Conservation Technology Support Program: GIS Experiences from Prior Recipients

Chattooga River Watershed Council


Report to the Conservation Technology Support Program (CTSP) for a grant awarded to the Chattooga River Watershed Coalition, August 1996

The Chattooga River Watershed Coalition mission: "To protect, promote and restore the natural ecological integrity of the Chattooga River Watershed Ecosystem; to ensure the viability of native species in harmony with the need for a healthy human environment; and to educate and empower communities to practice good stewardship on public and private lands"

1. Summary of the Chattooga River Watershed Coalition's GIS Achievements

The Chattooga River Watershed Coalition (CRWC) utilized the CTSP grant exclusively for work to fashion a conservation plan for the entire 180,000 acre Chattooga River watershed. The resulting "Chattooga Conservation Plan" has been based upon the science of conservation biology and its associated ecological design principles, and was created to outline what steps might be taken in this watershed to address the regional and global issue of the conservation of biological diversity. The culmination of a year's work, the CCP is the first specific landscape-level plan designed for an area in the Southern Appalachians.

To develop the Chattooga Conservation Plan (CCP), the collaborators on this project utilized a Geographic Information System to collect, analyze and display geographically referenced information in layers, in the form of maps. The GIS developed for the CCP utilized the latest information available for the Chattooga River watershed: data on various landscape features were collected from studies completed under the auspices of the

US Forest Service's "Chattooga River Basin Ecosystem Management Demonstration Project", plus data from field surveys of roadless areas conducted by CRWC staff, and the databases of the State Natural Heritage Programs of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. All of this data was digitized; then, GIS analysis techniques were used to overlay the multiple layers, producing maps which provided a visual representation of priority conservation locations in the Chattooga watershed. The Chattooga

Conservation Plan's final, basic zoning was determined through this modeling and analyzation process, using 21 layers of data collected from the above-named sources. A step-by-step overview of the conservation plan process, derived from the draft conservation plan, is described below, which references the enclosed GIS visuals.

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Chattooga Conservation Plan's Ecosystem Approach ____________________________________________________________________

Large-scale approaches--at the level of ecosystems and landscapes that maintain whole regions with their unique assemblages of native flora and fauna--are the most reliable way to conserve biodiversity. Such approaches avoid the problems that plague species-by-species methods that quickly exhaust 1) the time available, 2) financial resources, 3) public patience, and 4) scientific research resources (Franklin, 1993). A landscape approach offers the advantage of supporting the large array of so-called "lesser" organisms: bacteria, fungi, insects, and other inconspicuous ones that carry out critical ecosystem functions, like decomposition and nitrogen fixation, on which the rest of us depend. A healthy forest needs viable populations of birds, large and small carnivores, plants and fungi, and other basic ecosystem elements to assure that the whole system functions sustainably.

The ecosystem approach is supported by a common sense look at the relative proportions of Earth's living things. Although most single-species conservation efforts are directed at vertebrates, the "charismatic megafauna" (i.e. eagles, bears, bobcats, etc.) actually represent less than one percent of living things. The vast majority of living things have not even been described, let alone studied for their unique chemical compounds that may be useful in medicine or materials engineering. Practical limits in our capacity to research each and every species means we cannot always know which species will be directly useful for such purposes. Valuable species will persist, along with those whose values are as yet undescribed by science, only if their habitats are conserved across the landscape.

A conservative approach to maintaining healthy ecosystems would preserve each habitat type, approximating their proportions in the native landscape, and connect them across the landscape. It would create a secure network of reserves for large carnivores and other species that are sensitive to human activity (Noss and Cooperider, 1994). For land managers, the question then is: how big must a reserve system be to maintain native wildlife populations, considering the drastic changes in the environment brought on periodically by natural disturbances like fires, tornadoes and insect pests? It must be large enough that only a small part of it is disturbed at any one time. In an area dramatically altered by natural disturbances, wildlife "colonists" can move in and re-establish themselves; but only if healthy populations are present in other areas of the landscape and can easily migrate between the two. Large, landscape-level biological reserves are more secure from the major destruction that can be caused by powerful and unpredictable natural forces.

