Small Natural Features with Large Ecosystem Functions in Urbanizing Landscapes

This project focuses on the management of small natural features with large ecosystem functions in urbanizing landscapes. Many landscapes have small natural features that are far more important for maintaining biodiversity or for providing ecosystem services than one would expect based on their size. Examples include small pools in upland landscapes and coral heads in an extensive bed of sea grasses. Many landscapes are becoming more urban as communities grow and their development patterns change, so effective management of smaller natural features presents important challenges and opportunities. The small size of these features often means they can be conserved while allowing activities like development, forestry, or agriculture to continue. Prevailing conservation strategies do not fully take advantage of these opportunities, however, often because managers have limited scientific knowledge, especially of mechanisms linking ecological and social processes. In northeastern forests, vernal pools provide a model system in which to study the dynamics of small natural feature management. Building on numerous ecological and economic theories, this interdisciplinary research project will examine dynamic interactions associated with vernal pools (seasonally inundated wetlands) in forested landscapes of the urbanizing northeast of the U.S. Their overarching goals are (1) to explore the biophysical and socioeconomic components of vernal pool ecology and management as a coupled-systems model and (2) to improve strategies for conserving vernal pools and other small natural features with large ecosystem service significance. The investigators will couple spatially explicit ecological and economic models within a dynamic system simulation model to examine the interactions among regulator, community, and landowner decision-making and the resulting landscape impacts on vernal pool species and broader-scale ecosystem functions. Results from the simulation model will provide information to assess the efficacy of strategies for conserving natural resources.

This project will provide the intellectual foundation for advances in amphibian meta-population theory and microeconomic theories of land use and institutions. It also will assess the utility of a relatively novel approach for managing natural resources that extends far beyond vernal pools to analogous systems around the globe, from prairie potholes in central North America to desert springs in southern Africa. By focusing on small natural features with disproportionate significance in urbanizing landscapes, the project will offer insights to help transform the way society approaches resource conservation, especially on private lands. By examining the merits of alternative management strategies, the investigators will provide stakeholders with more efficient and flexible management tools. They will test these tools by supporting policy experiments on the ground in Maine. Sharing the experiences of Maine communities with communities throughout New England and eastern Canada as well as with academics and practitioners from around the globe will broaden the impact of these activities. This project will support and mentor high school, undergraduate, and graduate students, and it will facilitate in-service training of teachers from rural and Native American schools. This project is supported by the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program.

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