Tag Archive | "adaptation plans"

sunset refuge

National Wildlife Refuges and Sea-Level Rise

The Refuge System is losing ground. Literally. There are over 160 coastal national wildlife refuges, and virtually all of them are experiencing the impacts of sea level rise and coastal storms exacerbated by climate change. Refuges need a system-wide response.

Defenders recently published a new report, National Wildlife Refuges and Sea-Level Rise: Lessons from the Frontlines, based on insights from a national perspective as well as on the ground at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. The report includes recommendations for national policy, on the ground habitat management, and for dealing with local communities, many of which are resistant to the management changes necessary to cope with the rising seas. These recommendations include:

To respond to it effectively, refuge managers must:

• Take a landscape-scale approach to conservation throughout the refuge system.

• Share information throughout the refuge system to avoid ‘re-inventing the wheel’ in responding to climate change.

• Receive policy guidance and support from FWS for coordinated climate change responses throughout the refuge system.

With sufficient financial support and manpower, coastal refuges can take steps to help mitigate the impacts of sea-level rise and buy time for species and habitats to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Steps that show promise include:

• Plant salt-tolerant species to minimize the impacts of saltwater intrusion.

• Restore altered hydrology to reduce salt-water intrusion and to regain natural marsh-building processes.

• Restore shoreline reefs to minimize climate-change-mediated coastal erosion.

• Work with partners and the public to develop long-term conservation plans for the next century and beyond.


A large and growing percentage of the American public is skeptical or confused about climate change. To build understanding and support for climate-change-related work at refuges, managers and staff must engage and convince the people who live near refuges. To do this, refuge managers need support and guidance from FWS to:

• Find and present tangible examples the local community can relate to of sea-level-rise impacts that have already occurred.

• Use modeling tools such as SLAMM to provide dramatic, easy-to-grasp visuals of what the landscape will look like in the future.

• Engage in an open community dialog to find out what’s important to locals and to explore alternatives for reaching their goals.

Only by taking a broad, new perspective to finding creative solutions for addressing climate change-related problems and to educating and involving local communities and partners can FWS meet its conservation mission and preserve our refuges, the network of special places where the needs of wildlife come first.

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Getting Strategic about Climate Change Adaptation

Back in February the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, and state fish and wildlife agencies put forth a new concept in conservation, the National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.   This unprecedented effort brought together 23 federal, state and tribal entities to “to inspire and enable natural resource professionals and other decision makers to take action to conserve fish, wildlife, plants and  ecosystem functions, as well as the human uses, values and benefits these natural systems provide, in a changing climate.”

The strategy is a call to action to protect and restore resilient habitat and habitat corridors, integrate climate change into existing conservation programs, build the conservation community’s capacity to address climate change, invest in coordinated research and monitoring, and provide natural resources managers the tools they need to adapt to a changing environment.

As we all know, a strategy is only as good as the actions that follow from it. And while it is vitally important that we enhance the climate resilience of our natural areas and habitats, climate change is going to affect many other sectors as well, and no one set of preparations should occur in a vacuum. That’s why it was interesting to see the new “Preparing for a Changing Climate: Washington State’s Integrated Climate Response Strategy.  This new plan is truly strategic in addressing climate change adaptation, drawing on the on the National Strategy for elements relating to wildlife, habitats, forests, and aquatic and marine species, but also addresses agriculture, infrastructure, and human health in a single, integrated plan.

Washington’s strategy is divided into nine different overview topics: A) Human Health; B) Ecosystems, Species and Habitats; C) Coasts and Oceans; D) Water Resources; E) Agriculture; F) Forests; G) Infrastructure and the built environment; H) Research and Monitoring; and I) Communication, Awareness, Engagement. The goals and strategies pertaining to natural resources topics closely mirror those of the National Strategy (see table below).

Incorporating the goals and elements of the National Wildlife Adaptation Strategy into the plans of federal and state agencies, tribes, and other conservation partners is the best way to ensure that the National Strategy will actually be implemented to reduce the impacts of climate change on the nation’s biodiversity.


National Strategy Washington State
Goal 1: Conserve habitat to support healthy fish, wildlife and plant populations and ecosystem functions in a changing climate.


B-1. Conserve habitat necessary to support healthy fish, wildlife, and plant populations and ecosystem functions in a changing climate, and protect connectivity areas between critical habitats to allow the movement of species in response to climate change.


C-3. Accelerate efforts to protect and restore nearshore habitat and natural processes.


F-1. Conserve and restore healthy, resilient forests across ownership boundaries and large geographic ranges to minimize the threats from climate change and extreme weather events.



Goal 2: Manage species and habitats to protect ecosystem functions and provide sustainable cultural, subsistence, recreational, and commercial use in a changing climate. Incorporating climate change information into fish, wildlife, and plant management efforts is essential to safeguarding these valuable natural resources.


