hypoxic zone to less than 5,000 km2 by 2035, then it’s clear to me that the focus will have to be re-directed to those larger, systems-scale issues, like energy policy and food production systems. That’s not impossible to accomplish, for our nation has made large-scale transformations before, when we recognized the true nature of the problem. We have done it before, and we’ll do it again. But it will require a transformation in thinking and behavior, and a society that demands a more sustainable agricultural and energy system than we currently have.

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It's Going to be a Busy Year in the GCPO LCC!

Happy New Year!

It’s beginning to look like a really busy year in the GCPO LCC.  Of course, it was great to take some time off over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, spend time with family and friends and get outdoors.  But now the calendar has flipped into a new year, 2016, and it’s clear that this is shaping up to be quite a year for our partnership. 

First, we just concluded a successful Geospatial Science Meeting in Jackson, MS, jointly hosted with the Gulf Coast Prairie LCC.  You can read more about the outcomes of that meeting in Kristine Evans’ blog here.

Conservation Blueprint

Over the next couple of months, we’ll be hosting a number of workshops throughout the GCPO geography, which are aimed at developing the foundational layers of a conservation blueprint for the GCPO LCC.  Over the last year, our geospatial science staff, Kristine Evans, Yvonne Allen and Toby Gray, have been working with Science Coordinator Todd Jones-Farrand to conduct ecological assessments of the LCC’s nine priority habitat systems, based on landscape endpoints that describe functional systems in the GCPO.  These rapid ecological assessments are being used as foundational layers to help define the current conservation landscape in the GCPO LCC, as we currently understand it.  The Conservation Blueprint workshops are designed to provide our partners an opportunity to review our maps and other Blueprint products, and to help shape the Conservation Blueprint process for the GCPO LCC.  You can learn more about these workshops by reading Todd Jones-Farrand’s blog.

Spring Steering Committee Retreat

In June, we’ll hold our annual Spring Steering Committee retreat, and we’re already in the early stages of planning that event.  This year’s retreat will be held in Baton Rouge, LA, in conjunction with the Gulf of Mexico Alliance (All-Hands Meeting), June 13-17, 2016.  Our planning is still in the early stages for this meeting, but tentatively we’re discussing a Gulf Coast-related session with GOMA and the Gulf Coast Prairie LCC, and also a joint session with the GCP LCC on hydrology in forested wetland habitat systems, a priority for both of our LCCs.  We’ll also be providing an overview of the Conservation Blueprint to our Steering Committee.  It’s going to be a busy meeting, but also a great opportunity to network with the Gulf Coast conservation community and our colleagues in the GCP LCC.  Stay tuned for further updates as we get closer to June.

Fall Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy Leadership Summit

Finally, in October, we’ll be back in Baton Rouge for the Annual Conference of the Southeastern Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies (SEAFWA) and our annual fall Steering Committee meeting.  This fall represents a milestone of sorts, the 5-year timeframe for the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy, or SECAS.  When we first pitched the SECAS concept to the SEAFWA Directors way back in 2011, we suggested to them that the LCCs would be the primary workhorses for the initiative, and we asked for 5 years to produce some tangible products.  We’ve been working towards that goal ever since, and have been making steady progress all along the way. 

In October, we plan to roll out the first iteration of a SECAS Conservation Blueprint, Version 1.0, which will represent the collective visions of the 6 LCCs that are formally involved in SECAS.  We also are planning a SECAS Leadership Summit at the 2016 SEAFWA Annual Conference, which will build on the very successful SECAS Symposium that was held at last November’s SEAFWA Conference in Asheville, NC.  October 2016 is an important milestone for SECAS, but certainly not the end product – our vision for SECAS is that it will become ingrained into the way we do conservation work in the 21st century, and helps the conservation community to continue evolving as time moves along.

Yep, 2016 is going to be a busy year! But it’s also going to be exciting to watch the continued progress in the GCPO LCC.  I hope you’ll join us for the ride!

