Chesapeake Conservancy using high-tech mapping tools to conserve habitat in the Chesapeake Bay watershed
Successful land conservation projects depend on precise and up-to-date information about how land is used, including habitat exists. Conservationists have access to a trove of high-quality, high-resolution data and images for the nearly 100,000 square miles of land comprising the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and surrounding counties since conservation and data experts from the Chesapeake Conservancy released it earlier this month.
Called the Chesapeake Bay High-resolution Land Cover Project, this information is open data—meaning it is free to download and completely accessible to the public. By making it free to access and download, the experts at the Chesapeake Conservancy have removed a significant barrier to effective land conservation: finding detailed land cover data.
“This data provides critical insight into the function of an ecosystem and the priority areas for conservation and restoration,” said Joel Dunn, President and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy. “It’s going to change everybody’s accuracy and knowledge base, and provide the evidence that people need in order to invest, propose grants, or focus multiple actors on places that matter most. As far as I know, there’s no other dataset like this in the country.”
Land cover data is information about what covers the surface of a landscape, like trees, water, road, structures, and vegetation. This information helps land managers determine strategies to improve habitat. Already such information has helped the District of Columbia’s Urban Forestry Administration determine where to plant trees on public lands.
It also helps bring to light which habitats have been divided and isolated by human development, a process called habitat fragmentation. Reconnecting fragmented habitat is a goal for many conservation organizations, including Mt. Cuba Center.
An Up-Close Look
Before the Chesapeake Bay High-resolution Land Cover Project, anyone with an interest in determining land cover in the region would have to commission their own maps or send out field teams to find opportunities for action, both resource-intensive enterprises. The readily available data maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Land Cover Dataset, is updated only every two years and limited to a resolution of 30 meters by 30 meters, which is not precise enough to design effective conservation projects.
“The 30 meter resolution from the National Dataset, where each pixel represents about ¼ of an acre, is appropriate for watershed level analysis,” said Jeff Allenby, Director of Conservation Technology with the Chesapeake Conservancy. “Now each pixel represents one meter of resolution.”
That increased resolution means that conservationists can evaluate a large land mass and zoom in on areas that are in the most critical need – in some cases they can identify what species of tree is on the map. Then, whether the target area is a pristine pocket of forest habitat, or a stream that runs alongside a road, they can make a plan to address it.
The dataset in the Chesapeake Bay High-resolution Land Cover Project is like a robust map that can tell its reader everything they would want to know about land cover of a certain area – from what percentage is covered by forest, to how the landscape has changed over time, to what’s under the tree canopy.
It’s so robust that the EPA will replace their watershed models for the Chesapeake region with those developed by the Chesapeake Conservancy, Dunn said.
To get such a precise map of land cover, Chesapeake Conservancy’s conservation technology experts spent ten months gathering information and images, and leveraged already existing information that was available to the public, and made it easier to understand with mapping. They collected additional data and images over ten months, and put the heavy lifting, calculations-wise, on to computers.
“We use publicly accessible data and we then classify the data and tell the program how to recognize land cover uses,” Allenby said. “Then it processes that information for vast areas and can run analyses on that data.”
21st Century Tools and Tracking
Since the Chesapeake Conservancy will refresh the data periodically, conservationists can measure the results of their projects in real time, helping them make better choices for habitat management and making sure their efforts are getting the intended result.
“Environmental conservation has always been a matter of choices,” said Jeff Downing, Executive Director of Mt. Cuba Center. “With limited resources, it’s critical to prioritize projects based on their environmental importance. These 21st century tools help allocate resources in a more effective way.”
These tools, available for anyone to use, can be downloaded or viewed on the Chesapeake Conservancy’s website, here.
This article originally appeared in the Delaware News Journal on December 23, 2016. Read it here.