The amount of mature forest interior habitat needed to conserve and restore the ecological integrity of the Southern Appalachian region is not known precisely. A convergence of estimates suggests that "most regions will require protection of some 25 to 75 percent of their total land area in core reserves and buffer zones" (Noss and Cooperider, 1994). In any case, protection does not imply "locking it up" by restricting access only to native wildlife. Reserve designs can accommodate a variety of human uses, including hunting, fishing, hiking, education, and scientific research. Maintaining a variety of ecological, social and economic activities in the watershed broadens the appeal of the reserve, and the active participation and support of local communities.

Chattooga Conservation Plan Methodology

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Core, Corridor and Restoration Area Principles _______________________________________________________________________

The issue of fragmentation has been identified recently as one of the most pressing issues in wildlife management and the conservation of biodiversity (Solheim, Alverson and Waller, 1987; Wilcove, 1988). Briefly described, fragmentation is what occurs when a forested area is permeated with relatively smaller openings like roads, wildlife openings, and clearings created by even-aged timber management. Even though the majority of the area may still be covered by a forest canopy, "edge effects" such as those noted above penetrate beyond the edge itself. Such effects can adversely impact species of plants and animals that require interior forest habitat, leaving them with less useable habitat than the land cover would suggest, and isolating specific populations of such species from each other.

The problems of isolated populations of plants and animals have been described by researchers in conservation biology and island biogeography (Fahrig and Merriam, 1994). Isolated groups may have trouble maintaining the genetic integrity and variability needed for their continued evolutionary viability and prospects for long-term survival, if they cannot move to or be reached by other populations of their species. Such a situation occurs if there are no corridors of appropriate habitat for the species to move through. This is the situation for forest interior species in the fragmented forests of the Southern Appalachians.

The idea of cores, corridors and restoration areas has been proposed to remedy this problem (Cutler, 1991). The idea is to first protect from further fragmentation currently existing remnants of mature forest interior habitat; second, to restore corridors of similar habitat to link the remnants; and finally, to buffer all this from intensive human activity by way of restoration areas. To be fully effective, a design such as this watershed management proposal should be linked on a larger scale to other forest interior blocks in the region (Noss, 1992).

Wildlife corridors can help restore the proper ecosystem functions only if they are wide enough to constitute viable interior forest habitat. An "edge", such as between the forest and a maintained road or clearing, must be far enough away so that its various ecosystem effects do not reach all the way into the corridor. The distance that edge effects penetrate into the interior will vary, depending on which particular species and associated effects are focused on (see brood parasitism, nest predation, and microhabitat variations discussed above). Some researchers suggest that a distance of one-half mile from openings is needed to ensure that no edge effects penetrate into an interior forest wildlife corridor (Hamel, 1990).

In addition to land-based wildlife corridors, stream-side corridors have been promoted as a means of linking isolated habitats of some species. This strategy offers the benefits of protecting aquatic habitat and water quality, while at the same time serving the larger ecosystem's role (Naiman et al., 1993). Aquatic ecosystems are among the most threatened ecosystems in the country and are in need of immediate protective and restorative measures (Noss and Peters, 1995; Lydeard and Mayden, 1995) _______________________________________________________________________

Principles Applied to the Chattooga Watershed _______________________________________________________________________

The Chattooga Conservation Plan is based upon the science of conservation biology and its associated ecological design principles (described above and in previous sections). A survey of the natural resource and conservation biology literature relevant to the region points to a set of general principles about the current state of the areas' biological resources, the habitats they depend on, and management techniques useful for the conservation of regional biological diversity. When applied to the Chattooga watershed, those principles guide us to focus on two types of habitat which host this area's most threatened biological resources: mature interior forest, and shaded, unsilted mountain streams. A set of questions (outlined below) was asked about the particular physical characteristics of the Chattooga watershed, and how these characteristics might be managed for the conservation and restoration of native biodiversity.

The strength of the Chattooga Conservation Plan lies in its common sense approach to identifying, protecting and restoring stream-side areas and large blocks of unfragmented forest habitat representing all native forest types in the watershed. The Plan presents a forest management option that will restore and reunite highly fragmented forest habitat to aid in the recovery of a collection of plant and animal species that are among the most threatened biological resources of our Southern Appalachian region.

Developing a conservation plan for the Chattooga River watershed required consideration of the following questions regarding management area delineations:

1. Which areas in the watershed closely approximate or are currently mature forest interior habitat?

The Chattooga River Watershed Coalition's Proposed Roadless Areas meet the criteria of having less than 1/2 mile of developed system road per 1,000 acres, and provide ample opportunities for the experience of solitude in the forest. These roadless areas are or closely approximate existing mature interior forest habitat. The roadless areas identified were found to contain a high percentage of the watershed's old growth forest as well. In particular, the high ridges of the Rabun Bald area contain one of the highest concentrations of old growth forest remaining in the entire Chattooga watershed (Carlson 1995). These roadless areas are of the highest priority for protection, as they represent islands of mature, interior forest habitat that need further protection and linkages to other such areas.