 Strategy 2.3 Conserve genetic diversity (all  species)

B-3. Manage species and habitats to

protect ecosystem functions and provide sustainable cultural, recreational, and commercial use in a changing climate.


B-4 also gets at integrating climate change into planning.


F-2. Maintain and protect forest species and genetic diversity across the landscape to ensure long-term conservation of our forest genetic resources and help buffer against impacts of climate change.


Goal 3: Enhance capacity for effective management in a changing climate. B-5. Build capacity and support for the adoption of response strategies that help protect and restore ecosystem function and services at risk from climate change.


C-4. Build local capacity to respond to coastal climate impacts by providing tools to assess vulnerability and advancing research, monitoring, and engagement efforts.


F-4. Build capacity and support for maintaining, enhancing, and restoring resilient and healthy forests.


Goal 4: Support adaptive management in a changing climate through integrated observation and monitoring and use of decision support tools.


H. Research and Monitoring.
Goal 5: Increase knowledge and information on impacts and responses of fish, wildlife and plants to a changing climate.






B-4. Integrate climate adaptation

considerations for species and ecosystems

into natural resource and conservation planning, land use and infrastructure planning, and resource allocation and public investment initiatives.


C-5. Enhance our understanding and monitoring of ocean acidification (pH) in Puget Sound and coastal waters as well as our ability to adapt to and mitigate effects of seawater acidity on shellfish, other marine organisms, and marine ecosystems.



Goal 6: Increase awareness and motivate action to safeguard fish, wildlife and plants in a changing climate.


B-5 also discusses “building support”


I. Awareness and engagement.

Goal 7: Reduce non-climate stressors to help fish, wildlife, plants, and ecosystems adapt to a changing climate. B-2. Reduce non-climate stressors to help fish, wildlife, plants, and ecosystems be more resilient to the effects of climate change.

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Is a Better Forecast in Our Future?

©UCAR. Photo by Carlye Calvin.

A recent new report by the IPCC – the Special Report for Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX)– addresses the issue of extreme weather and climate change, and how likely it is that those two are related.  Among the changes that the report says are very likely to occur worldwide due to a changing climate are a general decrease in the number of cold days and nights, and a general increase in the number of warm days and nights. Significant changes in precipitation and drought patterns are also mentioned, as well as an increase in hurricane wind speed and a great likelihood that rainfall and temperature extremes will play a role in landslides and floods in high altitudes.  However, there is less certainty about natural climate patterns or other climate-driven shifts in weather events.

The World Resources Institute also recently released a report, “Decision making in a changing climate”,which acknowledges that climate change complicates decision making through its complexity and uncertainty.  Uncertainty about how climate systems will respond, how climate change will interact with other drivers of stress and risk, how ecosystems will respond – all affect the uncertainty about climate impacts.  One of the main challenges is uncertainty about how changes will unfold and what impacts will be on critical functions performed by physical, hydrological, and ecological systems – all of which are affected by extreme weather events.  Risks posed by extreme events will require decision makers to make difficult choices.

Add to all that the uncertainty about the amount of emissions that will be spewed in the atmosphere in the upcoming years (and how that will influence weather and climate), and about the outcome of the international climate negotiations happening right now in Durban.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a little less uncertainty in this whole business?

Enter “Yellowstone”, a new supercomputer commissioned by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) which, due to its capabilities, is expected to not only reduce uncertainty in weather predictions, but also quantify that uncertainty in a useful way for decision makers.  IBM recently won the bid to build Yellowstone, which will be located at a new NCAR Wyoming facility, and IBM staffers are enthused about the possibilities.  Lloyd Treinish, research head of Deep Thunder a project at IBM focusing on local weather forecasting tailored to weather-sensitive business operations, has deep knowledge of the new system, and is very optimistic about the new possibilities it can introduce into weather and climate research.  He mentions that the complexity of the models, the management of data, and the analysis and visualization of the results are a growing challenge in weather and climate modeling, and Yellowstone will be able to effectively address classes of problems that could not be well addressed before.

Yellowstone is not only bigger and faster, but it is also “smarter”.  The sheer computational capability of Yellowstone will allow for exploration of new dimensions in modeling.  Dr. Andrew Gettelman, a scientist at NCAR who will be working with Yellowstone, agrees.  He believes that the ability to see and quantify different levels of uncertainty at different scales will be a big improvement in weather modeling and forecasts, one that will allow for better use of the information coming from the models when it comes to decision making, preparedness, and risk and resource management.  He exemplifies his point with the tornados that ripped through the Midwest this year: the tornados were predicted, but the level of uncertainty with the timing and location of the expected tornados did not allow enough time for useful preparations “on the ground”.  Dr. Gettelman expects the new system to have substantial societal impact because of better forecasts of extreme events and better measurement of the uncertainty associated with them.

