A Conservation Vision Map for the Massachusetts Pine Barrens

Last month, the Cape Cod Commission (CCC) held two workshops – one in the town of Eastham, the other in Barnstable – as part of their ongoing effort to create a conservation vision map for our rare and unique ecosystem.

This map is one element in fulfillment of a Landscape Scale Restoration grant (LSR) awarded to the Partnership by the US Forest Service.

Entitled “Re-building the Massachusetts Coastal Pine Barrens: Aligning restoration, conservation and management,” the LSR grant funds a wide variety of initiatives meant to reinvigorate the ecosystem, beginning with a vision of where to prioritize conservation efforts.

The goals of the workshop component of the visioning process also included improving awareness of how climate change and urbanization will impact southeastern Massachusetts in the future and how negative changes might be mitigated through the utilization of green infrastructure, defined broadly as “a network of waterways, wetlands, woodlands, wildlife habitats and other natural areas that support native species, maintain natural ecological processes, sustain air and water resources and contribute to the health and quality of life.”

The day-long workshops began with background presentations by Tim Simmons, formerly lead ecologist with the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program and now the principal of Simmons Ecological Restoration; Heather McElroy, a natural resource specialist with the Cape Cod Commission; and Eric Walberg, senior program leader of Manomet’s climate change program.

After an explanation of the Partnership’s mission by SEMPBA President Sharl Heller, McElroy showed off the Commission’s story map of the pine barrens ecoregion, an interactive online narrative of the project’s goals and the efforts being undertaken to meet those goals.

Undeveloped and unprotected lands (dark green) are one layer within the pine barrens green infrastructure map.

Simmons then outlined the scientific arguments for an ecosystem-based vision of management, and Wahlberg – utilizing the broad definition of green infrastructure –  explained how by agreeing on criteria for prioritization, the final map could aid efforts to simultaneously improve climate resilience and habitat preservation across the region. 

One key goal of the workshops, Wahlberg said, would be “an improved understanding of how the combined stressors of climate change and continued urbanization are likely to impact ecosystems in Southeastern Massachusetts, and how green infrastructure can respond to those stressors and enhance local and regional resiliency.” 

In the second half of the workshop attendees had the opportunity to examine the draft green infrastructure maps of their communities that are being developed, and to offer detailed feedback. 

The goal here, Walberg explained, was to “spark discussion on how to best integrate local and regional planning priorities and, therefore, to minimize conflicts between the two.”

It was generally agreed that a “local perspective is critical to creating a vision map for the entire ecoregion.”

Attendees at the Eastham workshop looking over the green infrastructure map.

Many participants felt that additional layers, such as those indicating built structures and/or the use of alternate color schemes to better contrast different land types and conditions, would improve the utility of the maps.

It was also noted that areas a community’s conservation focus often depends on existing bylaws and regulations, the level of community support, the presence of an active land trust, or a municipalitie’s financial wherewithal.

There was wide agreement that the Community Preservation Act can play a key financial role in a municipalitie’s effort to establish a cohesive open space/conservation policy.

The need for model bylaws that could be disseminated across the region was also noted and, in the absence of community and/or regulatory support, the work of regional conservation organization were seen as critical to conservation efforts.

Many participants noted that there is a large technological disparity between communities, so the services provided by regional agencies, such as the Cape Cod Commission, were all the more important.

Key additional suggestions for increasing the utility of the draft maps included: the inclusion of structures (buildings, streets, etc.) on maps or online layers that can be turned on and off; differentiating between land that cannot be developed by default and land under conservation; and the need for maps that have been recently updated.

Workshop attendees were a mix of town planners, conservation agents, environmental nonprofit members, and staff from federal agencies, land grant organizations and various other conservation entities.