Natural Connections Helping nature, helping ourselves, flourish in a changing world

Nature is about connections…

The chickadee that feeds its young the insects living in the native oak trees.

The oak trees that depend on fertile soils and sufficient water to grow.

The rain that comes at the right times and in the right amounts for life in this place.

The water that flows down rivers providing homes for otters and turtles and freshwater mussels and all the fish and insects on which they feed.

The Bald Eagle that catches fish in Lake Erie — fish that depend on millions of human beings in the Lake Erie watershed to keep the lake clean.

And the children growing up, healthy and strong in a clean environment, inspired by the beauty of nature around them.

All connected and interdependent

This is a vision for conserving nature in this special place — the Lake Erie Allegheny region

The Lake Erie Allegheny region encompasses the glaciated portion of the Allegheny Plateau and the narrow band of the Lake Plain that stretches from west of Cleveland almost to Buffalo.

How do we sustain the richness of nature here?

The region’s conservation organizations have been studying this question. To pool knowledge and expertise, we have come together in a regional consortium, the Lake Erie Allegheny Partnership for Biodiversity, or LEAP.

LEAP members include park districts, nature centers, museums, nonprofit conservation organizations, watershed groups, and public natural resource agencies, as well as the region’s top wildlife and plant biologists, ecologists, naturalists, and park planners. We are people with boots on the ground — witnesses to what is happening to nature.

We are worried.

Nature in our region — our life-support system — is under stress. Natural areas, wildlife, and clean water face numerous threats.

Development alters and fragments the land,

Pollution degrades air, water and soils.

Nonnative plants and animals overwhelm native species.

And more recently, climate change has begun to increase our region’s average temperature and annual precipitation. By the end of this century, our region could feel like a very different place. The temperature could exceed 86° F on more than 120 days a year, if high levels of global-warming pollution continue.

All this means that nature is subject to constantly changing conditions. Thus, we can’t think about preserving parks and natural areas as museum exhibits fixed in time. We need to think more about how to give nature room to move, adapt, and evolve as conditions change — creating large, connected natural areas where natural processes can continue.

Regional Priorities

To help nature adapt and thrive — and continue supporting our quality of life — we propose the following five priorities:

  1. Preserve large blocks of natural land
  2. Link natural areas
  3. Reduce habitat fragmentation
  4. Reduce the other stresses on nature
  5. Prepare for a changing climate

1. Preserve large blocks of natural land

Increase efforts to preserve large blocks of natural land in the region, with a special emphasis on native forests. Prior to European settlement nearly all of the region was forested, and it still “wants” to be a forest today.

And size matters — large blocks of undisturbed habitat provide homes for many rare plants and animals, and they are more protected from the intrusion of nonnative species. Today, less than 4% of the region’s 21,642 square miles is protected as parks or other natural areas.

Bird species such as Ovenbird, Scarlet tanager and Cerulean warbler pictured here require large, unbroken, mature forests to successfully rear their young.

2. Link natural areas

In a highly fragmented region, it is vital to link blocks of natural areas and create greenway corridors to facilitate the migration of plant and animal species — both within the region and without to neighboring regions.

Based on major physical features, we can imagine a regional system of habitat corridors:

Land along major rivers

Rivers form the region’s major north/south corridors, which are critical for allowing species to move northward as the climate changes. The existing protected areas of park districts and other conservation organizations, which often lie along rivers, provide a good start.

Lake Erie shoreline

Lake Erie is the region’s large wilderness, so its edge is a critical habitat and migration corridor.

Portage Escarpment

The edge between the region’s two major landforms, the Lake Plain and the glaciated Allegheny Plateau, has potential for becoming a green corridor across the region.

Watershed divide between the Lake Erie and Ohio River drainages

While there may be instances where we don’t want certain species (such as Asian carp) to migrate across this divide, climate change will likely make it increasingly important to provide migration routes for many other species in the future.

3. Reduce habitat fragmentation

Reduce habitat fragmentation from development and infrastructure (such as roads, power lines, and pipelines). By promoting well-planned development in existing communities, public planning processes can avoid additional fragmentation. In general, land-use planning should take the cumulative impacts of habitat fragmentation into account.

