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Adding Climate Change Into The Conservation Equation

Sam Evans-Brown

When setting aside land for conservation, what are the priorities? Nice views? Old trees? Mossy stone walls? A pair of conservation groups think that maybe the biggest consideration should be how much the land will help different species survive climate change.

New Hampshire’s show-stoppers are its great granite peaks, and a lot of resources are going toward protecting them.

“We’re doing a great job of conserving high elevation and really rocky landscapes with steep slopes” says Mark Anderson, the director of science for the Nature Conservancy. These are mountains “or at low elevation, we’re talking about little granite hills and knobs.”

But if you want to find the spots that pack in the most wildlife, you should look lower, between those hills and knobs. “we’re doing a pretty awful job at rich limestone valleys that are great for agriculture, great for growing trees. Silty floodplains that are very diverse, we’re doing a pretty poor job at that,” explains Anderson.

The Nature Conservancy has been trying to pinpoint these hotbeds of biodiversity up and down the East coast. These areas – compared to crags or other more barren spots – can have three to four times as many rare species. This work attempts to pick out the most habitat dense, most varied and species rich spots from Virginia to Maine.

Putting Rubber to the Road

And now another group, the New York-based Open Space Institute, is taking this science and running with it. It’s giving away $5 million dollars to conserve land based on Anderson’s study.

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
Mark West and Jennifer Melville take stock of a Beaver Pond within the Bear Paw property in Hooksett.

“It’s a little bit of a lifeboat strategy,” says the Open Space Institute’s Jennifer Melville, who’s one of the people who will decide which properties in New Hampshire offer the best lifeboats. She’s currently sifting through applications from land trusts and other conservation groups.  

“It’s really important as land trusts are doing their work that they are investing in places that are the best bets,” she says of the program, which she calls a pilot, “Part of what we’re trying to do is say given that there’s so much unpredictability with climate change, what are the most likely places that are going to sustain plants and animals into the future.”

In our backyard the grants are going to be given out in a huge swath of land spanning Hooksett to Ossipee and into Western, Maine. Elsewhere, other “resilient landscapes” will be conserved in Western Massachusetts and Southern Vermont, and in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Virginias.

The New Hampshire grant area is one that has some of the least land in conservation. And Hooksett – sandwiched between Concord and Manchester, with its highly developed rt. 3 and I-93 corridors – isn’t the first place you think to find wildlife worth preserving.

But once you get away from the highway, the town has a very different character.

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
Pushing through a sheltering copse of pine trees reveals a hidden fen, just one of the many ecosystems this area harbors.

“We’re in a part of New Hampshire that has a very high amount of diversity, I mean we got it all over the Bear Paw region,” says Mark West, a wetlands biologist and chair of the local land trust, Bear Paw Regional Greenways. He points to the state’s wildlife action plan, which highlights the area as particularly full of important habitats, “I feel sorry for the people over between Keene and the Connecticut River where there’s like none!”

It might not have the soaring crags of the White Mountains or the sprawling river valley that Western New Hampshire boasts, but it has variety, which ultimately means it will harbor a wider variety of species.

West walked Melville and I through a parcel that is already conserved. But it’s a good example of the kinds of properties that the grants will target. In just an hour the group passed through about a half dozen different micro-ecosystems – beaver ponds, fens, vernal pools, a low ridge left behind by a receding glacier – which plenty of plants and animals called home – endangered Blanding’s turtles, bobcats, many different sedges, wool and cotton grasses.

All this makes it an ideal spot for a climate-change lifeboat, or stronghold, or whatever metaphor you want to use.

“The metaphor that I get the most traction with at least in New England is a ballpark,” says Mark Anderson, the Nature Conservancy scientist. He says the science is still too uncertain on exactly how animals will adapt to climate change, and it could be that the cast of characters in the “lifeboat” will change over time. “In a baseball team, we love the players, and they’re really important, but you know you can’t keep them there forever”

So Anderson likes to think of these pockets of well-connected, diverse habitat as a network of ballparks on which today’s and tomorrow’s precious species will take their turns playing.

Credit Open Space Institute
The Open Space Institute will give out grants in 4 areas, based on the data assembled by the Nature Conservancy.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.

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