Next Steps for a Healthy Gulf of Mexico Watershed

Focal Areas

The Gulf of Mexico watershed exhibits a great ecological richness due to diverse influences of geomorphology, climate and hydrology. This diversity is illustrated in Vision’s focal areas for restoration and conservation — areas that include everything from hypersaline lagoons to freshwater springs, and submerged seagrass beds to upland pine forests. Each focal area that follows this introduction starts with “Landscape at a Glance,” a thumbnail sketch of some of the elements and challenges that make the area of particular interest with respect to Gulf restoration. Among the factors the Service considered in choosing these focal areas were unique ecological features, regional conditions and trends, existing conservation/restoration plans and collaborative efforts.

A map of focal areas across the entire Gulf of Mexico watershed from the Midwest to the Southeast.

The Service’s Biological Planning Units are derived from partners’ existing planning boundaries. Map by Roy Hewitt, USFWS.

In Vision, we displayed the focal areas with “fuzzy” boundaries to avoid limiting opportunities for collaboration; our intention was to tap into broad programmatic and partnership synergies across the watershed. At this point, we are beginning the transition to Biological Planning Units in the Gulf because explicit and quantitative biological objectives necessitate explicit boundaries. We compiled and aligned existing lines and boundaries to form these planning units similar to the way we compiled existing biological objectives. The boundaries reflect important ecological, political and legislative divisions. The Biological Planning Units now cover the entire Gulf Coast region, resulting in the addition of two new focal areas, Tampa Bay and Florida Keys. The transition to Biological Planning Units has also led us to redefine focal areas along the Texas Mid-Coast, North-Central Gulf Coast (now Central Gulf Lands), and Panhandle Beaches (now Central Gulf and Florida Panhandle Coast), among others. Again, though, these refinements to our fuzzy boundaries do not reflect “new” lines on the map. Rather, they represent an evolution in our thinking and a convergence to boundaries already recognized by others.

Aerial photograph of a forested marsh giving way to open water.

Coastal marsh at Chassahowitzka NWR, Florida. Photo by Joyce Kleen, USFWS.

One collaborative science-based effort is the “Gulf Land Conservation Tool” project, also known as the “Strategic Conservation Assessment Framework” project. This three-year effort is being led by the Department through the RESTORE Council and the four LCCs in the Gulf Coast to develop a suite of tools that RESTORE Council members can use to identify and evaluate land conservation opportunities in the Gulf Coast region. Many of the existing land conservation plans are limited to a particular geographic or administrative boundary. The goal of project is to combine these previously existing plans into a set of decision-support tools that span the entire Gulf Coast. This set of tools and the subsequent analyses will provide RESTORE Council members information regarding land conservation actions that could provide the greatest benefit to current and future ecosystem sustainability and resilience within the states and across the Gulf. All RESTORE Council members will participate in the development of these tools, and the four Gulf LCCs will provide the science support for the project.

Just as there are differences in topography and hydrology that shape a particular landscape, there naturally are differences in the factors that led to the formulation of the Service’s recommendations for action. These include such factors as the quantity and quality of habitats and associated fish and wildlife populations, the ability to partner and leverage restoration capacity, and the immediacy of restoration actions needed to address threats. As a result, the number of recommended next steps for focal areas varies, and some of the recommendations come from a helicopter-high view while others are dirt-level in their directness and specificity. In addition, the recommended steps listed in this document understandably vary in their level of completion, ranging from the conceptualization stage to actualization as long-term, ongoing conservation actions.

We are intentionally building on existing work; we are not recreating the wheel or coming up with new objectives. Many of the recommended next steps resemble or reinforce recommendations from other efforts, initiatives or plans. These include Migratory Bird Joint Venture strategies, state-based Gulf restoration plans (e.g., the Louisiana Coastal Master Plan), state wildlife action plans, NWR Comprehensive Conservation Plans, National Estuary Program Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plans, and the NRDAR Trustees’ Programmatic Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan/Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement. Each of these efforts has specific planning processes, stakeholder engagement and implementing features that will determine lead agencies and organizations for those efforts or initiatives. In many cases the Service will not be the lead, but will be a partner in planning and implementation where appropriate.