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National Academy of Sciences Review of LCCs

December 2015

Last week, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS or Academy) released its long-awaited report on LCCs, A Review of the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.  Okay, maybe it wasn’t so long-awaited, since the Academy actually turned out the report in a pretty timely fashion, but for those of us who have been involved in LCCs for the last 5 years, it was definitely an eagerly awaited report.  We were genuinely interested in learning what the NAS Committee thought about the LCC Network and our progress, and whether they believed that the work we’re doing is making a valuable contribution to conservation in our nation.  Overall, I thought that we received a positive report from the Committee, especially in that it re-affirmed the importance of a “landscape approach to conservation” in North America, and concluded that LCCs are uniquely suited to provide that landscape context for the nation.  The report also pointed out some areas for improvement, especially identifying better coordination with Joint Ventures, Fish Habitat Partnerships, and Climate Science Centers, and developing better metrics for evaluating progress towards our LCC Network goals and objectives.

The Committee’s report came about as a result of a Congressional mandate in 2014, as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, which included the following language:  ““From within the funds provided for LCC activities, the [Fish and Wildlife] Service is directed to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate: (1) the purpose, goals, and scientific merit of the program within the context of other similar programs; and (2) whether there have been measurable improvements in the health of fish, wildlife, and their habitats as a result of the program.”  In response to this directive, the USFWS worked with the Academy to develop a scope of work that would address not only the Congressional directive, but also provide the Service with a comprehensive review of the LCC Network.

Here are some of my major takeaways from the report:

  • “The committee concludes that the nation needs to take a landscape approach to conservation and that the Department of the Interior is justified in addressing this need with the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.”

    “The committee concludes that the LCC Network is unique in that no other federal program is designed to address landscape conservation needs at a national scale, for all natural and cultural resources, in a way that bridges research and management efforts.” 

    These two findings of the Committee re-affirm the need for landscape-scale conservation, and conclude that LCCs are uniquely suited to that task.  In other words, LCCs are a good idea and the timing is right to take on these challenges.  The changes that we’re experiencing and will experience in the 21st century -- population growth, increasing urbanization, and a warming climate -- make it clear that collaborative landscape-scale conservation is needed more now than ever.  Hearkening back to 2010 when DOI Secretarial Order No. 3289 was executed, LCCs were established under the following premise: “because of the unprecedented scope of affected landscapes, Interior bureaus and agencies must work together, and with other federal, state, tribal and local governments, and private landowner partners, to develop landscape-level strategies for understanding and responding to climate change impacts”. 
  • “Recommendation: The Department of the Interior should review the landscape and habitat conservation efforts, especially the Joint Ventures and the LCCs, to identify opportunities for improved coordination between these efforts. Special consideration should be given to the limited capacity of state agency partners to participate in multiple efforts simultaneously.”

    In the GCPO LCC, our relationships with Joint Ventures and other regional partnerships like the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership (SARP) and Gulf of Mexico Alliance (GOMA) are absolutely critical to our ultimate success in delivering the best science that we can to our partners.  I like to believe that we have a pretty good relationship with these partnerships, and we’ve worked hard over the years to include them in our conservation planning, but I also understand that it takes continuous nurturing and communications to maintain the good working relationships that we have developed.  I also believe that we can always improve the coordination and effectiveness of our collaborations, so we’ll continue to emphasize that in the future as we move forward.
  • “Recommendation: The LCC and CSC programs should be more clearly delineated. They should explicitly state how their research efforts differ and how they complement each other, identify and build on existing examples of coordination across the network, and make adjustments as appropriate. At the regional scale, LCC coordinators and CSC federal directors should coordinate their activities, including calls for proposals, as much as possible to avoid duplication of effort.”

