28 December 2010


MONTANA LEGACY PROJECT. For many years, one of the ongoing debates within the conservation movement has been whether it is more effective to set aside fewer, larger tracts of land as nature preserves, or to set aside more numerous, smaller tracts of land.

Larger tracts serve the needs of animals with more expansive ranges (home territories), and also preserve wider swaths of ecosystems and the diversity of species they contain. But larger tracts are also more expensive, and involve more governmental agencies and human residents.

Smaller tracts are more affordable, and involve fewer complications with transfer of ownership. However, they protect smaller portions of habitat, fewer species, and suffer from a phenomenon called edge effect. Simply put, when the area outside the boundary of a protected area is disturbed by human activity, or is otherwise in an unnatural condition, the natural ecosystem within the protected area is inevitably affected for some distance in from the boundary. This effectively shrinks the area of the already-small tract which is available to native plant and animal life.

One compromise is to establish protected corridors linking many smaller tracts, so that free-ranging animals can move from one to another. This has been tried with limited success throughout the American West.

Over the years, The Nature Conservancy, the world's most effective non-profit conservation organization, has developed innovative and highly successful methods for tackling the large tract vs. small tract dilemma. The Conservancy's members and staff have served as mediators between hard-core preservationists, private landowners, and government agencies to forge agreements which benefit all. Not just in the U.S. but around the world, TNC pioneered conservation easements, debt for nature swaps, prescribed burns, the purchase of threatened habitats which are later sold at fair value to state and federal government agencies for prolonged stewardship, public environmental education, and many other effective efforts at not only protection, but also at involving the greatest number of participants from varied backgrounds in order to assure the greatest support for the natural world.

A week ago, TNC announced finalization of "the biggest private conservation land acquisition in the history of the United States -- the Montana Legacy Project which protects 310,000 acres of threatened forests, mountain habitat, lakes and streams. The land lies within a 10-million acre sweep of wild lands that includes one of the largest roadless areas in the country. It is also one of the last places on Earth where not a single plant or animal species has gone extinct in recorded history .... Had we not stepped in, the land would have faced the threat of subdivision and development, forever changing this iconic region of the American West. By working with a diverse group of public and private partners, we were able to acquire the land and transfer it to the State of Montana and the US Forest Service, ensuring it will remain healthy and intact for the benefit of both wildlife and people."

Click on the above link for the Montana Legacy Project, scroll down the righthand column, then click on "Maps - Project Overview" to see in compelling graphic terms the complexity and scope of this achievement. High praise to TNC for a bold initiative which may forever change the face of conservation.

NOAH. Check out the link for NOAH (Networked Organisms and Habitats), "a tool that nature lovers can use to explore and document local wildlife, and a common technology platform that research groups can use to harness the power of citizen scientists everywhere." NOAH is an exciting project, and I can't wait to watch it grow. The most powerful force for change (or for preservation) is harnessing the energy and dedication of informed non-professionals -- witness the Audubon Society's nationwide Christmas bird counts, or the collected observations of backyard birders studied by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, not to mention the monumental achievements of The Nature Conservancy. Sometimes being a naturalist feels like holding back the tide with a bucket, but such success stories impart the most potent tool of all -- hope.

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