It’s probably no surprise that a land trust’s main objective is to conserve land with the goal of protecting – in perpetuity – water and other important natural resources that exist in such areas. In addition, conservation lands secure the health and homes of animals and plants that inhabit them, help improve the scenic beauty of a landscape, and provide opportunities for outdoor recreation. In these days of significant human impact on the environment, selecting areas in greatest need of protection may also be guided by such variables as carbon sequestration or protecting tree canopies to provide shade and cooling effects on surrounding areas.
The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is currently spearheading a county-wide assessment to evaluate where the most important conservation areas exist. By combining data sets that factor in steepness of the terrain, vegetation cover, occurrence of known sensitive species or habitats, presence of headwaters and stream corridors, current land use, permeability of the soils, etc., we are compiling maps that indicate which areas have the highest conservation value. Even though this may seem like a mostly academic exercise, in reality, this means that we are objectively identifying the parts of the county where spending scarce conservation dollars will have the biggest impact in terms of best protecting our clean air and water, best reducing runoff that ends up polluting our lakes and waterways, best providing habitat for our most endangered plants and animals, and best ensuring a healthy future for current and new residents of Chautauqua County.
A point that is often missed by those who are not in the conservation field is that smart conservation is an essential piece of planning for smart economic growth. Because let’s face it: if we were to jeopardize our quality of life by harming our most precious natural resources, who would want to live or plan a future here? The great news is that, when comparing our county’s environmental health against much of the rest of the country, we are in good shape. We are not routinely threatened by forest fires, hurricanes, droughts, or floods. Our water quality is top grade, and our landscape supports abundant agriculture and lush forests. Pretty great! Now, the smart thing is to not only acknowledge those strengths but to also put in place policies to ensure that we can sustainably maintain our environmental health in this rapidly changing world, while also making improvements where needed.
In the simplest terms, maintaining clean air and water can be achieved by keeping about 70% of our landscape in intact forest or wetland. With that amount of cover, these habitats will adequately serve as our landscape’s kidneys and lungs to supply us with clean air and water – quietly, at no financial cost to us and looking good doing all this hard work! Once healthy land cover drops below 70%, impacts on water quality become noticeable, and we will have to engineer solutions to make up for that. Usually, this cannot be done quietly or cheaply, and often such engineered solutions negatively impact the environment in other ways. So, protecting the right land in the right places, where it has the greatest positive impact makes good economic sense!
Many parts of Chautauqua County have large forest blocks and are near that desirable 70% mark, unlike more developed, urbanized areas. CWC staff also actively works to restore impacted areas and attempt to connect smaller habitat fragments in more impacted areas to improve their ecological functionality. Areas with higher population density tend to have less room for nature, creating environmental inequities in areas where most people live. This is why, for example, CWC is working with community partners to restore and activate the Chadakoin River as it winds through Jamestown – to improve the benefits it provides to the community and to individuals. After all, every bit of “green” that is restored counts towards that 70% mark.
Unfortunately, even protected areas suffer from ongoing outside stressors, such as climate change, diseases, and invasive species. Just like we work with partner organizations to improve the quality of Chautauqua Lake by addressing issues of excess nutrient loading, runoff, and invasive species, we also address similar issues in our preserves. Invasive species are among the greatest threats to the health of our forests, and we work closely with entities such as Western New York Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) to mitigate these challenges. Here too, planning and prioritization is key to ensure that time and money is applied where it has the greatest benefit for everyone.
At the end of a very busy year, I want to extend our deepest gratitude to all regional partners, supporters, and volunteers who are working with us to make the Chautauqua region healthier, more beautiful, and more resilient! Here’s to a future with more “green” for everyone!
(photo by Twan Leenders: Members of WNY PRISM's Crew Assist Program helping to eradicate invasive Japanese Knotweed at CWC's Ball Creek Preserve to help improve the area's environmental health and functionality.)