    LCCs and the USGS Climate Science Centers (CSC) were created under the same DOI Secretarial Order No. 3289, with the expectation that they “will synthesize and integrate climate change impact data and develop tools that the Department's managers and partners can use when managing the Department's land, water, fish and wildlife, and cultural heritage resources.”  In the GCPO LCC, we have worked with 3 of the 8 regional CSCs, the Southeast, South Central, and Northeast, and we have a good working relationship with all 3 CSCs.  But I do agree with the Committee, that we do need to do a better job of more effectively delineating our respective roles in responding to global changes.  The Climate Science Centers bring important scientific capacity to the issue of climate change and other global change issues, and they are also an important nexus to the academic research communities in the universities as well as various USGS centers.  It’s critical that we in the LCC community make use of this capacity and research expertise, and bring to the table our research needs to this important part of the science-management continuum.
  • “Recommendation: The LCC Network should improve its evaluation process to better capture the contributions made by all partner agencies or groups toward common objectives. In particular, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the individual LCCs and the LCC Network, the evaluation process should measure how resources invested in any portion of the LCC Network further the goals of the LCC Network and their partners."

    “Recommendation: Establishment of metrics at the individual and network-wide scales should become a high priority.”

    Finally, the issue of monitoring and evaluating success of the LCCs was addressed by the NAS Committee.  It’s an important issue, and the Committee recognized the many accomplishments that LCCs have already made in our short 5-year history. In evaluating the progress of the LCC Network, the Committee found that LCCs have made considerable progress in their short histories, particularly in developing partnerships, establishing collaborative governance structures, and identifying shared conservation goals.  That said, the jury is still out on the ultimate effectiveness and success of the LCC enterprise – namely, are we making a difference in the sustainability of our nation’s natural and cultural resources?  Given the youth of the LCC program, the Committee recognizes that it’s too early to issue a verdict on that question.  But I do believe that, working with our partners and other landscape-scale partnerships, we are laying the foundational building blocks to be successful, to achieve our vision of “Landscapes capable of sustaining natural and cultural resources for current and future generations”.  That’s a lofty goal, but visions are meant to be bold and lofty, and something we should all be striving for.

    The NAS document, A Review of the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, is a long (183 pages) and thorough document, with a lot to chew on, and plenty of recommendations for improvement by the LCC Network.  As we move into the Christmas and New Year holiday season, I encourage you to find some time to read through it.  I believe that will improve your understanding of LCCs and what we’re trying to accomplish, and will help you determine what your role is in landscape-scale conservation.
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The America’s Watershed Initiative recently released its first Report Card on the Mississippi River Basin,  and it got a pretty poor rating of D+.  If one of my children brought home a report card like that, there would be heck to pay, to say the least!  But under the surface of that overall poor score are some interesting results. This Report Card is based on 6 Goals (Ecosystem Health, Flood Control, Transportation, Water Supply, Economy, and Recreation) and assessed the entire Mississippi River Basin and each of its 5 sub-basins.  When you drill down into the Report Card, the Lower Mississippi River also received a D+.  Interestingly, Ecosystem Health (C) and Recreation (B) came out better than Flood Control (D), Transportation (F), and Water Supply (D).  You can view the Report Card and supporting technical information here.

I’m not sure I fully agree with all of the conclusions of the Report Card, but I am glad that they are conducting  this kind of assessment, primarily because I think it provides regular citizens with an easy to understand perspective of how the Mississippi River and its major tributaries are performing for a variety of purposes.  The Report Card is visual, easy to read, and the metrics that were used to do the assessment are transparent and easy to replicate, so they’ll be able to come back in a few years to re-assess and chart progress.  That’s a good thing. 

The GCPO LCC is conducting its own assessment of the Lower Mississippi River and other Mainstem Big Rivers in our LCC geography, assessing overall ecosystem function and integrity of these aquatic systems.  Our process is using other metrics, based on endpoints that were developed through our Adaptation Science Management Team and articulated in the GCPO LCC Integrated Science Agenda.  These endpoints were primarily designed to assess how aquatic systems function, based on a variety of factors that are considered important for aquatic organisms.  Yvonne Allen, our GCPO LCC Aquatic Habitat Analyst, will be presenting this information at our upcoming Steering Committee meeting, which will be held in Asheville, NC, on November 3.  You can read more about the assessment here.

