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Prioritizing Landscapes for Conservation

Last fall, the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy undertook a computer analysis of lands comprising the Chautauqua Lake watershed using eleven ecological and water quality criteria to identify and prioritize landscapes for future conservation. Conserving and restoring as much of our natural open spaces in forests and wetlands is essential for fighting climate change and for the future health of our waterways and fish and wildlife populations. CWC will use this analysis to determine how to best invest its limited funding and organizational resources for the most positive water quality, habitat and carbon sequestration impacts. This project was part of CWC’s Chautauqua Lake Watershed Forest, Wetland and Tributary Conservation and Enhancement Program funded by the Chautauqua Lake and Watershed Management Alliance. University of Buffalo Biology PhD candidate Jonathan Townsend was the principal geographic information system (GIS) analyst performing this work.

First, using 2019 land cover data, CWC produced a land cover map of the 180-square mile Chautauqua Lake watershed and determined the percentages of forest and wetland cover in each town and tributary sub-watershed as a measurement of the land cover quality of each. The more forest and wetland cover in a watershed, the cleaner the water that it “sheds” downstream to the lake is. The higher the percentage of suburban lands, developed lands and impervious surfaces in a watershed, the more nutrient- and sediment-laden those runoff waters become. The percentage of forest and wetlands was found to be most pristine at nearly 80% in the portion of the watershed in the Town of Stockton feeding Dewittville Creek and lowest at 48% for the Town of Ellicott’s portion of the watershed. Municipalities concerned about lake conditions can undertake conservation initiatives to conserve remaining forested and wetland areas and adopt tree ordinances, stormwater, land cover and other land use laws to reduce pollution fueling excessive plant and algae growth in their lake waters.

CWC then performed an analysis considering eleven hydrological and ecological indicators of the lands in the watershed. The map above shows a preliminary prioritization of lands across the watershed, with lands indicated in dark orange being lowest priority for conservation, yellow being moderate priority and greens and blues being the highest priority. Some of the factors included whether or not lands were within 300 feet of a stream, whether flood plains, wetlands, steep slopes or interior forest were present, whether known significant habitat areas were present, and whether land was adjacent to existing conserved lands such as nature preserves and state wildlife management areas.

Maintaining and restoring healthy, naturally-forested buffers and wetlands adjacent to all tributary streams feeding the lake is necessary to trap and filter pollutants before they enter the streams and flow to the lake. One can see on this map that stream corridors and wetland areas scored quite highly. Some landscapes that stand out are the large wetland complexes along Big Inlet in the Hartfield to Elm Flats area of the Town of Chautauqua, the Open Meadows marsh area in the Town of North Harmony and wetlands and forests feeding Goose, Prendergast and Ball Creeks. CWC will be presenting this information to the various communities in coming months and encouraging input from landowners, sportsmen, birders and other outdoor enthusiasts on identifying sites with important habitat or water features worthy of conservation to include in its priority conservation plan. As part of this initiative, CWC desires to work with the agricultural community to conserve these features on their properties and to help facilitate the conservation of the most productive agricultural lands across the region to keep those lands in the hands of farmers and not lost to commercial, industrial or residential uses. The CWC will seek to communicate with the owners of the highest priority landscapes in coming months to introduce them to the various opportunities and benefits associated with voluntarily conserving the ecological attributes, water quality and water storage functions of their lands.

The CWC has also applied for 2022 New York State Conservation Partnership Program grant funding and other funding to undertake this priority conservation landscape modeling across the entire county and is seeking funding to conserve several forest, streamside and wetland sites this year.


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