4. Reduce other stresses on nature

In addition to conserving and connecting natural areas, it’s vital to reduce the many other stresses on native plants and wildlife. Four of particular concern are:

  • Air and water pollution
  • Nonnative species
  • Pesticides
  • Overabundance of White-tailed deer

5. Prepare for a changing climate

The distribution of plants and wildlife in our region will be greatly affected by a warmer climate. A recent study of the LEAP region by the U.S. Forest Service found more than a third of the region’s tree species will be less able to survive here by the end of the century. Such enormous changes will require new conservation approaches — perhaps less emphasis on preserving species that are no longer well adapted to local conditions and more emphasis on promoting a mix of species that will form healthy, resilient ecosystems in the future. This will raise complex questions about what species should be considered “native” to this place and when resources should be expended to protect certain habitats over others.

Everyone can help!

We all want to live in a vibrant, healthy place with abundant clean water, wildlife, and natural areas. And we all can help to conserve nature’s rich diversity.

Here are the Top 5 things to do:

1. Support the expansion of protected natural areas and corridors

The region’s conservation organizations are working collaboratively on strategies to protect natural areas, with an emphasis on assembling large blocks of high quality habitat and connecting those blocks with continuous corridors. But continued progress depends on funding. So it’s vital to support park levies, bond issues, and other funding sources for openspace acquisition, such as the Clean Ohio Fund. Parks and greenspace are great investments — for nature, for our health, and for the prosperity of our communities.

2. Support the redevelopment of existing cities and towns

One of the best ways to conserve nature is to support redevelopment of existing communities. If we avoid developing natural areas and promote development in areas that already have infrastructure, we reduce habitat fragmentation and the costs of poorly planned growth. And by supporting policies and incentives — local, state, and federal — that help redevelop vibrant neighborhoods, more people will be able to choose walkable lifestyles that are easier on the planet.

From "Vibrant NEO Regional Vision"

3. Connect your land to the larger landscape

Most the region’s land is privately owned, and everyone’s backyard can be a valuable patch of habitat. So think of your land as part of a larger mosaic of nature. Can your yard be part of a green corridor that connects a natural area and a river? Can your urban yard be a resting point for birds and pollinators? Can the woodlots and hedgerows on your farm contribute to biodiversity across the countryside? The answers can be yes, if more private land is maintained in a natural state or restored with an abundance of native plants.

From "Red Fields to Green Fields: Parks Transform Neighborhoods and Waterfronts," published by ParkWorks and Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative.

4. Protect water quality

Life depends on pure water, and water quality depends a lot on the quality of land. If we do the three things listed above, we will protect forests, floodplains, wetlands, and other natural areas that act like a sponge to retain and filter water, and we also will reduce the spread of roads, rooftops, and other impervious surfaces that exacerbate damaging stormwater pollution. In addition, we can all support local stormwater management programs and sensible regulation at the state and federal levels to protect clean water.

5. Reduce the carbon pollution that’s heating up the planet

Climate change is already stressing nature in our region and around the world, and the disruptive effects will grow much worse if carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels are not sharply reduced in the next decade. Everyone can help by reducing personal energy use, planting trees to sequester carbon, and supporting the climate action plans of local governments and organizations. Most importantly, everyone can support state and federal policies to accelerate the transition to clean energy sources — solar and wind — that generate power without pollution while creating good jobs for a healthy, sustainable economy.

A bigger vision for nature

Many stresses — from habitat destruction to invasive species to climate change — are threatening the native diversity of plants and wildlife in our region. But we know how to give nature the best possible chance to adapt and thrive — by expanding and connecting natural areas across the landscape. LEAP member organizations are committed to working collaboratively to make this happen. And we invite everyone in the region to help in the coming years.

Making room for nature is the right thing to do — and it’s good for all of us. We get:

  • Clean air and water
  • Abundant wildlife
  • Vital ecological services such as pollination
  • Support for our health and our way of life
  • Awesome natural beauty

It’s a legacy for all.

For more ideas about how to help, go here. LEAP has assembled lists of recommendations and other helpful resources for actions at home and in the community.

Natural connections

Helping nature, helping ourselves, flourish in a changing world

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