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Brown pelicans sitting on nests at Breton Island National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Greg Thompson, USFWS.

Strategic conservation assessment will help guide gulf conservation

Remember the story of the blind men and the elephant? A group of blind men each feel a different part of an elephant so they end up having widely different interpretations of what the whole elephant looks like. A similar situation exists with land conservation in the Gulf of Mexico region.

Although there are a large number of land conservation plans already in existence across the Gulf, many are limited either geographically or organizationally. The Strategic Conservation Assessment for Gulf Lands (SCA) project is aimed at developing decision support tools that can lead to better-informed decisions about land conservation because they reflect a Gulf-wide perspective – that is, a view of the whole elephant.

The SCA is a three-year, $1.9 million project funded by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (RESTORE Council) that will combine the land conservation plans already in existence to create three decision support tools:

  • prioritization criteria that can be used to evaluate existing land conservation projects;
  • a map that can be used to identify land conservation possibilities; and,
  • a user-interface that will allow the map to be used to examine the multiple tradeoffs with various land conservation options.

Reports will accompany each tool to explain how to use them.

Mississippi State University will be doing most of the work, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be assisting and administering the funds. A working group will provide broad oversight of the project, and will include representatives from the Service, Mississippi State University, the RESTORE Council, and each of the four Gulf-related Landscape Conservation Cooperatives. The project began May 1.

The results of this project will be useful to the public, said Chris Pease, a member of the Service’s Gulf Restoration Team and of the working group. That’s because the tools could make clear why a particular piece of land was chosen for conservation and another wasn’t. “They will be able to help guide and explain the decision-making process,” he said.

The project will involve soliciting input from individuals outside of the working group at stakeholder meetings, with at least four planned in each of the five Gulf states. Kristine Evans, a Mississippi State assistant professor who will be working on the project, said they will be “strategically targeting a cross-section of stakeholders” so that the meetings will reflect the diversity of the Gulf and take into account both ecological and socioeconomic perspectives.

John Tirpak, a member of the Service’s Gulf Restoration Team and the project lead, stresses that use of the SCA products will be voluntary. “We’re not forcing anyone to use it,” he said. ”Even the RESTORE Council doesn’t have to. We’re hoping that they will, because we will have created tools that they’ll find useful.” Similarly, all land conservation will be voluntary.

Pease added that the SCA “will take disparate pieces of information (habitat, adjacency, sea rise models, ecosystem services, costs, etc.) and provide options on possible wholes.” In other words, it illustrates the axiom that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Just like in the story of the blind men and the elephant.

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