Mapping out the future of conservation – big time!

Signing of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (1992) sparked global interest in identifying environmentally significant areas, areas that might support biodiversity at the local, regional and larger scales. Canada was among the first signatories to the Convention, and immediately launched programs at the federal level, and through provincial counterparts to identify and protect sites with high biodiversity, seeking to meet the ‘12% mark’ – conservation of 12% of the national (or provincial) landbase. Conservation of biodiversity is no less a concern today, and due to public interest and a realization that protected areas alone will not accomplish conservation goals, identification of environmentally sensitive areas has become central to resource management, and increasingly so at the local to regional scale. Municipalities, regional planners and resource development companies are completing inventories of their environmental assets, and the threats to those assets, to inform conservation policies in land use planning, development approvals processes and long-term operating strategies. In part, those efforts have been made possible by technological improvements that make mapping of environmental sensitivities affordable, detailed and most importantly, accurate. Where will those improvements lead us next?

The answer to this question requires a bit of historical context. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, techniques for mapping environmental sensitivities at landscape scale were limited –inventories were based on regional or provincial level inventories of ‘known’ sites, consultation to identify sites deemed worthy of protection, and mapping from aerial photography, labour and time-intensive approaches. The lack of detailed mapping across these landscapes also contributed to conflict and debate over the biological value of sites – particularly when sites held extractable resources or development potential. Even today, provinces like Alberta lack a comprehensive inventory of key environmental features at the accuracy and detail needed for land use and resource management planning. Yet the digital age, and the almost compulsive acquisition of data it has allowed, has positioned us to begin to address this gap, a change with great potential influence on conservation planning in the 21st century.

In many jurisdictions, government and non-government organizations have developed databases to store species occurrence records, water quality and other environmental parameters. Government agencies are increasingly converting or producing inventory data in digital formats, and making those data publically available to assist organizations in environmental planning efforts (e.g., flood risk mapping, updated hydrology). Advances in remote sensing technologies and analysis have now made it possible to add to those datasets, and mapping of vegetation communities using automated approaches is a rapidly developing area. The ability to map and type upland and wetland communities through remote sensing data will be a game changer, allowing more frequent inventory of forest and water resources, and ultimately, better short-term and long-range planning of development.

Various organizations have begun to capitalize on these advances, to compile comprehensive inventories of environmental assets, threats to those assets and other development constraints that can inform municipal to regional level planning. Solstice Canada’s work with the Beaver Hills Initiative is an example of such work. In that project, we compiled available information on rare species, groundwater recharge/discharge zones, soils and vegetation inventories for a 1600 km2 area, then enhanced the resolution of mapping by completing more detailed inventories of wetlands and upland vegetation, hydrology, and agricultural soil capability using remote sensing analysis. The resulting data could be used to illustrate sensitivities – surface and ground water contamination risk, core wildlife habitat areas, rare species locations – at a level of detail useful to land use planners, and easily communicated to residents. We have used a similar approach to map out potential beaver-human conflict sites associated with resource development across a 150,527 km2 study area in northeastern British Columbia, to aid in managing conflicts and promote alternative management strategies. Such projects would have been impossible only a decade ago. The impact on resource management and regional level planning as these techniques, and associated digital databases develop will be dramatic.

Land use policy is never without conflict, but clear communication of the risks and tradeoffs of development is invaluable to this process. Public buy-in on land use policy is increasingly important and particularly when dealing with lands with perceived environmental value. Provision of science-based, accurate and detailed information can convey the risks associated with land management options, and help demonstrate the future impact of those options – particularly important in the face of climate change. No wonder that landscape scale inventories of environmental sensitivities are increasingly demanded by regulators and the public. Solstice Canada is actively refining techniques to enhance inventory cost and accuracy, through our wetlands and vegetation mapping R&D initiative, data sharing services and GIS based sensitivity analyses. We’re always interested in hearing of the work, and successes of others working in this field – please get in touch to share your ideas and inventory mapping stories!