Beginning With Habitat Seeks To Protect Wildlife For Future GenerationsApril 10, 2007 - TRCWhat do you want your town to look like 50 years from now ? This question is becoming somewhat of a cliché and is heard at many town visioning sessions and planning forums. Some, especially those living beyond coastal York and Cumberland Counties, might argue that on first glance, many of our Main Streets and common commuting routes haven’t changed considerably since 1957. So is there a problem ? Are things going to be too terribly different in 2057 ? Although the slow steady conversion of rural land to residential uses may not be immediately visible from our car windows as we drive home, the side effects are hard to ignore: more traffic, larger classroom sizes, increased annual budget requests at town meeting, more lands posted, etc, etc. The fact is, as the recent Brooking’s report points out, that change is upon Maine. Every county has shown an influx recently, folks in many southern and mid-coast towns have stood witness as their volunteer planning boards have become overwhelmed with development review applications leaving them incapable of finding the time to do true “planning”. Even with a recent down turn, land values are high, houses are getting bigger, and public access for traditional outdoor pursuits is increasingly hard to come by.Fishing and Hunting Opportunities In Your HometownSo what does all this have to do with the weekly ‘Wildlife Report’ ? I guess I’d like to pose my opening question again, but a bit differently. What wildlife species, and what hunting and fishing opportunities do you want in your town 50 years from now? Phrased this way, those of us with a familiarity of the outdoors stop and think a bit more. What elements are we willing to let go ? Is there a way for our towns to do business differently so that these sacrifices are minimized ?At this time of year, we especially remember why it is we choose to ride out long Maine winters. Whether it is woodcock displaying in an old farm field down the road, wood frogs “quacking” on that first warm April night, or wood ducks returning just as the ice goes out on a local pond, we all connect to the changing seasons. We live here because we get a “second paycheck” in our quality of being, we live here because we are not satisfied living in “Anytown, USA”, we want a place with identity, we all identify in some personal way to the natural Maine. The qualities that draw us to where we live are the same qualities that draw others from away who are choosing to relocate to Maine in ever increasing numbers. So what do you want in your town 50 years from now ? No matter how you may answer, your town, maybe simply by default, is answering this question right now, incrementally, with every land use decision made by your Codes Enforcement Officer and at every planning board meeting. Maybe you have heard another cliché of the planning community “by choice, or by chance” ? Do you feel that your community’s land use decisions represent the vision you have for your grand child’s fishing, hunting, bird watching, or frog catching future ? Or is your town’s natural heritage being left up to the chance that minimum shoreland zone guidelines are adequate to buffer your favorite trout stream, or that the members of the planning board understand how the layout of subdivision could impact your chances of getting a deer next Fall. Habitat loss and fragmentation together make up the single biggest threat to Maine’s wildlife. How this issue is addressed on the ground is a choice that can only be effectively made at the town level.Beginning With Habitat Starts With Your TownThe Beginning with Habitat program has been created to bring statewide habitat issues down to the individual town and provide the support for local decision-making. As many of us have seen, from the air, Maine’s wildlife habitat resembles a patchwork quilt spread out over the landscape. There are patterns of deep green spruce-fir forests interspersed with straw colored emergent marshes, blending with pale green hardwood ridges, sky blue ponds, and steely grey bald summits. There are rare gems such as sandy beaches, pitch pine barrens, and quaking bogs scattered throughout. However, there are also 433 towns and 22 cities making relatively independent decisions as to what sections of the interconnected fabric can be removed or altered basing decisions solely on the block of the quilt over which they have jurisdiction. Each decision affects the integrity of the individual block, but also the character of the entire quilt. As a close friend of mine puts it, “you wouldn’t want a road between your couch and your refrigerator, or a duplex between your bedroom and bathroom”. But such is life for many of Maine’s wildlife species in the absence of planning decisions that integrate habitat conservation along with the other considerations that help to keep our favorite Maine towns so special.Solution ? It certainly is not to stop growth, as we have all experienced slow times in the past, and we know that growth can help to keep our communities vibrant and healthy. Solving this issue involves using our time-honored ingenuity to do growth better. The recent Brooking’s report gives many facts and figures all pointing to the simple truth that we have something special in this great state of ours that others to the south have not been as successful in protecting. Call it a “brand”, call it “sense of place”, call it what you will, but certainly a quality of what “it” is includes a healthy and diverse natural environment. Growing better means beginning land use planning with the underlying patchwork quilt of habitats in mind. The Beginning with Habitat program was established several years ago as an umbrella approach of integrating habitat conservation with individual town growth decisions. As an umbrella approach, Beginning with Habitat not only provides for the critters, but also can help towns maintain the coveted qualities more typically highlighted in local comprehensive plans such as rural character, traditional farming and forestry, and outdoor recreation. Beginning with Habitat is a program coordinated by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, but is made up of a larger collaboration of partner organizations including the State Planning Office, the Department of Transportation, the Natural Areas Program, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Maine