In Cascadia, maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem integrity into the future with changing conditions and a growing human population – indeed a region that is booming – is a major challenge of our time.

Every day we are making decisions that will affect our region—and our options—well into the future. From how we choose to grow as our population expands to how we ensure our infrastructure is sustainable to changing conditions and located in consideration of the protection and restoration of natural resources – our decisions matter. From what crops we plant to how we manage on forests – our decisions must respond to the needs of today and tomorrow. From land use planning at the county scale to resource management plans for several million acres of national forest – our decisions must consider not only the local context but how it fits within a regional context as well. Each of these individual decisions adds up to landscape scale change.

To enable informed decisions in real time that are coordinated to ensure a resilient region into the future, we need not only a shared strategy across land and management boundaries, but also a tool to support our coordination and planning. A tool is needed to identify spatial priorities based on a common regional-scale perspective of critical habitat and movement areas that provide for species’ needs now and into the future in a changing climate. This tool would help guide, coordinate, and monitor over time conservation efforts to help retain our region’s biodiversity and maintain healthy ecosystems.

Listen to a webinar hosted by the Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative on this tool in the context of the Cascadia Climate Adaptation Strategy.

Building the tool in Google Earth

Increasing access to global satellite imagery, cloud computing, and communications has created the potential for spatial conservation planning to be done in real-time at a regional scale to build upon and complement the landscape planning and analyses already completed. In partnership with Google’s Earth Outreach team, the Cascadia Partner Forum will develop a real-time tool based on Google Earth Engine that will identify spatial priorities within Cascadia that support conservation targets over broad spatial and temporal scales in a changing climate.

Imagine being able to login to Google Earth to see in real-time the highest priority intact habitats today and expected to be resilient to climate change for Cascadia, while signing up for alerts to be contacted as negative or positive changes to those areas occur. Imagine in that same tool exploring how the geography that you are working in sits within a regional network of wildlife linkages to maintain the ability for wildlife to move in response to changing conditions. And, imagine an annual regional meeting of land and resource managers and conservationists identifying trends of progress and losses towards a more resilient Cascadia utilizing a spatial tool to quantify broad shared metrics in addition to other factors. We propose to make these options a reality for practitioners in Cascadia with this new decision-support tool.

Components of the tool

The tool will produce a wall-to-wall spatial prioritization (i.e. ranking) of the landscape based on its value in supporting a resilient and biodiverse Cascadia over time. Ultimately, the tool will be able to incorporate many factors that the region might consider as the basis for defining resiliency for a suite of shared conservation targets. In our initial prototype, the tool will include four inputs, including:

  1. Landscape Integrity. The degree of human modification of the landscape (i.e. landscape integrity) will be assessed based on satellite imagery and other data sources for things like urban areas, population density, roads, traffic, timber harvest, energy infrastructure, and invasive species. The landscape integrity model will be based on existing methods developed by NatureServe (Hak & Comer 2017), modified such that they will be continuously updated as new imagery becomes available. We will solve an important data gap of contemporary Cascadia land cover data layer that is consistent between British Columbia and Washington State. Additionally, we will explore the potential of automating future land cover layer revisions to provide a picture of human use changes over time that also support revision of the landscape integrity input.
  2. Connectivity. The degree to which the landscape facilitates movement between areas of high landscape integrity will be assessed based on methods developed by The Nature Conservancy3 (McRae et al. 2016). In addition, areas that are important for movement between areas of similar climate (i.e. climate analogs) will be also be assessed based on extensions of this approach to climate projections (Littlefield et al. 2017).
  3. Topoclimate diversity. Topographically complex areas provide a diverse range of microclimates that can serve as refugia under climate change because they allow species to move a relatively short distance to a different aspect or elevation to track their climatic niche. We will use an approach developed by The Nature Conservancy (Buttrick et al. 2015) to model topoclimate diversity in Cascadia.
  4. Land facets. Land facets (contiguous areas of similar soil type, elevation, and slope) tend to have similar ecological communities. One strategy to maintain resiliency over time is to conserve some portion of each land facet within a region. We will use an approach developed by The Nature Conservancy (Buttrick et al. 2015) to model land facets in Cascadia.

The tool will synthesize these inputs into a single continuous spatial priority model for Cascadia that will be hosted in an online viewer based on Google Earth Engine. It will be continuously and automatically updated as new satellite imagery and other data sources become available over time. Topoclimate diversity and land facets are enduring geophysical features of the landscape that do not change over time. However, landscape integrity and connectivity are dynamic and changes in these components (e.g. loss of integrity due to urbanization or gains in integrity due to conservation actions) will be tracked by an automatic reporting system. Furthermore, tool users will be alerted to changes in landscape integrity and connectivity in user-defined areas of interest by an automatic alert system.

To fully understand the spatial patterns important to Cascadia, we needed to extend our geographic scope to consider adjacent habitat and ecosystems.  Therefore the current spatial extent of our prototype model is below:

Living on Google Earth, this open platform will allow additional data layers of interest to particular stakeholders to be overlaid and integrated into the outputs from this spatial priority model.

By the end of 2019 we will deliver a prototype real-time spatial prioritization tool with a simple user interface. Once the prototype is built, we will seek additional funding to develop a more advanced user interface and long-term plan for sustaining the tool and expand the inputs to include other factors such as individual species models.

Over time following development of this initial prototype tool, we will build in additional capacities that reflect the priorities of this forum and its members.  For example, in 2019-2020 in coordination with species experts and the Washington Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Working Group we will be building our first dynamic habitat connectivity model for a priority species in this tool – wolverine.  Additional components will be driven by the feedback on priority conservation targets within the Cascadia Climate Adaptation Strategy.

The team behind the tool

This tool is being developed by a team within the larger Cascadia Climate Adaptation Strategy that is led by Andrew Shirk (University of Washington – Climate Impacts Group), Greg Kehm (Greg Kehm Associates),Meade Krosby (University of Washington), David Thau (World Wildlife Fund), Carly Vynne (Osprey Insights), Tanya Birch (Google), and Jen Watkins (Conservation Northwest). Sonia Hall of SAH Ecologia LLC has been contracted by US Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct facilitated workshops throughout Cascadia to engage stakeholders in 2019.

We appreciate the time and expertise of an advisory team of experts is providing input, guidance, and review of our tool as it is developed.  This team includes Karl Burkart (Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation), Carlos Carroll (Klamath Center for Conservation Research), Sam Cushman (US Forest Service), Bill Gaines (Washington Conservation Science Institute), Kim Hall (The Nature Conservancy), Josh Lawler (University of Washington), Don Morgan, Michael Schindel (The Nature Conservancy), Peter Singleton (US Forest Service – PNW Research Lab), Andy Teucher (Ministry of Environment), Dave Theobald (Conservation Science Partners), and Jessica Walz Schafer (Wildlands Network).

The Partner Forum continues to seek funding to build out this tool, but with the generous in-kind and financial support of the following work is underway: Charlotte Martin Foundation, Conservation Northwest, Google, Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation (via Sustainable Markets Foundation), North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative, Seattle City Light, and Wilburforce Foundation.