High-Resolution Data: To the Chesapeake Conservancy’s Chesapeake Innovation Center (CIC), precision conservation means doing projects at the right place, the right scale, the right size, and the right time. This movement is redefining how landscape conservation is approached. We can use the latest high-resolution datasets to conduct geospatial analysis that allow us to better plan and implement on-the-ground restoration and conservation best management practices. [Image: CIC]

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement promises, among other goals, two million new acres of land protected by 2025. The Chesapeake Bay Program defines protected lands as those that are permanently protected from development, whether by purchase, donation, a perpetual conservation or open space easement, or fee ownership for their cultural, historical, ecological or agricultural value.

Stewardship: Counting acres as “protected” by a “conservation or open space” easement is only a first step toward ensuring that long term uses of the land are consistent with natural or historic values. Preservation in perpetuity requires stewardship: a continuing commitment to monitoring and active collaboration with land owners where an easement has been acquired.

The Maryland Environmental Trust (MET) estimates that the cost of stewardship can range from $100 to $500 per year for each easement. This can be a substantial burden for smaller land trusts that often operate with a very limited staff of volunteers. A bit of background for any readers not steeped in land conservation practice: Stewardship of easements is not just a matter of detecting violations. Ideally it involves careful documentation of baseline conditions to be maintained, discussions with landowners about permissible changes, engagement with the community, and documentation to support enforcement if necessary. Terms and conditions for easements also may vary widely. For example, a conservation easement might prohibit any removal of vegetation, or it could allow for cutting trees above a certain size or in accordance with an approved forest management plan. Easements on agricultural land might restrict not only “development” but uses of herbicides, pesticides, fertilizer and treatment of animal waste.

Credit: Nicholas Tonell
Credit: Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Technology to the rescue: In May of this year the Land Trust Alliance and The Nature Conservancy-California awarded a $20,000 grant to MET and the Lower Shore Land Trust (LSLT) to use new technology in support of annual conservation easement monitoring and ongoing outreach and contact with landowners. LSLT and MET will use satellite imagery to monitor 70,900 acres in the Chesapeake watershed this year. If the pilot project is successful, MET will work with other local land trusts in the state to adopt the technology.

The grant initiative by the Land Trust Alliance is designed to encourage experimentation and innovation. Several platforms are available to support remote monitoring and the technology has advanced every year. Imagery has become so precise that it can identify where a tree has been cut down or where a dirt road has been improved. Some of the platforms offer free images but data that are only updated every two or three years. Others have greater precision or more frequent updates but are not free of charge.

Creativity: The purpose of these initial grants to 17 land trusts is to try something new and see what works best. A single answer is not expected. What is most efficient and effective will likely depend on the size and location of the property to be monitored as well as the level of detail that needs to be considered. The cost and availability of data may depend on what other monitoring activities are going on in the neighborhood. A mixture of platforms and data might be the best choice where a certain level of detail is needed each year, but less precise imagery is useful to track trends in land cover. Drones might also be enlisted to capture even more detailed images than those available from satellites.

The Chesapeake Conservancy has been in the forefront of work to use remote sensing data for planning and protection on a landscape scale. This “precision conservation” work has included advanced spatial analysis techniques to prioritize conservation best management practices, high resolution land cover and stream channel mapping, tree canopy change analysis, viewshed analysis and mapping solar arrays. Some of the experience with these tools and techniques may now be applied to monitoring conservation easements on an individual parcel basis to promote more efficient and effective land protection.

Credit: Britt Slattery

Don’t forget to send us your 2020 land conservation success stories as they develop. They’ll land in the new and growing collection at success.chesapeakeconservation.org, a tool we can all use to show collective impact. See the checklist below for easy-to-follow, simple guidelines.