Coastal communities in the Great Lakes region require resilient coastal natural areas that can withstand natural and human-caused stressors, including a changing climate. Coastal wetlands support valuable benefits such as flood abatement, nutrient processing, and nursery habitat for fisheries. Historical settlement patterns in the 19th and 20th Centuries compromised some coastal processes including a dramatic reduction in both extent and quality of Great Lakes coastal wetlands. Now, in the face of a changing climate, it is more important than ever to invest in the conservation of coastal wetlands to ensure these areas continue to provide their valued benefits into the next century. However, major challenges to conserving coastal wetlands include understanding their condition, identifying the valuable benefits they provide, and developing a process to guide actions that result in a connected system of coastal wetlands resilient to future changes.
The Upper Midwest and Great Lakes Landscape Conservation Cooperative's (LCC) Coastal Conservation Working Group (CCWG) is supporting coastal wetland conservation by informing strategic wetland investments through a process called Landscape Conservation Design (LCD). This collaborative approach establishes regional conservation goals and generates products, including spatially explicit decision support tools that guide on-the-ground conservation projects towards activities that attain the goals.
For the Resilient Lands and Waters Initiative, the LCC CCWG selected its priority landscape based on the high level of importance of this coastal area to the Great Lakes region's people and natural resources. The area extends across 30 counties from Saginaw Bay in central Lake Huron to Old Woman Creek in central Lake Erie. The project area is bounded land-ward and lake-ward by elevations that encapsulate the long-term high and low Great Lakes water levels. This allows the work to accommodate the dynamic and ever changing nature coastal wetland areas have because of their direct linkage with changes in Great Lakes water levels.
The geography includes two Great Lakes and a connecting corridor comprised of Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers. The area contains both some of the most environmentally stressed and some of the highest quality coastal habitats in the Great Lakes basin. Being one of the most human-altered landscapes, it contains multiple formally-designated "areas of concern" and includes major urban centers, such as Detroit, Michigan, and Toledo, Ohio. Upwards of 10 million people reside in the immediate vicinity and benefit from access to clean drinking water and some of the most valuable commercial and recreational fishing in the Great Lakes
In addition to the decision support tools described below, the LCC is supporting a new ecosystem services valuation study and tool informed decision making through Great Lakes Restoration Initiative implementation efforts. The LCC CCWG and NOAA's Office for Coastal Management are funding a project aimed at understanding and quantifying human benefits provided by coastal wetlands throughout the selected geography and the tradeoffs associated with current and future management decisions. The project will result in a Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Ecosystem Services Assessment (GLCWESA) with the goal of better informing land use planning and coastal natural resource management decisions to maximize resilience and reduce conflict associated with the decision-making process. The LCC CCWG has also initiated a cross agency implementation team that will use the deliverables from this initiative to make on-the-ground coastal wetland conservation decisions.
The LCC CCWG worked with partners to develop two decision support tools, the Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Decision Support Tool (1.a below) and the Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Restoration Assessment (1.b below). Additionally, the CCWG initiated a Landscape Conservation Design Process (2 below). The online mapping tools support the identification and prioritization of conservation actions for both existing Great Lakes coastal wetlands and areas that historically supported coastal wetlands.
In order to produce the maps, scientists compiled physical and biological data and analyzed them using geospatial analysis and geographic information systems.
- Decision Support Tools
- Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Decision Support Tool: This tool was developed by partners at Northland College, Central Michigan University, the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and LimnoTech. The primary functions include data aggregation and viewing as well as interactive prioritization of wetlands for potential protection, restoration, or enhancement. Much of the data behind the prioritization tool are being generated by a Great Lakes basin-wide wetland monitoring program sponsored by US EPA through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
- Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Restoration Assessment (Western Lake Erie / Connecting River Systems / Saginaw Bay – Lake Huron): The tool's layers and viewers were developed by an experienced team from the U.S. Geological Survey Great Lakes Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey Web Informatics and Mapping program, and New College of Florida. The tool is a web-based geospatial application that supports the identification and prioritization of potential coastal wetland restoration activities in the pilot area identified by the LCC CCWG. Funding was received from NOAA, USGS, the LCC, and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to aid in the tool's development.
- Landscape Conservation Design (LCD): This collaborative approach is an iterative process that establishes regional goals and produces information, analytical tools, spatially explicit data, and best management practices to help make conservation decisions toward attaining regional goals.
- Working within a dramatically altered environment with legacy infrastructure and degradation;
- Invasions of non-native species (e.g., Phragmites australis – common reed) and increased nutrient loading in Great Lakes watersheds;
- Uncertainty associated with the impacts of climate change (e.g., water levels, flooding, temperatures); and
- Restoring and enhancing an ecosystem that is managed at multiple scales and across state and international boundaries.
Urbanization and other stressors create urgency for action as reflected by the coastal wetland conservation emphasis under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Yet, even with this urgency and capacity, resource managers still need to identify where to take action to get the biggest return on investment.
There are still many questions relating to the conservation of coastal wetlands. For example, how many wetlands do we need to conserve in order to declare success? We know that each wetland provides a unique set of functions and services, depending on its condition and history. So, what are the appropriate measures of success and what are the best strategies to attain our goals?
The LCC is committed to convening interagency partners to answer these questions through the collaborative coastal wetland LCD process. The substantial progress made thus far could not have been achieved by any single agency. The partners that make up the LCC CCWG have made all this possible and will play a critical role in our future success. Together we can accomplish much!
In this context, we learned that:
- Managers and natural resource practitioners should be involved early and often in the development of shared goals (outcomes), decision support tools (outputs), and conservation strategies (means) for implementation purposes;
- Quantifiable metrics to evaluate success are critical to track progress towards the desired outcomes;
- It's important to consider spatial scales at all levels, so as to empower the "right" partners to employ the tools/strategies developed, where and how appropriate;
- Change should be anticipated and planned for through adaptive decision making and feedback loops as part of the process;
- Strategies will inevitably be under resourced to address scope and magnitude of large landscape issues - thus the importance of assessing return on investment; and
- Science, tools, and data assist decision making, but ultimately decisions are human value based. This underscores the importance of social science and ecosystem services valuation studies going forward.
Other complex coastal geographies can incorporate these lessons learned in supporting restoration and enhancement activities. There is great potential for the coastal wetland LCD approach to be transferred and applied at multiple scales and in other regions. The same is true for deployment and use of the decision support tools that were developed as part of this initiative.