While these ecological assessments of freshwater aquatic systems are ongoing, we’re also working with the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership (SARP) to expand and refine the species and landscape endpoints that were originally established in the Integrated Science Agenda.  These new and improved endpoints should provide our partnership with a much more complete picture of what the desired conditions for aquatic systems in the GCPO LCC should look like, and it will be integrated into the first iteration of a GCPO Conservation Blueprint that we’re working to complete in 2016.  Mary Davis, who works with SARP, will be presenting this information to our Steering Committee in Asheville, and you can read more about that work here.

All of this work on the aquatic side of the ledger is incredibly exciting for me as an LCC Coordinator.  It’s so important to understand how our aquatic systems are functioning in the southeastern United States, especially as we look at the future impacts that are coming at us.  The interactions of climate change and increasing human needs are going to challenge how we deal with water over the next several decades and, I’m sure, for the rest of the century.  Already, there are two different lawsuits over water rights between southeastern states that will be heard by the Supreme Court during their current term, which may help to set a precedent on water rights disputes between states for the next several decades.  Also, when we look at the Mississippi Alluvial Valley and its outlook for water availability in the future, it’s not clear that there will be enough water to sustain the current agricultural system even if climate change were not a factor.  All of this points to the importance of providing a compelling vision of the future water needs for priority aquatic organisms in the GCPO LCC – that includes fish, mussels, crayfish, hellbenders, and all of those aquatic invertebrates that are so critical to a vibrant and viable aquatic ecological system.  At the end of the day, our human needs can only be met when we protect our aquatic systems in their holistic sense, and that means protecting all of the other organisms that require a well-functioning aquatic system.

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Partnership Pulse Check

Partnership Pulse Check

Over the last several weeks, Kenny Ribbeck (Chair of the GCPO LCC Steering Committee) and I have been conducting phone conversations with individual Steering Committee members, to provide us with a sort of pulse check on where we are as a partnership, and to learn more about our partners’ individual priorities and needs from their association with the GCPO LCC.  We’re not finished with those discussions yet, but we have been able to talk with 10 Steering Committee members thus far, and I want to provide you with a brief synopsis of what we have learned.  All in all, the conversations have been very positive and constructive, and Steering Committee members have been able to be frank and honest in their comments to Kenny and me, and I really appreciate that.  Each conversation has started out with a discussion about the individual organization’s participation in the GCPO LCC, and whether the individual representing the organization on the Steering Committee is the right individual.  For me personally, my best hope is to have a Steering Committee representative who has both the authority to represent their agency and a passion and interest in landscape-scale conservation that they can bring to the table with them.  You don’t often get both qualities with an individual Steering Committee representative, but when you do, magic can happen.

Participation and communication challenges

We also discussed the challenges of our partner organizations in maintaining their active participation in the GCPO LCC, and how to best keep each organizations staff informed about what’s going on in the partnership.  These issues are not trivial, and perhaps are really one of the biggest challenges that we face in moving conservation forward.  Several Steering Committee members discussed the difficulties of fitting LCC activities into their busy schedules, and the challenges of having their staffs become engaged in the GCPO.  But this so critical to the ultimate success of the GCPO LCC.  So, for each organization, I have requested contact information for individuals who need to be included in the various LCC communications that we send out, primarily through our monthly newsletter.  We are also seeking additional participation on the Adaptation Science Management Team, and later this fall, will be soliciting input from our partners and other interested stakeholders at Stakeholder Workshops where we’ll be rolling out an initial conservation blueprint that will become part of the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy (SECAS).  We’ll be advertising the dates and locations of those workshops in early November.