Yellowstone will allow for the setup of new types of simulation to look at events in a climate context, which will help understand climatic patterns and how they are changing.  Climate change will in turn affect future weather, and ultimately also wildlife and their habitats.  Climate adaptation planning relies extensively on not only present conditions but also future predictions, and therefore it is easy to see how better predictions can translate into better adaptation strategies.  Yellowstone is expected to be up and running by next summer, and resources managers will have a valuable source of information at both the weather and climate scales to use in their short-term and long-term climate adaptation planning and decision making.

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chain for newsletter

Workshop Participants Build Their Land Trust’s Vision of Climate Change Adaptation

Workshop participants at Maryland's land trust conference build their situtation analysis for their target habitats.

In discussions about the role of land trusts in implementing climate change adaptation strategies, many have suggested that most of what land trusts do is already adaptation, while others have expressed the contrary opinion that adaptation is not “business as usual” for land trusts. Others worry that adaptation planning will take a lot of time and resources away from the day-to-day work of saving land. And others feel there is not yet enough information to start planning for how they will adapt their work to this new reality. These differing ideas can be confusing and discouraging.

To help get past this confusion, Defenders’ Living Lands facilitated workshops at the most recent Southeast Regional, Virginia, and Maryland land trust conferences to help the land trust community and their partners define their own vision for helping their communities adapt in the face of climate change.

The goal of this facilitated workshop was to demonstrate a quick and inexpensive process by which land trusts can begin to envision how climate change adaptation fits into their land conservation mission.

In this participatory workshop, the Defenders’ facilitated an exercise to build a common understanding of the biological, social, economic, political, and institutional systems that affect their conservation priorities. This process, called a “situation analysis”, is described in Step 1 of the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation. The Open Standards were developed by the Conservation Measures Partnership (CMP) to bring together common concepts, approaches, and terminology to help practitioners improve the practice of conservation.

Planning for climate change adaptation will require that land trusts assess the drivers (e.g. air and water temperature increases, precipitation changes, sea level rise, species shifts in ranges) and the indirect and direct threats (e.g. floods, human responses, drought, invasive species outbreaks) to their conservation values under climate change. A “situation analysis” is a useful tool for documenting the drivers and threats affecting a biodiversity target as well as for identifying conservation actions that can be applied to contributing factors, direct threats, or even biodiversity targets.

We began the exercise by identifying the biodiversity targets as the habitat types used in the State Wildlife Action Plans of the southeastern US. For each habitat type we identified direct threats (which we cross-walked with the Standardized Threats Taxonomy developed by the CMP).

Using the US Global Change Research Program, Regional Climate Impacts: Southeast report and the Classification of Climate-Change-Induced Stresses on Biological Diversity, we identified the contributing factors related to climate change (i.e. climate change drivers) that lead to the direct threats and stresses on the target habitats. Contributing factors are often the entry points for conservation action (although actions may work through direct threats or even the target in some cases).

Then we identified how altered climate conditions link to direct threats using intermediate contributing factors. The facilitators helped the participants think through the causal relationships linking the altered climate conditions to the direct threats. The following thought process was helpful: Altered climate conditions result in this contributing factor which results in this direct threat which affects [via a stress] this target.

We were sure to discuss interactions between the altered climate conditions and non-climate-related threats (e.g. urban development). We identified potential relationships between climate factors and impacts on biological systems such as species range shifts, seasonal shifts, and disrupted biotic interactions. Ultimately the process of building the conceptual model assisted the group in identifying intervention points, or adaptation strategies.

The conceptual model shows the state of the world before taking action; the next step is for participants to think about adaptation strategies and the anticipated outcomes that will ultimately impact the habitat target. Participants identified broad categories of climate change adaptation strategies (e.g., outreach, policy, land protection, stewardship) and then described specific strategies that would reduce the effects of a contributing factor or direct threat on the habitat target.

In the example causal-relationships chain, yellow hexigons show adaptation strategies that intervene on contributing factors (orange) or direct threats (pink) to reduce stress on target habitats (green).

We talked about which strategies participants felt were most likely to achieve the desired outcome and which they felt were the most relevant to their land conservation work. We found it useful to consider several factors when evaluating strategies including: the likelihood the strategy will be successful, the feasibility of the strategy, the cost of the strategy, and the gap the strategy would address. Participants also identified the sources of uncertainty associated with the strategies (e.g., uncertainty associated with the direction/magnitude of altered climate conditions, the biophysical impact, or the outcome of the strategy).

As a wrap-up exercise, the group discussed what they felt were the opportunities and barriers to implementing some of the adaptation strategies they had identified. Many felt that the public’s skepticism about climate change and lack of funding were the largest barriers. But they also felt that the issue of climate change was potentially an opportunity to reinforce community support for their land conservation activities. Many participants felt the exercise was helpful to their thinking about climate change adaptation and thought they would use this process to initiate discussions with their organizations and stakeholders about climate change adaptation.


