Given the complexity of climate change and associated threats, strategic conservation planning has become even more critical than ever.
Several frameworks are available to assist land trusts as they plan for climate change impacts:
Conservation planning that is integrated, considers multiple spatial and time scales, and that includes a process for learning and re-planning, will help us make sound decisions in a changing world.
Conservation planning for climate change may involve working with a wider diversity of partners. For example, land trusts may collaborate with partners from other sectors of government that will also be developing plans for climate change adaptation. In this way, the benefits of ecosystem adaptation plans can be optimized across sectors. Integrated planning also ensures that actions taken by one sector will not conflict with another sector’s resources of concern.
Climate change is global, but the impacts and management decisions are typically local or regional. In order to plan for climate change, management decisions should be coordinated at a regional scale, with a broader ecological, social, and economic landscape context in mind. Collaboration with neighboring land trusts and/or local wetlands and conservation commissions, and state departments of natural resources may be required to protect conservation targets.
Land trusts regularly plan for the short-term (e.g. 5-10 years), but climate change adaptation requires the consideration of both short and long-term timeframes. Because long-term climate change impacts are more difficult to predict than near-term impacts, land trusts will need to manage for the short-term, while planning for the uncertainty of the long-term.
Climate change is rife with uncertainty — How much will sea level rise? How will coastal species respond? How will humans respond? — which makes it difficult to develop climate change adaptation plans. As a result, many planners rely on scenario planning to determine potential ecosystem responses to climate change. This involves looking at “if-this-then-that” scenarios with a number of variables, and allows planners to select management actions that appear to be the most robust under most or all of the possible scenarios. Learn more about scenario planning.
Adaptive management — essentially monitoring the effectiveness of land conservation activities, learning from the experience, and refining management plans based on those results — allows land trusts to move forward with management plans even when all the information is not yet available. Because adaptive management plans are inherently adaptable, land trusts can readily change management policies and strategies in response to climate change. Learn more about adaptive management.
Land trusts will benefit by examining their project selection criteria and conservation focus areas with climate change in mind. This process may guide future changes in land trust priorities and management practices. For example, the relative important of selection criteria may vary based on the anticipated vulnerability of land trust focus areas to climate change.
Conservation areas should be large enough to accommodate and recover from catastrophic disturbances, such as floods and fire, and support the home ranges of priority species. Because many land trusts focus on relatively small areas, land trusts may increase their effectiveness by collaborating with local and regional land conservation programs and organizations. In this way, land trusts will contribute to the conservation of core habitats and regional-scale ecological processes, while allowing for priority species to shift their ranges in response to climate change.
Wildlife corridors and interconnected habitats allow species to respond to changes in their environment by migrating to an area with more favorable conditions. For example, species with narrow temperature tolerances may respond to climate change by seeking cooler temperatures, which would generally require shifting their range northward or to higher elevations. Land trusts can facilitate these range shifts by prioritizing lands for acquisition that connect with habitats that are already protected. Note, however, that not all species will move neatly in these directions, so careful evaluation is needed.
As the effects of climate change progress, it may become difficult or impossible to maintain historic conditions in a given area. In particular, fires, floods and storms are expected to become more frequent and extreme. Land trusts can increase the resilience of ecosystems to these projected disturbances by maintaining and restoring healthy ecosystem processes, such as fire regimes and hydrological cycles. For example, by protecting land that serves the existing ecological function of an intact floodplain, a land trust would likely benefit many fish and wildlife species long into the future, regardless of future climate changes.
In Conserving the Stage: Climate Change and the Geophysical Underpinnings of Species Diversity, Anderson and Ferre of The Nature Conservancy recommend protecting a diverse and resilient network of conservation stages (geophysically diverse lands) rather than focusing entirely on the actors (current species composition). By protecting geophysically diverse areas — places that vary in altitude, climate or soil chemistry, such as sandy coasts and rocky highlands — land trusts will protect lands that will support large numbers of species, even if the species’ composition changes in the future due to climate change.
These concepts can help land trusts identify and protect lands that will likely be critical to wildlife under future climatic conditions. Conserving a network of these lands across a spectrum of latitudes and elevations may maintain an important stage for many species, under both current and future conditions.
Land trusts are engaging in strategic conservation planning to build resilience and minimize vulnerabilities to impacts of climate change in different ways. Learn more.