Lending a Critical Eye to Ecosystems Part 1 – Getting Focused

By Holly Mehl

A few years back, we put together a nice analysis of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska’s most critical (i.e.,ecologically valuable) areas.  As ecologists know, ecosystems do not adhere to the administrative boundaries of our states, so the actual analysis extended out into ecological regions that overlie those states like South Dakota, Arkansas, Colorado and Minnesota.  Together with MoRAP – the Missouri Resource Assessment Partnership, based in Columbia, Missouri – we identified geographic areas of focus, Conservation Focus Areas, which would also be of use to management programs and agencies.  Our goal was that our state and local partners would use our assessment as another tool in helping to define priorities for conservation at whatever scale was appropriate for them.

The work that went into this project started in 2001 and culminated into a finished work in 2009 entitled, Development of Conservation Focus Area Models for EPA Region 7(Diamond et al).  This effort was incredibly involved, so I’ve decided to try and highlight the methodology and approach over several blog articles, first focusing on our terrestrial assessment then switching to our aquatic assessment since different approaches were used for each. 

Before I get in to the details of the terrestrial assessment next week, it helps to have a general idea of how we approached the assessment.  The flow chart below provides a quick overview, and shows how two items, Irreplaceability and Ecological Risk, were combined to identify Conservation Focus Areas.  I’m oversimplifying but Irreplaceability can be thought of as how rare (in terms of biology and landcover) a particular place is in an area, while Risk is the chance that an area might be threatened because of the encroachment of development or because of how ecological significant it is. 


What is neat about this analysis is that each component by itself is a uniform, continuous, relatively fine-resolution data layer that can be used for refined priority setting or individual project review, depending on what is needed by the user.   For example, even before the final report was finished, EPA’s water enforcement staff were able to use the Ecological Significance data layer (on the left side of the diagram) to help them select proposed projects for a wetlands mitigation case.  Next week I will explain how each of the layers above were derived and provide access to the shape files and data layers.  If you just can’t wait that long, give us a comment in the comment field below and we can share them with you earlier. 

About the Author:   Holly Mehl is an ecologist for EPA Region 7 who helps with water monitoring in the field and performs mapping for EPA Region 7’s program offices.

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