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Landscape Ecology:
High Tech to Heal the Earth

TFrom ladyslippers to drinking water — I know we need to protect our natural resources. But the magnitude of the problem sometimes makes me want to avoid it. How can we really make a difference?

On November 4, from 7 to 9 pm at the Nashua River Watershed Association, Dr. Kevin McGarigal of U. Mass will talk about a powerful tool called Landscape Ecology. This discipline analyzes the variation in patterns within a defined area of the planet. The area can be as small or as large as information is available for.

The process starts with information collected by state and federal government: topography, geological and hydrological features, demographics and human artifacts like roads and pollution sources, forest cover — and much more. Geographic Information System (GIS) technology displays the information as maps, which can be laid over each other, enabling a viewer to grasp relationships intuitively. The Commonwealth makes all this available free at the MassGIS website.

Landscape Ecology analyzes it further, to determine factors like freedom from exterior influences, similarity to surrounding areas, or connectivity (can an organism move between areas or do barriers prevent migration?). These get assigned values which can also be presented spatially as maps.

In 2002 the NRWA and the Groton Conservation Trust used this approach to identify two landscapes which Massachusetts Secretary of Environmental Affairs Bob Durand then designated as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) — a recognition of the quality, uniqueness, and significance of these natural resources. This designation creates the structure for people from different towns to work together to preserve and restore an area that does not lie conveniently in one jurisdiction. The Squannassit and Petapawag ACECs combined cover more than 60, 000 acres of the Nashua River corridor: from Groton to Ashby, and from Ayer to New Hampshire.

Much of the GIS information comes from aerial and satellite sensing systems. Remote detection methods are not yet available for many invasive species, for example the Japanese wooly adelgid which is killing Eastern hemlocks. Still, remote sensing has located some areas where the trees appear to be more resistant.

What a task: assembling and organizing all this data, in order to grasp the situation. Not to mention then weighing how to address the environmental problems identified. McGarigal and his colleagues have devised a Conservation Assessment and Prioritization System (CAPS), a computer software program to support the whole process. He hopes to have it ready to distribute to organizations, free, in January.

© Copyright 2004 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 22 October 2004

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