References and Resources 

Foundations of Success (FOS). 2007. Using Results Chains to Improve Strategy Effectiveness. An FOS How-To Guide. Foundations of Success, Bethesda, MD.

Foundations of Success (FOS). 2009. Using Conceptual Models to Document a Situation Analysis: An FOS How-To Guide. Foundations of Success Bethesda, MD.

Geyer, J. et al . 2011. Classification of Climate-Change-Induced Stresses on Biological Diversity.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007. Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – Synthesis Report

Salasfsky, N., D. Salzer, A. J. Stattersfield, C. Hilton-Taylor, R. Neugarten, S. H. M. Butchart, B. Collen, N. Cox, L. L. Master, S. O’Connor, and D. Wilkie. 2008. A standard lexicon for biodiversity conservation: Unified classifications of threats and actions. Conservation Biology 22: 897-911.

U.S. Global Change Research Program, Thomas R. Karl, Jerry M. Melillo, and Thomas C. Peterson, (eds.) 2009 Climate Change Effects from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, Regional Climate Impacts: Southeast.

US Global Change Research Program, Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Regions and Sectors.

A full summary of the workshop with lists of strategies and the situation analyses is available here.

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Getting Off on the Right Foot with Conservation Planning Part III: How to Define the Problem

Conservation planning is a decision-making process to identify, prioritize, pursue, and protect conservation priorities in a way that will most effectively and efficiently achieve a goal.  (Third in a three part series).

Part 2 described why defining the problem is difficult, frequently overlooked, and yet important. Below is a list of questions that should help define the problem and develop a decision statement as the first step in the planning process.

How do we begin? We should start by evaluating our current decision-making processes. Ask why and how we need to improve the way we make decisions.

Who is the decision maker? This is a surprisingly difficult question and there are several scenarios – we may have single decision-maker, delegated authority, multiple decision-makers. Stakeholders, people outside the organization or agency that have interest or power in the decisions, have influence but they may not be decision makers.

What is our decision statement? At home it may be “My kid is acting up.” Our decision statement may be “How can we improve my kid’s behavior?”  At work it may be “We face competing interests between agricultural needs and habitat goals for riparian bird populations.” Our decision statement may be: “How can we optimize protection of riparian habitat for bird populations given competing needs for agriculture”.

Are we attempting to solve the right problem? Beware of decision frame blindness. Conservation issues are not simply technical or scientific, they reflect societal values – scientific, economic, political, and cultural values.  Are there other perspectives that aren’t being considered?  Are we framing the problem by earlier successes or failures? Are our assumptions false?   

Are we recognizing intractable problems? Intractable problems have already been decided, they are decisions that are out of our control, or they are decisions that require a greater level of investment of time, personnel, and resources than we have available. Failure is highly probable unless we re-define the problem so that it is within our ability to solve.

What is the scope of the decision? When & how often will the decision be made?  How large, broad, complicated is the decision?

What are our constraints for making the decision? Are there legal, financial, political constrains for making the decision. Are they perceived or real constraints?

A well-defined decision statement might take multiple attempts, but once you have a grasp on these questions, you can most likely develop a strong decision statement and get your conservation planning process off on the right foot.

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Getting Off on the Right Foot with Conservation Planning Part II: Why Identifying the Problem can be the Biggest Challenge

Conservation planning is a decision-making process to identify, prioritize, pursue, and protect conservation priorities in a way that will most effectively and efficiently achieve a goal.  (Part II of a three part series)

Defining your decision problem is the first, most important, but  often most difficult  and overlooked step in a conservation planning process. 

A decision is as an outcome of a thought process that leads to a course of actions (among many possible actions).  A decision is many times an irrevocable allocation of resources.

What decisions do we need to make during a planning process? Values and Visions: What do we care about, and what do we want the future to look like if we are successful in our mission?  Priorities: Are some conservation values are more important to us than others? Stakeholders: Who has power and interest in what decisions we make?  If our projects are land-based, where are our conservation values located on the landscape? Strategies: What actions are we going to take to reach our conservation goals? Implementation: Who is responsible for each action and by when do we want them to implement? Monitoring: How are we going to measure our success towards meeting our conservation goals? Adaptive Management: How do we learn from our projects and readjust our strategies as needed?

Why are decisions are hard? Uncertainty: We feel we don’t have all the information we need to make conservation decisions.  Complexity: We need to consider many interrelated factors. High-risk consequences: The impact of the decision may be significant and costly. Alternatives: We may have many alternative projects with each its own set of uncertainties and consequences to weigh. Controversy: It can be difficult to predict how other people will react to our decisions?

Part 3 will describe how to define the decision problem to get off on the right foot with conservation planning.

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Getting Off on the Right Foot with Conservation Planning Part I: Why plan?

