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Grounded (Nature Conservancy Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Mark Anderson is surrounded by maps. 

He has maps of wetlands and waterways, ridges and valleys, pastures and forests. He has geologic maps that look like watercolors, with pastel pinks and blues swirling from Maine to Alabama, and maps showing habitat disruptions in pointillist detail. They curl up next to the origami moose in his bookcase. They pile up on his desk, next to his latest scientific paper. They plaster the outside of his cubicle, partially obscuring his name and his title, director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy’s Eastern United States division.

Of all these maps, there’s one in particular that Anderson and his team have agonized over. It shows all the Conservancy’s preserves, easements and land purchases in the eastern United States, more than 6 million acres in total, plotted in green and brown and protected for years to come. In fact, Anderson was one of the field ecologists who, in the early 1990s, came up with a strategy to identify the best places for the Conservancy to protect distinct examples of ecological communities. “Everything was based on the location of where species were at that time,” he says. “Then climate change comes along and—whoa!—everything is moving.”

Since 1880, average global temperatures have increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, and scientists project that they will rise at least 2 more degrees by the end of the century. This warming trend has led to many ecological shifts. Some species are moving north—or up in elevation—in search of cooler habitat, while others, including invasives, fill the void. Flowers are blooming earlier in the spring and birds migrating south later in the fall. Extreme weather events such as epic droughts and storms are expected to become more common, threatening species that are already struggling to survive.

All this change raises a troubling question for the Conservancy: Even if it has set aside land with the highest levels of plant and animal biodiversity today, how can it guarantee that such a rich ecological community will remain there a century from now?

The answer may be found between the contour lines of Anderson’s maps. He champions an unconventional approach to conservation, one that focuses more on the stage than on its actors. 

“Species are really tied to physical properties of the landscape,” he says, explaining that landforms and elevation play a big role in determining biodiversity. Protecting the most diverse landscapes will help protect biodiversity by offering plants and animals the greatest number of options to cope with a changing climate. He calls these places resilient sites.

Read more in the June/July issue of Nature Conservancy Magazine