Some other areas of relatively mature, interior forest habitat are currently under protective management, and are described below.

2. Which areas in the watershed are already protected from further fragmentation?

Existing protected areas include the Chattooga National Wild & Scenic River Corridor, the Ellicott Rock Wilderness Area, and Forest Service Management Areas such as MA-4 (Georgia) and MA-5 (North Carolina) and areas, such as those managed for old growth preservation and restoration, and recreational or botanical significance. These areas are or closely approximate native forest habitat and constitute key starting points for protection and restoration of a functioning native ecosystem in the Chattooga River watershed. The Wild & Scenic River corridor is a semi-primitive, non-motorized area, which serves as an important wildlife corridor.

3. How wide should a stream or river corridor be to maintain its functional characteristics?

A river corridor should be wide enough to effectively perform the functions of 1) controlling water and nutrient flows from upland to the stream, and 2) facilitating the movement of upland forest interior animals and plants along the stream system (Forman and Godron 1986). To accomplish these objectives, the corridor should cover the flood plain, both banks, and an area of upland on both sides that is wider than an edge effect (defined earlier). Thus, we propose that the Wild & Scenic River corridor requires an area larger than the existing one-quarter-mile buffer to serve as a viable core habitat for many neotropical migratory songbirds, and as a wildlife corridor for black bear and other large mammals. A three-quarter-mile buffer was selected to provide sufficient protection from fragmentation caused not only from outside the river corridor, but by the presence of the river itself acting as an edge. This three-quarter mile distance should provide for the ecological requirements of interior forest-dependent species (Hamel, 1990). Aside from currently protected areas, the enlarged three-quarter-mile Wild and Scenic River buffer and the Chattooga River Watershed Coalition's Proposed Roadless Areas are considered to be critical core and wildlife corridor habitat.

4. Which areas in the watershed are most suitable for designation as Restoration Areas, to act as a buffer zone between Core/Wildlife Corridor Protection Areas and more densely populated areas of the watershed?

The lands which surround Core/Wildlife Corridor Protection Areas on both public and private lands are suitable for restoration management techniques. These areas were designated as cooperative Ecological Restoration Management Areas.

5. How would areas of high population density fit into the picture?

Private lands in areas of the watershed with higher population densities (e.g. Clayton and Mountain City in Georgia, Highlands and Cashiers in North Carolina, and Whetstone and Long Creek in South Carolina) were considered suitable as Sustainable Economic Development Management Areas. These areas include zones of existing economic enterprise, and also would support opportunities for projects which promote environmental education and stewardship. In addition, environmentally responsible and socially beneficial projects like markets for locally grown organic produce and locally manufactured wood products crafted from sustainably harvested timber could develop here.

6. What "rules of thumb" might be used to delineate boundaries between management areas that would aid in the maintenance of high quality aquatic habitat?

The Chattooga Conservation Plan uses fourth-order watersheds as boundaries (when possible) to avoid conflicting and counterproductive management activities within the same watershed. Sub-watersheds, smaller hydrologic units within the Chattooga River watershed, were considered important to protect water quality and critical plant and animal species habitat. Sub-watersheds where portions of them had already been designated as core habitat areas would be wholly incorporated into Core/Wildlife Corridor Protection Areas (described in more detail in the next section and in the Appendix).

7. How could water quality be maintained or restored throughout the watershed, and across the different management areas which will host different land management activities?

It was decided that streamside management zones would be recommended throughout the watershed and in all management area delineations. Activities in these zones may vary from one management area to another, but would at a minimum adhere to state Best Management Practices (BMPs). Where possible, the zones would conserve or restore a 300-foot buffer around the stream where no soil-disturbing activity takes place. Streamside management zones would be considered part of the Core/Wildlife Corridor Management Areas.

