To Protect, or Not To Protect…That is the Question.

One question we often get asked is “How exactly do you choose which land to conserve?”

The answer is probably less straightforward than you might think.  There are a range of factors that influence our land protection decisions.

Prioritizing Land Protection

Mass Audubon has traditionally focused on land that can expand and enhance our wildlife sanctuaries across the state. 

Such land provides two very important things: critical habitat for plants and animals (the nature of Massachusetts) and places for people to connect with nature – to experience it directly. As a sanctuary-based organization, we look for ways to preserve the integrity of the landscape and to enrich the experience of visitors.

Even then, some lands around our sanctuaries are more important than others. 

When someone gives us a call about donating or selling land nearby, we conduct an initial “desk review”, using various digital tools to determine how important a property might be for conservation.  If that initial screening looks promising, we follow-up with a site visit for a more fine-grained assessment.

Maps are a great tool to help us sort that out (the land department really loves maps!).

In particular, many sanctuaries have “Sanctuary Protection Plans” like the one for Rough Meadows in Rowley shown below.

These are maps that we produce that rank properties for conservation by their importance.  The red parcels in the map above are ranked the highest with lighter shading ranked lower.  Blue indicates existing Mass Audubon sanctuary land and green indicates other protected land.

A lot of data and fancy computer mapping go into making these. Much of the data comes from the state of Massachusetts which maintains a variety of map layers showing different types of natural resources.  These include things like:

  • Rare species habitat
  • Drinking water, wetland and other water resources
  • Connection with other conservation lands (i.e. wildlife corridors)

Using the map above as an example, you can see that a lot of conservation has happened around Rough Meadows already.  However, a number of gaps remain. Protecting these gaps will ensure Rough Meadows remains a large, intact natural area providing better habitat for biodiversity and richer experiences for people.

Scenic views like this one at Rough Meadows not only nourish the soul, but provide critical habitat.

Protecting Habitat for Future Generations

While we tend to focus on protecting land around our existing sanctuaries, Mass Audubon also establishes altogether new wildlife sanctuaries on occasion, in instances where there is particularly outstanding habitat, or in an underserved part of the state.

Our new Brush Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Warwick is the most recent example.

Increasingly, the Land Department focuses on protecting land that will reduce the impacts of climate change for nature and people.  This connection between land conservation and climate change response has grown clearer over time.

Protecting wetlands in a floodplain, for instance, ensures that those wetlands will keep storing and absorbing flood waters during increasing extreme rain events, and protecting forest ensures that those trees can keep storing carbon.

Practical Matters

Once we’ve decided that we want to pursue the protection of a particular property, there are a number of practical matters to consider.

  • Do we have the financial resources needed? Even a gift of land requires significant staff time and funds to pay for legal work, environmental assessments, etc.
  • If it is a purchase rather than a gift of land, do we think we can launch a successful fundraising campaign? Thanks to our work securing donations and bargain sales, every $1,000 we raise averages to roughly $9,000 of land protected.  Even so, the ability to raise funds for purchases is a key practical question to answer.
  • Is the project so complex that it would be difficult for Mass Audubon to protect the property on its own? Are there organizations (government or other non-profits) we can partner with to help achieve the conservation outcome? We do conservation in partnership with others a lot and the public/private conservation community in Massachusetts is unusually collaborative in this respect.  It’s a way for us all to accomplish more by working together.

How You Can Help

If you own, or know of, property that might be of interest to Mass Audubon after reading this post, please do not hesitate to reach out to the Land Conservation Department.

Even if it is not the right fit for Mass Audubon, we always try to refer any interested landowners to a local land trust, their municipality, or other conservation organization that might be able to help.  We want to find a “home” for any conservation project.

Or, consider donating to the Land Conservation Department so we can carry on this work!

-Nick Rossi, Land Protection Specialist