Strategic Habitat Conservation
Southeast Region

Landscape Conservation in Action -- Conservation Through Collaboration

Rich Mason, a biologist with Partners for Fish and Wildlife (far left) and Alyssa Donzal, Scenic River Land Trust Watershed Coordintaor in Annapolis. Credit: Stacy Shelton, USFWS

Rich Mason, a biologist with Partners for Fish and Wildlife (far left) and Alyssa Donzal, Scenic River Land Trust Watershed Coordintaor in Annapolis. Credit: Stacy Shelton, USFWS

With the stick he’d been using to clear spider webs from the trail, federal biologist Rich Mason pointed into a thick understory of a largely untouched, mature forest ten minutes from Annapolis.

This “is a really good nesting area for the Kentucky warbler, one of our target species,” said Mason, who works in the Chesapeake Bay Field Office for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife.

That wasn’t quite what Marvin Moriarty, the Service’s Northeast regional director, wanted to hear. After hiking for half an hour in the afternoon heat, he was still waiting for someone to explain why this area, a mixed forest protecting the headwaters of a tidal Bay river, might fit the definition of Strategic Habitat Conservation. The Service recently adopted SHC as a way to tie landscape conservation to species protection.

“When you say ‘target species,’ what do you mean by that?” asked Moriarty, taking the professorial approach. “I got to be honest with you, I get so confused with all the different lists,” Mason said.

“Well, all I worry about is if it’s a migratory bird.”

When the answer came back a definitive “yes,” the regional director perked up. “Then you’re linking it to the priorities of the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Moriarty said. “I designate you an SHC practitioner, and you didn’t even know it.”

The South River Greenway in Anne Arundel County, the heart of Maryland’s sprawling suburbia, has other SHC markings. In addition to the Kentucky warbler, it’s home to other migratory birds such as the Louisiana waterthrush and the worm-eating warbler. It’s streams contain the American eel, an interjurisdictional fish.

Those species give the Service reason to invest resources in the land, even though the closest national wildlife refuge is 30 miles away. Since 2005, Mason and Leslie Gerlich, a Coastal Program biologist in the Service’s Chesapeake Bay Office, have steered a conservation effort that, in partnership with NGOs, private landowners and Anne Arundel County, has more than doubled the amount of protected land to about 4,000 acres. That’s one-quarter of the South River’s watershed, with the county poised to buy more for what will eventually be a county-owned nature park.

That’s SHC at work. Conservation through collaboration, that’s driven by species protection and based on an ecosystem, not refuge borders. “The key thing about SHC is, it’s focusing what we do on the ground against our priorities [conservation of migratory birds, endangered species and aquatic species],” Moriarty said. “Prior to SHC, we didn’t really have that. . . Some people would feel that we should be working on wetlands regardless of whether you could connect that wetland to protection of a particular species of Service concern or a Service priority.”

The next step, Moriarty said, is to link the conservation work on the South River Greenway and similar Service projects to each other, and to the overall federal effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay. The goal is to focus resources on the most effective projects. For the Service, that’s primarily species protection and recovery.

Until now, the Service’s Bay work has been uncoordinated, spread across 27 field offices with no means of measuring the total impact. There’s even less understanding of the progress made by the entire public effort, which includes 11 federal agencies, three states and the District of Columbia. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s 2008 report, those entities had spent $3.7 billion spent on Bay restoration in the decade from 1995 to 2004, with no benchmark information “to identify gaps and duplication in their efforts.”

That’s where the Service’s new budgeting tool fits in. For two years, Region 5 offices involved in some aspect of the Chesapeake Bay and its watersheds have filled out surveys, providing detailed input on costs associated with Bay restoration. The bottomline: The Service spends $11.2 million a year on Bay-related work, from streambank restoration to biological monitoring.

So the next time a Congressional staffer or a member of the Audubon Society wants to know what has been done to safeguard the populations of the Cerulean warbler, a sky-blue migratory bird, a simple query of the budgeting tool will pop out the total money spent on activities affecting the bird. The dataset would include staff time and capital costs for everything from reforestation to biological assessments on the impacts of wind turbines.

The budget tool, called the SHC Performance Pilot, debuted at the Chesapeake Bay Project Leaders meeting in Annapolis in August. It’s already made a difference.

When the Department of Interior recently asked for budget requests related to President Obama’s executive order on Chesapeake Bay restoration, Region 5 responded in two days by using the information gathered for the pilot.

For those in the field, the new budget tool accounts for the resources required to plan, monitor and design conservation work, and not just acres of wetlands restored, for example.

“We felt like we were working with one hand behind our back. We were not getting credit for the work it takes to do conservation on a landscape scale,” Moriarty said. “Now we have a system that targets the activities we do, and shows cross-programmatically the work going into a single species outcome.” Tom DeMoss, who has been working on the Chesapeake Bay for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for more than 30 years, said the Service is way ahead of its counterparts.

“The other federal agencies are struggling right now to show what they’re doing with the resources in the Chesapeake Bay,” DeMoss said. Fish & Wildlife “can already do that and from that tie your achievements to outcomes.”

Moriarty hopes to expand the budget tool region-wide within five years. On the Bay, he’d like to see the budget tool implemented for the combined federal budget, to better coordinate across agencies and to tie all the work to outcomes.


Last updated: December 3, 2012