The US Forest Service Highlands Regional Study has been released for Connecticut. You can view pdfs of the resources it prioritizes for conservation here. As the co-chair of the CT Highlands Coalition and a member of the Highlands executive, I have more than a passing acquaintance with this effort. As the Director of the Litchfield Hills Greenprint, I have also been involved in a parallel assessment for the towns which form the core of the Highlands area in Connecticut. There have been good data sharing and information exchange between these two efforts but they were designed with different though complimentary objectives, and not surprisingly they come to somewhat different conclusions about what is most critical to conserve about this landscape.
The Connecticut Highlands study was done concurrently with one for Pennsylvania, with the goal to have a resource map that is compatible with those already completed under the Highlands Conservation Act for its New Jersey and New York sections. The Forest Service Study looks at five broad categories of resources - Water, Biological, Recreational/Cultural, Agricultural and Forest - and also produces an overall Composite Resources Values Map. These data will be used to help federal agencies set conservation priorities not only for Highlands Act funding but also as a primary filter for assessing land protection funds under the Forest Legacy Program.
In contrast, the Litchfield Greenprint's assessment of conservation priorities has seven categories (splitting scenic and recreational values, expanding agriculture to include the entire working landscape, and an adaptive reuse category for brown fields and areas appropriate for urban infill). These categories were locally driven priorities identified and ranked in importance by communities, municipalities and conservation interests across the Litchfield Hills. They are not linked to any particular funding source but were instead intended to provide a regional understanding of where the unprotected resources of greatest value to the people who live here and to the ecological integrity of this landscape occur across our area.
One significant difference between the two studies is that the Forest Service included protected land in its conservation priorities and gives greater conservation weight to lands already conserved as a result. The Greenprint assessed resources on both protected and unprotected lands but did not weigh them any differently and does not include those already conserved in its final map of conservation priorities. There are clear differences in emphasis between the two studies based on this one variable. Because the Greenprint was trying both to determine how much of the stuff we all care about has been protected and where the best opportunities for conservation lie outside of these protected areas, our study may be more relevant to conservation planners while the Highlands Study will be an important resource to site when applying for state or federal land protection grants and assuredly will be vital for projects up for Forest legacy or Highlands funding.
Another difference is that the Litchfield Greenprint is able to state for each of the model criteria we used in our assessment how much of each resource is protected on a town and regional basis. We can now say that of the 85,549 acres that appear to be in agricultural cover across the Litchfield Hills, less than 12,000 are on protected land. We can track changes in the conservation status of these resources over time, and together with our partners set measurable goals for the protection of specific resources. This not only helps us choose where to invest our limited conservation resources, but also where to encourage thoughtful development so that what we all say we value remains viable here over time rather than opposing every development that comes down the pike regardless of its actual impacts on the resource base.
Both studies are valuable in their own ways to those who live on the land and make decisions about how to steward what we have been given here. Turning good planning into timely action will be the challenge for us all.