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As conservationists, we recognize the inherent value of natural resources and conserving our lands and waters for reasons above and beyond the roles they play in human well-being. However, decisions about how to use land and water are based primarily on outcomes for people, and there is great risk that even our most important natural areas may be converted to other uses as resources become increasingly scarce. So the strongest case possible must be made for natural lands and the services they provide to people as well as nature itself.

The Duck-Pensaukee Watershed Approach - a collaborative product of The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Law Institute (ELI) and key agency and NGO partners - ranks the relative value of wetlands to people and wildlife in the Great Lakes coastal watershed. The aim is to use this information to focus the collective efforts of watershed partners, from both regulatory and non-regulatory conservation perspectives, on sites that can be protected or restored to ensure long-term watershed health and provision of services. The approach has the two-fold goal of increasing the success and relevance of mitigation work under the Clean Water Act, while also steering private mitigation dollars (recently estimated by ELI to approach $3 billion annually across the nation) toward watershed-based conservation priorities.

Why the focus on wetlands? They provide a wide array of ecosystem services, often disproportionately to the uplands that surround them. Acre for acre, the value of wetlands to the U.S. economy has been estimated to be 10 times the value of its closest contender, upland forests - about $10,000/acre/year for wetlands vs. about $1,000/acre/year for upland forests (Ingraham and Foster 2008). While wetlands are part of a larger mosaic of habitats that provide a wider array of services, society stands to gain a great deal from wetland conservation.

At its heart, the Duck-Pensaukee Watershed Approach contains a set of four GIS-based tools, including methods to:

  1. Identify wetland conservation opportunities. To identify sites, we compared current and historical wetland and soils data in combination with current land use data.
  2. Profile the watershed to put site-based conservation decisions in context. To guide where to focus conservation efforts and on which services to focus, we assessed changes in the provision of four services (water quality improvement, flood abatement, surface water supply and carbon storage) in subwatersheds since the 1800s.
  3. Assess the potential for individual sites to provide an array of services for people. Next, we determined the potential for specific sites to provide a broader suite of services, including the four services of the watershed profile (water quality, flood abatement, surface water and carbon storage) plus shoreline protection and fish habitat.
  4. Assess the importance of sites to wildlife. The “Wildlife Tool” adapted for this approach is unique because it tailors Wisconsin’s Wildlife Action Plan to our watershed, reveals critical upland-wetland linkages and generates maps showing sites of greatest importance to both local and statewide wildlife priorities.

With each of these tools, we produced a series of maps of the watershed that are available in report format and also via an online, interactive mapping tool. The maps enable users to match their goals to watershed needs (expressed as declines in ecosystem services), identify subwatersheds with the greatest opportunity to meet those goals and select specific sites to protect or restore. Sites may be selected based on their potential to meet one, some or all of the assessed ecosystem services. For example, using this approach municipal planners in flood-prone communities can identify sites upstream with the greatest potential to reduce flooding problems. In addition, wetland mitigation sites can be identified that address declines in ecosystem services at the watershed scale. We are now working toward implementation of this watershed plan through outreach to watershed stakeholders and engagement with key partners, most of who have played a role in creation of the plan.

We intend to apply results toward conservation of the Duck-Pensaukee watershed, continue to improve on the methods and export the approach to other watersheds. Possible next steps in the evolution of this approach include integration with other watershed plans and goals (e.g., TMDLs), developing steps to ensure that plans are adapted to climate change, validation of the plan’s results and translation of results into economic valuation of services. Please take a look at this Watershed Approach and let us know your thoughts on these or other topics. We look forward to your feedback!

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