Conservation planning is a decision-making process to identify, prioritize, pursue, and protect conservation priorities in a way that will most effectively and efficiently achieve a goal.  (First in a three part series)

Why plan? Just to name a few reasons: Planning builds organizational consensus over the selection of projects and allows the organization to be more proactive. Planning improves outreach to the community by stating the values of the organization or agency and by rigorously reviewing projects for public benefits.  Planning improves chances for success with funding programs that rely on criteria for selecting successful applicants. Planning helps with vetting conservation projects for their long-term suitability to meet the mission. Planning makes conservation decisions more defensible to withstand scrutiny by outside parties and the community in general.

Seems logical enough, no?  Then why is even the idea of undertaking a conservation planning process is a seemingly overwhelming task for both small and large conservation organizations and agencies alike?  Even though we know that we need conservation planning to move us from being opportunistic  (taking projects as they  come through the door) to being more strategic (figuring out a decision process for selecting actions that will be the most effective at meeting conservation goals), we can’t seem to muster the time, energy, or resources to begin the journey.  The notion of embarking on a lengthy and complicated process, taking time away from the “real work” of conservation, and stretching limited resources even further can be a strong deterrent from planning. 

So, it seems, if we are going to plan, we should make the process as useful as possible.  No one wants to think they are being more strategic because we have a plan, then to realize down the road that their plans are not useful in the end. We all know it is pointless to go through the process of developing plans that are not being used to guide our decisions, yet it happens all of the time.  Many times it happens because the process is flawed from the beginning.

Planning Parts 2 will describe why identifying a decision problem is the biggest challenge, but one of the most important initial steps in the planning process. Planning Part 3 will describe how to define the decision-problem.

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Agency Policy Table

Federal Agencies Commit to Preparing for Climate Impacts

Coauthored by Aimee Delach

Big changes are afoot in the federal government when it comes to preparing agencies for the impacts of climate change.  As we highlighted previously the administration established a Climate Change Adaptation Task Force to coordinate Federal agency efforts to plan for and address the myriad ways that climate change will impact their lands and infrastructure and their ability to deliver programs and fulfill their missions.     

In April, 2011, the administration released Instructions for Implementing Climate Change Adaptation Planning (pdf) and supporting documentation (pdf).   By June 3, 2011, all agencies were to have issued national policy statements committing to analyzing the risks of climate change and preparing adaptive actions. 

As of this writing (June 21), 21 agencies have released their adaptation policies publicly. How well did the agencies stack up to the administration’s directives?  We ranked them according to the criteria (described below) laid out in the Instructions and Support Document.

Agency Policy Table

agency adaptation policy table

Of the plans out so far, the Commerce Department was the clear leader, hitting every element required in the policy. The Environmental Protection Agency and Agriculture Departments weren’t far behind. Fittingly, each of these agencies already has strong history of engaging in the science, impacts and policies connected with climate change. For other agencies, the question of how to adapt to a changing climate in order to continue to fulfill their missions is clearly new territory. Thus, the Farm Credit Administration openly acknowledged in their policy that they will need to leverage the resources and expertise of others. Similarly, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, for whom climate change issues are likely an even more remote consideration, issued a very brief statement that nonetheless gets points for willingness to take on the problem, as well as for beating a number of members of the Task Force at making their policy statement public. The State Department’s plan, while missing a number of the directives that were laid out, demonstrated its commitment to work across agencies and multilaterally, bringing its own unique capacities to international adaptation efforts. The Department of Health and Human Services’ plan expressed an understanding of ways climate impacts will exacerbate health problems among already-vulnerable populations. The Department of Labor is particularly concerned about hurricane and other weather-related impacts to Job Centers and other infrastructure, and the Department of Energy emphasized adaptation as a complement to its work furthering clean energy technologies.

The Department of the Interior gets credit for being an early adopter of adaptation.  In the fall of 2009, Secretary Salazar issued a secretarial order that made responding to climate change a priority.  However, Interior’s “Action Memorandum” on climate adaptation issued in response to the CEQ guidance falls short on being agency-specific, fostering collaboration outside of the department, and including strong language on analyzing the effects of climate change and on implementing adaptation actions.

As of this writing, we are still awaiting release of adaptation policy statements from most federal agencies, including the following members of the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force:

Department of Defense

Department of Homeland Security

Department of Housing and Urban Development

Department of Treasury

Agency for International Development (USAID)

National Intelligence Council (NIC)

Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)

Next Steps:

These policy statements are only the first step in a year-long process that each agency has been directed to undertake. While issuance of a policy is important, and we urge all those departments who have not yet made theirs public to do so, the policies are only useful if they are acted upon. We will be watching carefully to see if agencies continue to follow through with the next steps of the process: 1) Completing a preliminary agency vulnerability analysis and outlining five priority adaptation actions by September 30;  2) Completing a final, detailed vulnerability analysis by next March; and 3) Issuing their final adaptation plan by June 2012.

