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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.