By Kimber Ray
Since 2008, Mark Anderson, a field ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, has been probing the ecosystems of the eastern United States for a better strategy to protect species seeking refuge from the impacts of climate change.
When he described the conclusions of his team’s groundbreaking research — a sophisticated map analysis of landscape and species diversity — to The Nature Conservancy Magazine in 2014, he compared it to a baseball field.
“As much as we like the players, we know they won’t stay the same forever,” he says. “They are going to move on.”
Protecting land based on its importance to endangered or uncommon species is a popular strategy — one that Anderson helped develop during his early work with The Nature Conservancy in the 1990s. Yet according to his ongoing mapping project, this strategy often amounts to blind guesswork when it comes to identifying potential future hotspots for biodiversity.
Anderson and his team’s first study, published in 2012, revealed that geology is the strongest predictor of which undeveloped environments can support the greatest diversity of plants and wildlife. Variations in features such as slope, elevation and soil profiles create a wide range of distinct habitats known as microclimates. These pockets of different temperatures and moisture levels offer options for migrating creatures to cope with climate change.
Dubbed a “resilient landscape,” Appalachia is noted as a particularly remarkable example of these microclimates. In the Blue Ridge Mountains of South Carolina, for example, Anderson’s report cites a case where the 104 degree heat of a sunny slope was in stark contrast to a nearby ravine, which was 25 degrees cooler.
The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which supported Anderson’s mapping projects, has since created a $12 million fund to promote conservation of the resilient landscapes identified using Anderson’s research.
Known as the Resilient Landscape Initiative and managed by the nonprofit Open Space Institute, the project invites public agencies and land trusts to apply for matching grant funds to help protect targeted areas. For land trusts, this involves creating conservation easements with private landowners; the property is protected from development and the owner retains possession of the land.
The Northeast-focused portion of the project has so far protected more than 3,000 acres of climate-resilient land in northern Appalachia. The coverage region, which includes four eligible focus areas, extends from Maine to as far south as the Potomac Headwaters of Virginia and West Virginia — an important home of the increasingly threatened native eastern brook trout.
Meanwhile the Southeast-focused part of the project, which began at the end of 2014 with the Southern Cumberlands area in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, recently expanded to include the southern Blue Ridge and the Greater Pee Dee River regions. The project is accepting applications for grant funds; deadline is July 21 and awards will be announced in September.