It is also critical that these future steps take place at the level of the individual agency, not the entire department, since the missions, resources, and vulnerabilities differ so widely from agency to agency, even within a single department.

Explanation of Evaluation Criteria:

1) Agency-level plan: Policy statement is at agency level rather than Department level, or very clearly directs individual agencies within Department to develop adaptation plans. (Implementing instructions, I.A)

2) 2012 due date: Policy commits the agency to complete an agency-wide adaptation plan by June, 2012.

3) Compliance with Implementing Instructions: Policy commits the agency to fully implementing and complying with CEQ Adaptation Implementing Instructions in general and coordinating with the Interagency Climate Adaptation Task Force.

4) Strong purpose and vision: Policy states the purpose of the policy, including both the agency’s vision for successful adaptation planning and initial adaptation goals as well as recognition that climate change adaptation is a critical complement to climate change mitigation and that both are required to address the causes and consequences of climate change. (Implementing instructions I.A.2a)

5) ICCATF  Principles & Framework: Policy adopts the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force’s guiding principles and framework for adaptation planning either directly or by reference (Implementing Instructions I.A.2b).

6) Coordination within agency programs: Policy describes how the agency will coordinate adaptation planning across programs and operations within the agency. (Implementing Instructions I.A.2c, part 1)

7) Coordination with other agencies: Policy describes how the agency will coordinate adaptation planning with other agencies on climate change adaptation matters of common interest. (Implementing Instructions I.A.2c, part 2)

8 ) Identifies resources within agency: Policy identifies programs and resources within the agency to support the climate change adaptation planning process. (Implementing Instructions I.A.2d)

9) Strong analysis language: Policy requires (using “will”, “shall”, or “must” language) the agency to analyze how climate change may impact its ability to achieve its mission, policy, program, and operation objectives by reviewing existing programs, operations, policies, and authorities. (Support Document)

10) Strong implementation language: Policy describes the agency process to ensure effective adaptation planning implementation (using “will”, “shall”, or “must” type language). (Support Document)

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Chesapeake Bay tidal marsh, David Curson, Audubon MD/DC

Climate Change Adaptation in Maryland’s Somerset-Wicomico Marshes Important Bird Area

Chesapeake Bay tidal marsh, photo by David Curson, Audubon MD/DC

The State of Maryland is moving forward with critical climate change planning for coastal areas by figuring out how to protect lands into which soon-to-be-inundated wetlands and marshes can retreat. In response to the threat of sea level rise, these efforts are essential to maintaining the long-term ecological functions of storm surge buffering, carbon sequestration, water filtration, wildlife habitat, recreation and others that wetlands provide.

Defenders of Wildlife, Audubon Maryland/DC and the Lower Shore Land Trust have teamed up on a project focused on increasing the adaptive capacity of salt marshes and salt marsh obligate bird species in the Somerset-Wicomico Marshes Important Bird Area

View video on Climate Change Adaptation in Maryland’s Somerset-Wicomico Marshes Important Bird Area

The coastal wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay provide a range of “ecosystem services” that are critical for improving the water quality by helping to remove nutrients, chemicals, and sediment from urban and agricultural runoff before reaching the open water of the Bay. In addition, coastal wetlands provide a first line of defense against rising sea levels and increased storm damage, flooding and erosion.

These wetlands are habitat for ducks, geese and shorebirds and are home to unique flora and fauna, including two birds, the Seaside Sparrow and the Saltmarsh Sparrow, which are identified as Maryland species of greatest conservation concern in the Maryland Wildlife Diversity Conservation Plan. These species evolved in this tidal environment and are found only in salt marsh habitats along the U.S. Atlantic Coasts.

Sea level rise is impacting low-lying coastal lands at twice the global average rate. Maryland Department of Natural Resources explains that the State has already seen a foot of relative sea level rise during the past 100 years, causing the disappearance of 13 barrier islands from the Chesapeake Bay. Within the Chesapeake Bay, additional sea level rise impacts are already evident, including wetland erosion and forest die-back as a result of saltwater intrusion.

Our work will focus on assisting the Lower Shore Land Trust to identify the highest priority marsh migration corridors so that they can protect these areas from future development. This project takes place within the context of Defender’s work with state wildlife agencies to update their wildlife action plans to consider the impacts of climate change, as well as Defender’s Living Lands program that enhances the capacity of land trusts and their partners in protecting biodiversity in the face of climate change.

