It started two years ago as an experiment in combining big data with a big conservation vision for the 11,250 square-mile Connecticut River watershed.
Today the experiment has evolved into Connect the Connecticut, a collaborative effort among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) and more than 30 partner agencies and organizations to conserve a network of lands and waters that sustain wildlife and people for generations to come.
“Connect the Connecticut builds upon a long history of collaborative conservation in the Connecticut River watershed, but it’s really about looking toward the future,” said Wendi Weber, Northeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It brings together powerful science and committed partners to design a resilient and connected landscape that can better withstand impacts of climate change and development.”
Encompassing New England’s largest river system, the Connecticut River watershed provides important habitat for a diversity of fish, wildlife and plants — from iconic species like bald eagle and black bear to threatened and endangered species like the shortnose sturgeon, piping plover, and dwarf wedgemussel. The watershed is also a source of clean water, recreation, food, jobs, and more, for the millions of people living in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
Using the best available science and information from the North Atlantic LCC, including an innovative modeling approach developed by the Designing Sustainable Landscapes Project at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the design outlines a network of core areas, or intact, connected, and resilient places within the watershed.
But more than just a map, Connect the Connecticut offers a set of datasets and tools individuals and communities can use to make informed decisions about conservation, planning, and development in the watershed. These resources provide a broader regional context for decisions at any scale and include supporting data to help address questions related to land use and management, such as:
- Where do important ecosystems and species habitats occur and overlap?
- Where will climate change and sea level rise place the most stress on the landscape?
- Where is development most likely to occur in the coming decades?
“If you are working locally, you should know what’s going on regionally – where there is going to be energy for conservation,” said Bill Labich, a senior conservationist with New England’s Highstead Foundation.
Jenny Dickson, a wildlife biologist for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said the design doesn’t replace other regional, state or local planning efforts but works to complement local knowledge into a broader state, regional, and national network to better sustain important natural resources in an era of changing landscape conditions.
Dickson and other state wildlife agency partners said the design also complements and incorporates information from State Wildlife Action Plans, which serve as blueprints for conserving Species of Greatest Conservation Need and their habitats.
“Connect the Connecticut is another tool we can use to help aid us in making conservation decisions — not just for things that the federal government might do or a state agency might do, but things that we can all do as conservation partners to try to make a meaningful difference in the watershed,” she said.
One of the keys to developing the Connect the Connecticut design was selecting 15 species as representatives for others that rely on similar habitats within the major types of natural systems in the watershed. For example, the blackburnian warbler was selected to represent hardwood forests. By creating models representing high-quality habitat for this species, partners were able to address the needs of a range of fish and wildlife depending on similar habitats.
Other key components of the core areas include high quality, resilient locations of both rare and common ecosystem types throughout the watershed, from Long Island Sound to the peaks of the White Mountains.
Andrew French, manager of USFWS’ Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, said Connect the Connecticut helps the refuge focus communication and collaboration with partners working at various scales within the watershed. Located within parts of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, Conte Refuge is the only one of its kind to encompass an entire watershed.
“Several of the science products, such as the core-connector network and the representative species models, help inform our refuge land acquisition and management decisions as well as those of our partners,” French said. “The design also can inform and facilitate our private lands work, collaboration and leveraging resources with state and federal partners, and our ability to engage with communities and local land trusts. It provides a basis for a shared understanding of how we are connected within the 7.2 million acre Connecticut River watershed.”
Partners are currently testing the design and exploring potential applications with their agencies and organizations. Information and lessons learned from Connect the Connecticut will be used to refine the products over time and can be applied in other geographies throughout the Northeast.
To learn more about Connect the Connecticut and to access design information and tools, visit www.connecttheconnecticut.org.
Click here to find out what other partners are saying about Connect the Connecticut!
David Eisenhauer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service