To organize the answers to these questions and develop the Chattooga Conservation Plan, the collaborators utilized a Geographical Information System (GIS): a computer-based method to collect, analyze, and display geographically referenced information in layers, in the form of a map. The GIS developed for the Chattooga Conservation Plan utilizes the latest information available for the Chattooga River watershed. Data on various landscape features (see Appendix) were collected from studies completed under the auspices of the USDA-FS "Chattooga River Basin Ecosystem Management Demonstration Project", plus field surveys of roadless areas conducted by the Chattooga River Watershed Coalition, and the databases of the State Natural Heritage Programs of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. GIS analysis techniques were then used to overlay multiple data layers, producing maps that provide a visual representation of priority conservation locations in the Chattooga watershed. A step-by-step overview of the conservation plan process is described in the next section. A review of management recommendations for the watershed follows the overview.

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GIS Analysis -- Step-By-Step ____________________________________________________________________

Figure 1 shows the Chattooga River watershed, with major roads, towns, and major tributaries. The map visually depicts the river's meandering path through North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. The watershed encompasses approximately 180,000 acres in the three states, of which about 56,000 acres are in private ownership. (Full size Watershed Map: 644kb)


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Figure 2 shows the currently protected areas, which include the Wild and Scenic River corridor, the Ellicott Rock Wilderness Area, and US Forest Service management area designations such as MA-4 (Georgia) and MA-5 (North Carolina) and others. The Wild and Scenic corridor and wilderness area are protected by federal legislation. The Forest Service management designations are for areas already being managed for old growth preservation and restoration, or for recreational or botanical significance. These areas encompass 23% of the total acreage of the watershed. (Full size Protected Areas Map: 613kb)


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Figure 3 shows the existing and potential old growth forest, relative to the currently protected areas. Data were collected from an old growth field survey (Carlson 1995) which identifies areas of both existing and potential old growth, and from the Forest Service's Continuous Inventory of Stand Conditions (CISC) which contains attributes of forest stand conditions throughout the watershed, including age. Figure 3 incorporates the CISC data that identified stands as greater than 100 years old, which were considered as potential old growth. Approximately 6,200 acres of the watershed (about 4%) was identified by Carlson as existing and potential old growth. CISC stands greater than 100 years old cover approximately 28,000 acres (about 16%) of the watershed. (Full size Old Growth Map: 640kb)


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Figure 4 shows the field survey data from the CRWC's proposed Roadless Areas. These areas are large, contiguous blocks of forest habitat with unmaintained roads and/or low road densities. These "less roaded areas" are compared to currently protected areas. (Full size Roadless Map: 816kb)


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Figure 5 depicts the results of "stacking" multiple GIS layers on top of one another. Currently protected areas (1), the newly created (expanded) 3/4 mile buffer around the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River corridor (2), and the Proposed Roadless Areas (3 were considered essential components of the proposed Core and Wildlife Corridor Protection Areas. These were combined to create a first-cut conservation plan design (referred to as "First Step"). Combining these layers all together brought the size o the core protection area to approximately 76,000 acres (about 42% of the watershed), including 85% of the existing and potential old growth and 70% of the CISC stands greater than 100 years old. Although the integration of these data layers increased the size of the Core and Wildlife Corridor Protection Area significantly, high fragmentation of core habitats and forest interior remained. (Full size First Step Map: 828kb)


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Figure 6 depicts the results of adding critical "sub-watersheds" to the proposed conservation plan. To reduce fragmentation, connect core habitats, and plan for improved water quality, a GIS technique was developed to incorporate sub-watersheds into the proposed conservation plan. Any smaller (fourth-order) watershed only partially covered by the first-cut Core and Wildlife Corridor Protection Area was added by expanding the boundary. Any first-cut boundary not adjacent to a smaller watershed was analyzed to find the nearest boundary (ridgeline) of any watershed size. If such a boundary did not exist within one-quarter mile of the first-cut boundary, a simple 1/4 mile expansion was used. This technique served to connect fragmented core habitats, and to incorporate ecological landscape units in a defensible manner. (Full size Subwatershed Map: 844kb)


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Figure 7 depicts the final Chattooga Conservation Plan. Figure 7 represents the culmination of each step in the GIS analysis process, with Core/Wildlife Corridor Protection Areas, cooperative Ecological Restoration Management Areas, and Sustainable Economic Development Management Areas (determined by existing city limits). The final conservation plan includes approximately 111,500 acres (about 62% of the watershed) designated as Core/Wildlife Corridor Protection Areas. (Full size Conservation Map: 747kb)


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Evaluation ____________________________________________________________________

Once management areas with appropriate management activities were designated, there was a need to develop measures for evaluating the effectiveness of the proposed conservation plan. Specifically, it was important to answer the following questions: Are Core/Wildlife Corridor Protection Areas large, contiguous blocks of habitat that reduce existing fragmentation and establish forest interior habitat linkages within and outside of the watershed? How effective is the proposed conservation plan, relative to currently protected areas, in protecting forest interior habitat and element occurrences of sensitive species?