For more information on sea level rise in the Chesapeake Bay, see the following online resources:

Maryland Commission on Climate Change  

Strategy for Reducing Maryland’s Vulnerability to Climate Change Phase I: Sea-level rise and coastal storms

National Wildlife Federation

U.S. Climate Change Science Program

North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative

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More Action Needed in the National Freshwater Action Plan

One of the biggest impacts of climate change is on water – Higher temperatures will increase the amount of water in the atmosphere, changing precipitation patterns and increasing the variability within patterns, leading to declines in snowpack and a higher frequency of heavy precipitation events, heat waves and other extremes.  The transformations driven by climate change will redistribute stream flow and wetlands. So it was good news when, last October, the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force recommended  a coordinated response to addressing the impacts of climate change on freshwater resources in the U.S.  The Task Force recently took a step forward by releasing its draft National Action Plan: Priorities for Managing Freshwater Resources in a Changing Climate

The action plan proposes six recommendations federal agencies can take to support water resource managers in understanding and reducing climate change risks.  The recommendations are elements familiar from other climate adaptation strategies, such as the need for improved information, for increased capacity, for integrated water resource management and for water use efficiency. 

The plan’s highlights are its issuance, the diversity of the workgroup and the commitment to periodic revisions of the plan.  The mere existence of a climate adaptation strategy for water resources is something to applaud, and the collaboration of so many federal agencies in its development is itself progress in the otherwise fractured world of water resources management.

There are also, however, lowlights.  First and foremost, “action plan” is a misnomer because “it is important to note that the proposal of an action in this report and the association of an action with a ‘lead agency’ do not commit an agency to provide or seek funding for the action or to make related policy or program changes.”  Taken together with the admission that actions were deemed priorities in part because they are achievable within current and foreseeable agency capacity, the plan looks more like a repackaging of things the agencies are already doing.  This is worrisome for an action plan, because this same workgroup found that existing efforts to reduce climate risks to freshwater resources are not sufficient.

And, from Defenders’ point of view, the plan punts on protecting water quality and aquatic ecosystems in response to a changing climate, postponing achievement of that goal to development of the national fish, wildlife and plants climate adaptation strategy.  If we are truly to achieve protection of aquatic ecosystems in the face of climate change, the collaborative approach valued by the workgroup is indeed critical, and we can no longer segregate fish and wildlife management from water resources management.  The two go hand in hand.  Water resource managers are in dire need of direction and recommendations for how to protect aquatic ecosystems.  Since it is a goal of the freshwater action plan, there must be recommendations and actions to achieve that goal.

It is heartening that the Task Force recognized that the breadth and severity of climate change impacts to water resources warrants a coordinated plan for freshwater ecosystems.  Through no fault of its own, the plan also suffers for lack of a unifying national water policy that would provide a backdrop to the goal of assuring adequate water supplies, protecting human health and property and protecting water quality and aquatic ecosystems in the face of climate change.  Reducing the risks of climate change is a much different proposition than managing the full spectrum of freshwater issues, threats and needs.  Without guiding principles regarding what it means to have adequate water supplies – for what purposes?, what is “adequate”?, can we have adequate supplies for everything we want? – the plan’s goal will remain elusive.

The Council on Environmental Quality will be accepting public comments for 45 days.  As we at Defenders continue to review and comment on the action plan, we will be looking for opportunities for federal agencies to take bold, climate-smart actions to protect aquatic ecosystems and sustain the functions and services of these ecosystems.

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Restored Marsh

Why We Need a Broad-scale Approach to Adaptation


Restored Marsh

Restored Marsh: Area inside stakes used to be open water. Photo: Noah Matson

Two years ago I had the opportunity to visit Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with a few other Defenders colleagues.  The refuge, at over 27,000 acres, is one of the largest protected areas in the state, and is famous among birders and local residents for its large concentrations of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, bald eagles, and is also home to the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel.  Since the 1930’s, however, Blackwater has lost over 8,000 acres of marsh from a combination of sea level rise, subsidence, and the impact of invasive nutria that eat marsh grass and contribute to erosion.

We met with refuge staff who took us out on the refuge in airboats to see first-hand the marsh, the marsh loss, and the marsh restoration the refuge had implemented.  The refuge had experimented with using a dredger to spray mud onto former marsh to raise the marsh bed, followed by planting marsh grasses to stabilize the soil.   Through these projects the refuge has restored 20 acres of marsh, and that marsh has remains today, over a decade after the restoration was completed.  A success story.

But the refuge continues to lose 300 acres/year.

So with that restoration success story in mind, the refuge staff have an audacious proposal: barge or pipe mud and soil from the dredging of the Baltimore harbor approach channel in the Chesapeake Bay to the refuge to repeat the marsh restoration on thousands of acres, a cost of over a billion dollars.

Two hundred miles south from Blackwater lies the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, also a low-lying coastal refuge facing the impacts of sea level rise.  Alligator River is mostly made up of “pocosin”, a type of forested wetland found in the coastal plain of eastern North Carolina.  The refuge, along with surrounding refuges, is home to the only wild population of endangered red wolves in the world.  There, refuge staff, the Nature Conservancy and other partners are implementing adaptation measures to slow coastal erosion and salt water intrusion to protect the refuge’s forests and marshes.  Most projections of sea level rise put a large portion of the refuge under water in the next 50 years.