Where and how LCCs meet the needs of partners

Lastly, we asked Steering Committee members about their organizations’ interests and priorities in being a part of the GCPO LCC.  Their responses were varied, and reflected both the diverse interests of our partners, but also the niche that they play in landscape-scale conservation.  For example, an organization like Ducks Unlimited has waterfowl conservation as its core mission;  a state fish and wildlife agency is focused on the conservation of their state trust species; The Nature Conservancy has a broad mission to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends; and a federal agency such as the Corps of Engineers has multiple missions that serve the interests of our country.  Even with these diverse interests among the partners, certain themes were mentioned that provide a common foundation for our partnership.

Several Steering Committee members mentioned the importance of thinking and planning at a large landscape scale.  Members mentioned that their daily activities and work priorities don’t allow them the luxury of looking at a bigger picture of conservation, and they believed that this was an important perspective for the LCC to bring to their staffs and organizations.  This has certainly been an important focus of the GCPO LCC, and it’s nice to have that reaffirmed by our Steering Committee members.  Another topic  discussed was climate change, especially understanding the impacts of climate change on rare species, critical habitat systems, migration patterns, and the resiliency of both ecosystems and human-natural systems.  For some members, they simply don’t have the capacity or expertise to address these conservation questions, and they appreciated the fact that the LCC can bring science and tools to the table for their benefit and use.  Other partners, especially on the federal side, have capacity to address these issues, but find value in the LCC’s ability to bring a diverse partnership together to collaborate on those solutions.  Finally, even organizations with a fairly narrow focus, such as Ducks Unlimited’s on waterfowl conservation, have a good understanding that larger conservation issues like the impacts of global change, whether it be climate or urban growth, on water quality and quantity are critical to understand and to solve.  The GCPO LCC can help to bring about the science and collaboration needed to provide those answers.

I just want to offer a quick note of thanks to the Steering Committee members that Kenny and I have been able to talk with – we really appreciate your willingness to provide both your time and your honest responses to our inquiry.  I also want to extend an invitation to those Steering Committee members whom we haven’t been able to speak with.  We’re always open to having a conversation with you, and look forward to that opportunity.

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Summer Reading, and Remembering Charles Baxter

Summer Reading, and Remembering Charles Baxter

I was recently reminded of an important document that was written nearly 10 years ago, and decided to re-read it as part of my summer reading program.  The document is entitled “Responding to the Changing Nature of Conservation: an Open Letter to the Directorate on Shaping the Service Future,” which was penned by Charles Baxter in 2006.  Charles was a friend and mentor, and a conservation visionary in the truest sense of the word.  The importance of the Open Letter is that I believe it laid out the foundations that helped usher in the era of LCCs.  And even though this Open Letter is directed to the Fish & Wildlife Service, it has far reaching implications for every natural resource organization.  The evolving paradigm of the conservation enterprise applies to all of us, not just one particular organization, and the challenges we face in the 21st century will only be met through our collective efforts of developing a scientifically grounded, shared vision of a sustainable landscape.

As I re-read Baxter’s Open Letter, I thought about the many changes that have occurred since 2006, and where we are as an LCC community today.  If Charles was still with us today (he passed away unexpectedly in February 2009), what would he say about our progress or lack thereof?  Knowing Charles, I would guess it would be a mixed bag – I think he would be proud that LCCs were established, and they were established as a response to climate change, and that Climate Science Centers were established as companion centers of science (establishing a “function-based relationship” with USGS).  Charles was working on natural resource solutions to climate change way back in the early 2000’s, even when you couldn’t say “climate change” in the federal government.  On the other hand, I think he would be disappointed, and even frustrated, with the lack of progress on breaking down the barriers and silos that prevent the conservation community from being more collaborative and effective.  At the same time, Charles was a pragmatic conservationist, and he understood that the evolution of change can be a slow process, even maddeningly slow at times.  So, he would understand that it takes time to change agency cultures – we all have a human ingrained trait that makes us resistant to change.  It doesn’t really matter, because change happens anyway, whether we like it or not.