The GIS facilitated the modeling of different Plan alternatives, and was particularly useful to visually determine if the proposed conservation plan included contiguous blocks of forest interior habitat which connected existing forest interior fragments, and in calculating protection effectiveness. A GIS analysis was used to compare the effectiveness of protection under current management area designations, and under the designations proposed in the Chattooga Conservation Plan. Success was measured by comparing the percentage of critical habitat within the Core/Wildlife Corridor Protection Areas of the proposed conservation plan, relative to the currently protected areas. A significant percentage increase in the protection of existing and potential old growth forest and Natural Heritage Element Occurrence Record (EOR) sites in conjunction with large blocks of unfragmented forest habitat were considered essential in the approval of a final proposed conservation plan for the Chattooga River watershed.

To assess the quality of the conservation plan, the percentage of (1) existing old growth, (2) CISC stands greater than 100 years old, and (3) threatened and endangered species sightings encompassed by currently protected areas was compared to the percentage encompassed by the proposed core areas. Table 1 summarizes the results of this evaluation.

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Table 1 -- Comparison of Currently Protected Areas Versus Proposed Core Areas

Natural Resource *Currently Protected Areas *Proposed Core Areas *% Increase in Protection

Natural Heritage Element Occurrences -*51% -*84% -----------------*33%

Existing Old Growth -------------------*66% -*93% -----------------*27%

CISC 100+ years ---------------------*45% -*87% -----------------*42% _____________________________________________________________________________

Based on this comparison, the proposed conservation plan significantly increases the level of protection in the watershed. Although some of the critical resources are already protected, the Chattooga Conservation Plan protects a significantly higher percentage and includes the critical ecological linkages needed to ensure long-term viability of forest interior habitat and its associated plant and animal species.

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The Chattooga Conservation Plan hac bhas published (in addition to its premier in the winter `95-'96 Chattooga Quarterly) in booklet form (excerpts included above). The booklet's text explains the plan's conceptual framework and rationale, as well as its economic and scientific justification. The main GIS visuals are displayed in the booklet's appendix, and are accompanied by a larger, color poster which depicts the Chattooga Conservation Plan overlaid on a digital elevation model of the watershed.

2. Chattooga River Watershed Coalition's GIS Goals

Our most immediate goal is to transfer our existing GIS work into contemporary public policy. Publication of the Chattooga Conservation Plan (CCP) has been timed to coincide with the "Notice of Intent" for Forest Plan revisions in the Southeast, which was recently published in the Federal Register. In addition to promoting the CCP in alliance with all CRWC program objectives, we aim to have the CCP included as a "Citizen's Alternative" in the USDA/Forest Service's Final Environmental Impact Statements, which will determine the Chattooga River watershed's new Forest Plans.

We are also working to promote and facilitate the creation of contiguous, scientifically and economically credible conservation plans for local and regional landscapes across the Southeast, especially along the Blue Ridge Escarpment. During this process of networking with public and private land managers, we will present the concepts of the GIS methodology that helped to create the Chattooga Conservation Plan, and will promote the incorporation of the GIS tool to expedite creating a unified conservation plan across this entire landscape. At present we are assisting a local grassroots organization in their work to fashion a conservation plan for the Chauga River watershed in South Carolina (which lies directly adjacent to the Chattooga watershed), and we're organizing a meeting of primary land managers of the Blue Ridge Escarpment area as well.

Our next, immediate goal is quite basic: to learn how to operate our present GIS system. During this past year of work to create the Chattooga Conservation Plan, we invested considerable resources (time and money) to provide formal GIS training for one of our staff members, in addition to their time spent in house on the CRWC's computer. Ultimately, we made a mistake in our choice of personnel for this training; this staff person has subsequently departed. Now we are engaged in self-education via our GIS tutorial; our goal is to re-gain full capabilities to utilize the components of our existing GIS system.

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Text and graphics: Chattooga River Watershed Coalition
January 2, 1997

Design and Layout: Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc.
January 2, 1997