If I was the refuge manager for Blackwater, Alligator River, or any of the over 160 coastal national wildlife refuges in the country, I would probably be thinking about similar adaptation strategies to stem the impacts of sea level rise on the place I was sworn to protect.  But the impacts of climate change force a different focus, and a different scale of thinking.  As stewards of protected areas and wildlife populations, we have to ask – why does it matter if Blackwater or Alligator River goes under water?  What are our conservation goals and how are they affected by the impacts of climate change and where, given those impacts, should we target scare conservation dollars?

For Blackwater, which was established primarily for migratory birds, the real question is how will sea level rise impact migratory bird habitat throughout the Chesapeake Bay, not only at Blackwater.  It may be cheaper to restore or create new habitat elsewhere in the Bay, for instance closer to the available dredge material from the Baltimore Harbor approach channel.  These are questions an individual refuge manager cannot answer alone.

For Alligator River, while important for migratory birds, its critical importance to biodiversity conservation is providing habitat for endangered red wolves.  The loss of over half the refuge in the coming decades will have a significant impact on the red wolf population.  So the question for managers is will we have a viable population of red wolves with this loss of habitat?  Regardless of the answer to that question, the recovery plan for the red wolf calls for the establishment of three populations, and with the impending impacts of sea level rise on the only existing population, there should be renewed emphasis on establishing the two additional populations.  Again, these are decisions an individual refuge manager cannot make alone.

Wildlife and natural resources climate change adaptation forces us to take a broad-scale view.  Before zeroing in on the impacts of climate change on a particular place, we need new mechanisms and institutions to help policy makers, managers, and scientists work together to understand how wildlife and habitats will respond to the impacts of climate change regionally and across jurisdictional boundaries.

The Obama administration has launched a number of initiatives that hold some promise for achieving this goal.  The Interior Department is establishing Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, or LCCs, to bring partners together to better understand landscape-scale resources and challenges like climate change.  LCCs have been hampered, however, by competing agency missions and confusion over the LCCs’ unique role compared to other programs.  The administration is also crafting a National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.  The National Strategy is an opportunity to call for broad-scale assessments and planning for adaptation to assist local managers in making strategic adaptation decisions.

Protecting Blackwater, Alligator River, and all of our refuges from the impacts of climate change is important.  But we should do so in the context of addressing the much bigger task before us, figuring out how to make entire systems of wildlife and habitat resilient to climate change.

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Planning for Climate Change Across Sectors

Over the last several months, Oregon’s state land use planning agency has been leading an interagency effort to develop a cross-sectoral framework for climate change adaptation planning. The final document (including a separate executive summary) was released last week. This report was requested by Governor Ted Kulongoski and was intended to be a first assessment of how the different agencies can help Oregon’s communities and ecosystems respond adaptively to future climate change. The result was a joint effort of the state’s natural resource, energy, transportation, and public health agencies.

This new state adaptation framework is in many ways a first crack at a very difficult nut. The process was limited somewhat by a short timeframe and severe limitations in the state budget, but it was also a valuable opportunity for representatives from a diverse set of state agencies to sit down at the same table and talk about their plans for preparing for climate change. Perhaps most importantly, it helped identify adaptation strategies that would benefit multiple sectors – for example, rehabilitating riparian areas to improve natural water storage on the landscape, which can benefit cities, agriculture, and wildlife – and to look for areas where adaptation strategies in once sector might unintentionally undermine efforts in another sectors. The process really highlighted the importance of coordinating adaptation planning to avoid duplicative or counterproductive efforts.

I participated in developing this framework as part of an ongoing contract with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and I was impressed with the willingness of the diverse set of agencies at the table to think about the challenges and opportunities of climate change in an ecological context. Everyone around the table clearly recognized the interconnectedness of human and natural systems and was eager to find solutions that had multiple benefits across multiple sectors. Likewise, everyone recognized that technologies that benefited one sector at the expense of others were likely to fail in the long run.

At the same time, our conversations made it increasingly clear that there are not a lot of easy answers when it comes to climate change. The goal was to identify inexpensive actions for short-term implementation – the low-hanging fruit, as it’s often called – but in a world where climate conditions are changing rapidly and both humans and wildlife are already struggling to keep up with those changes, these kinds of solutions are hard to come by. I think this highlights the importance of making significant early investments in both mitigation and adaptation efforts, even at a time when budgets are tight. This problem will only become more intractable and more expensive the longer we put those investments off., and climate change itself will soon start having significant negative impacts on local, national, and global economies. Kudos to Oregon for being one of the first states to start having these difficult conversations and mapping out the best way forward.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.