I raise all this for a couple of reasons:  first, I want to invite you to read Charles Baxter’s Open Letter, and draw your own conclusions about what it means and how we might better apply its lessons to our conservation enterprise in the GCPO LCC.  Second, as we embark on the development of a conservation blueprint for the GCPO LCC later this fall, we are in fact employing some of the fundamental principles envisioned in the Open Letter document: science-based biological planning and conservation designs.  That’s a good thing, and a sign of progress!  We invite you to be a part of that process and to get involved.  Stay tuned for more information later this fall – we’ll be hosting stakeholder workshops across the GCPO LCC geography where we’ll be inviting your input into our conservation blueprint.

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The GCPO LCC has lost another one of our founding fathers!  Steve Patrick, who has represented the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency on the GCPO LCC Steering Committee since we began this LCC partnership in 2011, has retired from TWRA after 38 years of dedicated service.  I have had the pleasure of working with Steve for the last 28 of those 38 years, starting in 1987 when I began my career with TWRA as a deer biologist; Steve was the Assistant Chief of the Wildlife Division back then, and my direct supervisor.  Over the years, his TWRA career advanced, and he continued to take on jobs of increasing responsibility and leadership, culminating in his selection as Assistant Director of TWRA for the last 5 years.  Last week, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission recognized Steve for his many accomplishments over his distinguished career.  What I heard from the Commissioners was sincere thanks for his calm and steadfast leadership, even when dealing with controversial issues.  I certainly agree with those sentiments.

Steve brought his calm demeanor and steadfast leadership to the GCPO LCC Steering Committee, and for the last few years, has been an integral part of the leadership team on our Steering Committee, serving as the Vice-chair.  I have really appreciated his support of our GCPO staff and the work that we are doing, and for recognizing that it takes time to build a partnership.  Because of his leadership, I believe that our GCPO LCC partnership is strong, and well-positioned for the future.  Steve recognized from the start that the big issues we are tackling in the GCPO, like climate change, are bigger than any one agency or organization can take on by itself, and require a collaborative effort among many partners.  He also recognized that the LCC partnership brings new capacity, new resources, and new scientific understanding to TWRA and the conservation community at large, and that one of his responsibilities as a Steering Committee member was to make sure that new information is passed along to staff.  Steve has consistently done that within TWRA, and is a good reminder that we all share that responsibility within our own organizations.

So, I just want to take the opportunity to thank Steve Patrick for his leadership and support over the last several years within our GCPO LCC partnership, and most especially for his friendship over the last 28 years that we have worked together.  Thank you for your long and dedicated service in conservation, for the many contributions you made to our field of work, and my best wishes as you embark on your well-deserved retirement!

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The Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks LCC Steering Committee held its spring meeting in Starkville, MS, March 24-26, 2015.  From the perspective of this Coordinator, it was one of our very best meetings, and it really showcased the progress that our LCC is making in defining a future conservation landscape for the GCPO LCC. Our meeting focused on our work in developing a landscape conservation design for the priority systems that we have identified in our Integrated Science Agenda, looking at Open Pine and Tidal Marsh systems in depth.  The question placed before the Steering Committee was to understand if they can “see” the network of lands and waters that will be needed to conserve those systems for fish and wildlife through the remainder of this century.  The conservation design that we all produce working together over the next year and a half, along with the designs of our neighboring LCCs in the Southeast, are scheduled to come together into a cohesive whole (version 1.0) by the fall SEAFWA meeting of 2016, thus our “countdown.”

You can read through the meeting notes and see the presentations here.  Following are some of my reflections and key takeaways from the meeting:

  1. First of all, a big thanks to Steve Reagan and his staff at Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge for a great field tour, and their efforts to show the group what’s going on to conserve red-cockaded woodpeckers at the ground level.  The tour was designed to help us to think about how to translate landscape-scale conservation planning to ground-level action, and I think we accomplished that objective.  Plus, it was just nice to get outside on a nice spring afternoon to enjoy the great outdoors.  The field tour was followed up with an excellent dinner and opportunity to socialize out at Lake Dorman.

