Community Based Conservation: Maine Vernal Pools
Web site providing information to towns and citizens on the Maine Vernal Pools Project. Includes videos, publications, resources, reference materials, data forms and more.
There is growing evidence that the character of Maine’s communities, including ready access to open space, unique natural habitats, and diverse recreational opportunities, is one of the State’s greatest assets (Brookings Institution 2006). One central challenge in strengthening Maine’s quality of place is to develop improved strategies for balancing economic development and natural resource protection. Building on 10+ years of experience, this project seeks to strengthen the capacity of scientists and natural resource managers to protect unique wetland habitats, vernal pools, and the pool-breeding amphibians associated with them while promoting economic development. Vernal pools are ephemeral pools that fill with spring rain water and generally dry by summer’s end. These relatively small wetlands are the preferred breeding habitat of wood frogs, spotted and blue-spotted salamanders and a key habitat component of many Maine state-listed reptiles and invertebrates. Our overarching goal is to direct our research toward gaps in knowledge about pool-breeding amphibian habitat requirements, and to use this information to guide management policies that consider the socio-economic needs of Maine citizens while still conserving amphibian populations. Our research foci reflect gaps identified over the decade by stakeholders that concern vernal pool conservation in human-dominated landscapes.
Maine’s Significant Vernal Pool legislation, which regulates development activities within 250 feet of these wetlands, represents an important opportunity to more effectively balance economic development and environmental protection. Although this legislation has raised landowner awareness of vernal pools and brought vernal pools under scrutiny by municipalities, it often fails to provide adequate protection for vernal pools. Moreover, the “one size fits all” nature of the regulation does not provide sufficient flexibility to guide development activities and protect vernal habitat most cost-effectively.
In the late 1990s, the Vernal Pool Working Group (VPWG) of stakeholders with an interest in effective vernal pool conservation was appointed by the State Planning Office to develop a vernal pool conservation strategy for the State. The VPWG explored both voluntary and regulatory solutions. During a ten year period, this stakeholder group, including one of the PIs for this proposal, worked together to (1) fill research gaps in knowledge of the resource, (2) produce educational materials on vernal pools including Best Management Practices (for development and forestry), and (3) write and work with legislators to pass the strongest vernal pool regulation in the country (September 2007). The knowledge forming the basis for this legislation is incomplete, however, and recent research is identifying shortfalls in the current pool-centered approach to conservation. This application of knowledge-to-conservation action has revealed an overarching problem in natural resources management: the complexity inherent in many natural systems is not easily generalized into conservation laws. To be effective, conservation laws must recognize the complexity of both the ecological system and the human interface and be adaptable to their temporal and spatial dynamics. Central questions in vernal pool conservation have emerged since the legislation: How do we manage the vernal pool resource for the long-term viability of amphibian populations in a landscape experiencing changes in human use? Can we manage species that have dynamic habitat needs with static rules? How do we account for the uncertainty of a changing climate in developing vernal pool conservation approaches? How do we engage citizens in conservation of resources on private lands? What are the socio-economic implications of the new legislation? Our multidisciplinary approach will address these questions, and with stakeholder collaboration, we will effect change in the management of vernal pools by informing revisions in the wetland legislation with the results of our research. Our goal is to develop creative new incentives for conservation of vernal pools on private lands, and in the process create tools to facilitate stakeholder participation in future conservation of Maine’s natural resources.
Our collaborative research effort (Theme 1: amphibian ecology; Theme 2: conserving natural resources through collaborative management; Theme 3: economics of conservation; Theme 4: community engagement and scale-up) builds from science to outreach across the three NSF research arenas (climate change, urbanization, forest management) with vernal pool fauna providing a model socio-ecological system (SES) through which knowledge can be brought to action (K2A) (Figure 1). Our Theme 1 research of amphibian responses to forestry practices and development pressures (and the potential implications of climate change) will improve our knowledge about these ecosystems and will inform conservation and management of vernal pool fauna in Maine. Theme 2 will examine methods to bring this knowledge to action locally, through a partnership with 6 Maine municipalities currently engaged with our team in mapping and assessing vernal pool resources at a town scale. We will identify stakeholder issues surrounding conservation of natural resources and roadblocks to conservation on private lands. Theme 3 examines the perceived costs of vernal pool conservation to private landowners and communities, a barrier identified in our interactions with stakeholders through the town mapping and assessment project. This research is noteworthy in its inclusion of land and housing values over time and the effect of a diverse set of natural resources (e.g., forest lands, parks, conserved lands, vernal pools, etc.) on these values. Theme 4 synthesizes the “lessons learned” from Themes 1-3, to address connections among local, state and national policies, the complications of scaling-up locally gained knowledge to national application, and the utility of technology-based approaches, such as community based journalism and citizen science, to increase relevance of scale-up efforts.
The long-term viability of vernal pool ecosystems rests on our ability to identify appropriate temporal and spatial scales for habitat conservation, integrated with the human interface of land use, legislation, and economic dynamics, occurring in a changing climate. Our proposed research is an integration and collaboration of science and community action to enhance sustainability of this critical natural resource in Maine.