A new landscape modeling framework to support environmental decisions
In this era of big data, environmental scientists have benefited from a number of new datasets, tools, and analytical methods to assist in environmental decision-making. In the last decade, for example, land managers and ecologists have increasingly relied upon new landscape-scale approaches to understand ecosystem health and inform conservation planning decisions. Recent focus among land managers has been placed on quantifying and mapping indicators of landscape integrity as the "degree of naturalness" of an ecosystem. These approaches typically utilize datasets on human land uses to model landscape integrity because most human land uses (e.g., urban areas, roadways, agriculture) directly influence ecological condition.
EVS scientists have used the landscape-scale approach to better understand and quantify landscape integrity for Federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. As part of a study to develop mitigation strategies for utility-scale solar energy development on public lands, EVS staff Leroy Walston and Heidi Hartmann recently published a new framework to quantify and map a Landscape Integrity Index (LII) as an indicator that could be used in conservation planning. This modeling framework builds upon previously-published methods to map the degree of human influence on the environment by incorporating measures of biodiversity (e.g., species richness) and landscape change (e.g., vegetation departure).
The research article, published in PLOS ONE, illustrates how land managers may apply this new LII modeling framework to inform regional conservation planning at a study region in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Maintaining an interconnected network of protected areas of high ecological value is one of the most important means of conserving biodiversity in the face of ongoing environmental changes, such as those due to climate change, human development, and invasive species. The research article examined two coarse-filter applications of the LII model focusing on approaches to increase the size and connectivity of the protected area network. With these two coarse-filter applications, the EVS authors identified over 1,000 km2 of high integrity land areas that could provide many opportunities to meet various biodiversity conservation planning objectives and mitigate for anticipated ecological impacts of large-scale solar energy development and other future human land use and environmental changes in the region.
Read the full research article in PLOS ONE.