  2. Thanks to Kristine Evans, Janet Ertel, and Toby Gray for their efforts to ensure that the Steering Committee was well fed and taken care of.  There are lots of behind the scenes efforts that go into putting on a Steering Committee meeting, and Kristine, Janet and Toby put in many extra hours to make sure that the meeting ran smoothly.  Thanks guys!
  3. As always, thanks to the Steering Committee members who were able to attend this year’s spring meeting.  It’s a real challenge to find a time of the year that works for most of our Steering Committee members, but we really value the input from our Steering Committee, and we are moving into a time period when that input is more important than ever.  As we move forward with our landscape conservation design efforts over the next 12-18 months, the input and participation of our partners is going to be critical in helping us to define and design the network of lands and waters that will become the foundation of the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy, or SECAS.

  4. One of the most encouraging outcomes of our Steering Committee meeting was the participation and attendance that we had by several FWS Project Leaders that manage National Wildlife Refuges in the GCPO.  These refuge managers were interested in learning more about what's going on within the LCC, and want to become more involved in our conservation planning.  I'm all for that, and we're already talking about how we can make that happen, working with the refuges to implement conservation design at the landscape scale.  That's an exciting opportunity for all of us!

All in all, it was a very successful Steering Committee meeting, and sets us up well for our work over the next 12-18 months.  We have come a long way as an LCC partnership since we started in 2010, and our progress is beginning to pay dividends. We still have a lot of work ahead of us in the next year, to realize the vision of SECAS, but I think we're headed in the right direction, and confident that we're going to meet the goal of presenting a vision of a future conservation landscape in the fall of 2016.

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Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is currently seeking to fill its Statewide Ornithologist position, details are below.  Interested applicants may contact Gray Anderson, Asst. Chief of Wildlife, at gray.anderson@tn.gov, 615-781-6613.

                                                                              

Working Title:  State Ornithologist

Official Title:  Wildlife Biologist 3

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency

Wildlife Resources Division

Statewide Position

Salary - $3788.00 - $5,880 monthly

              $45,456.00 – $70,560 annually

The State of Tennessee is currently seeking to fill a Wildlife Biologist 3 position in the Wildlife Resources Division of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.  This position serves as the statewide ornithologist to represent TWRA interests working with local, state, and federal agencies within Tennessee and outside the state.  The focus of this position is coordinating efforts for habitat and bird population management which includes study design, research, and monitoring of non-game bird populations across the four administrative regions of TWRA.  This position coordinates TWRA’s participation in regional and national planning efforts (e.g., PIF, JVs) to provide consistency across the four JVs and other planning initiatives crossing Tennessee.  This individual may serve on management boards, technical committees, or other entities as appropriate.  A person in this position will interact with the Tennessee wildlife watching community through ornithological/conservation associations, presentations, TN Watchable Wildlife website, the Birding Trails website, and other media.  The ideal candidate will be an ornithologist with experience with large-scale bird/habitat management with a state agency and/or exposure to regional planning initiatives such as JVs or PIF.  The individual will be self-motivated and have excellent abilities with time management, organization and social skills.  The candidate will have excellent computer skills for data management, data manipulation, communication, and website updates.

This position offers a flexible schedule and good work-life balance with minimal out-of-state travel and good opportunity for engagement with regional biologists and other peers through regional and national meetings.

Minimum Qualifications:

Education and Experience: Graduation from an accredited college or university with a master's degree in wildlife or fish management or closely related field and experience equivalent to two years of full-time professional wildlife resources work.
OR

Graduation from an accredited college or university with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife or fish management or closely related field and experience equivalent to four years of full-time professional wildlife, fisheries or related experience.

Interested parties must apply online at http://www.tn.gov/dohr.  Resumes may be uploaded during the application process.

 

The State of Tennessee is an Equal Opportunity Employer.

 

            

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