Audubon, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and the Nature Conservancy. To date, the Beginning with Habitat program has provided over 160 towns and numerous land trusts throughout the state with maps and datasets that compile the most up-to-date habitat information as assembled by our partner groups. Delivering data is just the start.By providing towns with habitat information we hope to build local awareness for these important resources, but more than that, we hope to foster appreciation for the natural features that make each and every town special. Ultimately, we hope that awareness and increased appreciation will lead to effective local actions to conserve habitat for generations to come while supporting the growth needed to keep our towns vibrant. Simply relying on minimum habitat protections provided through state and federal regulatory authority and state and federal land acquisition funds is not an adequate solution for a home rule state like Maine. Each town must find approaches and tools that best address local conservation priorities and best respond to landowner concerns. Acknowledging this challenge to habitat conservation, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has made Beginning with Habitat the foundation for Maine’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy.To successfully conserve Maine’s wildlife resources we must conserve habitat that will not only address the needs of rare, threatened and endangered species, but also keep common species common. It is not enough to manage species by species any more or significant habitat by significant habitat. Doing this successfully means conserving a functional, interconnected network of habitats by taking the necessary steps to pro-actively conserve habitat at the local level. The quilt can still be a quilt with holes here and there, but remove too much and you’re left with tatters.Working LocallyBeginning with Habitat is here to help your town participate in statewide conservation efforts. We are currently in the process of compiling tools developed by other communities throughout the state that successfully integrate habitat needs into various aspects of the town planning process. To date we have been successful in assisting communities complete comprehensive plans and comprehensive plan updates. We now can better serve communities in the process of implementing comprehensive plan strategies. Our staff can meet with your local boards and committees to walk through examples of how municipalities have created and adopted open space plans, passed local land acquisition bonds, drafted conservation subdivision ordinances, or passed habitat oriented overlay districts. By using habitat data specific to your community we can help you craft custom solutions that address local needs. Similarly, we can assist local land trusts in strategic conservation planning and prioritizing local conservation focus areas. The Beginning with Habitat program is continually working to improve the quality of data and services that our program can provide. We have recently expanded our staff enabling us to more effectively work one-on-one with municipalities. Our map products have been re-vamped to better reflect existing patterns of development and to depict the most current Essential Habitat and Significant Wildlife Habitat designations, rare plant and animal occurrences, and rare and exemplary natural community occurrences. We are in the process of revising statewide computer models that will better depict the state of habitat fragmentation and landscape level habitat connectivity. The results of this work will provide towns with more up-to-date data regarding where the last large undeveloped blocks of habitat occur (often the best opportunities for pro-active conservation planning) as well as the best potential wildlife corridors that connect theses undeveloped blocks.The Beginning with Habitat partners are also in the process of revising and designating new Focus Areas of statewide ecological significance. Beginning with Habitat Focus Areas are natural areas of statewide ecological significance that contain unusually rich concentrations of at-risk species and habitats. These areas, identified by biologists from the Maine Natural Areas Program and Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, support rare plants, animals, and natural communities, high quality common natural communities; significant wildlife habitats; and their intersections with large blocks of undeveloped habitat. It is hoped that the mapping of a Beginning with Habitat Focus Area will help to build regional awareness, and draw attention to the exceptional natural landscape conditions that result in a convergence of multiple resource occurrences. The resulting appreciation of these truly special places can then provide momentum to municipalities, land trusts, and regional initiatives focused on strategic approaches to conservation.To date, 85 Focus Areas of statewide ecological significance have been designated, and Beginning with Habitat is currently reviewing candidate coastal areas and locations in northern Maine and the western mountains. Although areas that rise to the level of statewide ecological significance may not occur within the jurisdiction of every land trust, or within the boundaries of every town, Beginning with Habitat offers guidance in developing local “conservation blueprints” that can be used to highlight areas of local or regional significance. Beginning with Habitat data including high value plant and animal habitats, undeveloped habitat blocks, and water resources offer a good starting point to identify unique locations rich in significant habitat feature convergence that can then be designated as local focus areas that serve as a starting point for developing your town’s or land trusts conservation blueprint.I encourage you to visit our website at www.beginningwithhabitat.org to view example maps and to learn more about our services. Successful conservation statewide depends on the actions taken by each town. How is your town going to look 50 years from now ? Please e-mail me (email@example.com) if we can assist your town in making the choices necessary to conserve Maine’s rich biological diversity.-Steve Walker, Wildlife Biologist and Beginning With Habitat Coordinator, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and WildlifeSubmitted by Mark Latti, DIFWNOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.