Going Forward with Our Habitat Work: Columbia County Habitat Research and Conservation Initiative

A Concept Outline


Ancient Forest
An Ancient Forest protected by wetland.

Habitats are a cornerstone of native species conservation in several ways. The distribution of each organism is determined by its species-specific needs for food, shelter, reproductive sites, and other resources in conjunction with the availability of those necessities in the landscape. Understanding each of these complex relationships is daunting, and usually impractical from the perspective of regional conservation. Fortunately, organisms tend to group themselves into semi-discrete communities usually associated with some underlying landscape conditions (e.g., humidity, geology, incline, topography). These communities are generally most evident as variation in the structure and composition of the vegetation, what we herein call “habitats” and others refer to as “biotopes”.

With adequate groundwork documenting the habitat-to-species correlations, habitats can serve as important units for focusing conservation efforts. They are shortcuts for predicting the potential occurrence of rare species. Their conservation can protect not only extant focal populations but also other co-occurring species. Even in the absence of current focal populations, habitat conservation can provide the potential for future colonization. Based on extensive fieldwork, the Farmscape Ecology Program has just completed a habitat field guide providing an initial summary of the habitat-to-species groundwork for Columbia County. The next step is to use this tool to achieve our ultimate goal: the conservation of native species.

Most ‘vulnerable’ land in our region is privately owned and managed. Our field guide is designed to help such people – and those entities regulating their activities (e.g., zoning boards) - to recognize our county’s habitats and their conservation values. However, its necessarily broad nature (essentially all habitats in the County) precluded intensive work on any small set of habitats. Nonetheless, this overview does allow us to identify certain habitats as being at risk and of potentially high conservation value, Herein, we outline a proposal meant to test our assumptions, map those habitats, derive a better understanding of potential conservation measures, and undertake the outreach necessary for alerting land managers to the value of these habitats.

Habitat mapping, description, and conservation prioritization can and should happen at various scales. For example, the Nature Conservancy has mapped habitats at the continental extent, highlighting their regional and national value in terms of carbon fixation, connectivity, and biodiversity conservation (https://maps.tnc.org/nehabitatmap/). In the Hudson Valley, Scenic Hudson has considered factors such as “climate resilience”, connectivity, biodiversity, and agriculture in creating their Hudson Valley Conservation Strategy (Mudd, J.P, Spector, S., & Tabak, N.M. (2017) The Hudson Valley Conservation Strategy: Conservation in a Changing Climate. Poughkeepsie, NY: Scenic Hudson, Inc.). Hudsonia Ltd. has, through its Biodiversity Assessment Manual and its town- and county-scale natural resource mapping, contributed uniquely specific information on the biodiversity of habitats in select Hudson Valley regions. These visions are acted upon by land trusts such as The Dutchess and Columbia Land Conservancies, The Rensselaer Plateau Alliance/Rensselaer Land Trust, Scenic Hudson’s own land trust, and the Open Space Institute, all of whom have worked to preserve particular parcels and stimulate public interest in land conservation by seeking to combine larger vision with on-the-ground opportunity. In the government realm, DEC’s Hudson River Estuary Program has sought to promote conservation and public access in the area, and town CACs (Conservation Advisory Committees) and county CECs (County Environmental Commission) try to both provide input on conservation from within local government and to spearhead the inclusion of conservation in local planning, while acting with more or less habitat knowledge. Finally, based on a wide range of inputs (webinars, books, articles, etc), individual land owners/managers may try to situate their own management within the context of a larger habitat visions (e.g., Backyard National Park, the Young Forest Initiative).

In this context, we see the proposed work as helping to bridge the large-scale to property-scale divide in habitat conservation research and outreach. Many of the above habitat mapping and/or conservation efforts are of a scale or methodology that does not allow a fine-grain understanding and sharing of regional habitat priorities. While we hope that our field guide will aid the valuable work of these institutions and organizations, we wish to take that work one step farther by devoting effort to documenting and sharing the conservation value of three regional habitats that our previous work has suggested are particularly at risk and yet also largely unappreciated at the county level: Dry Meadows, Wet Meadows and Ancient Forests.


Why These Habitats?

While none of our three focal habitats is unrecognized by ecologists, they are rarely included in regional conservation planning and their local characteristics are only partially described. We chose these focal habitats for the following reasons:

  • Today’s regional Dry Meadows are found primarily on thin-soiled hay fields and pastures. They can host a variety rare organisms including native grasses and associated butterflies. However, while this habitat requires some level of cutting or grazing for its maintenance, it is largely a byproduct of past land use and, especially given its relatively low productivity and often sloping terrain, there is thus limited current motivation for its maintenance. Many see it as unproductive land whose reversion to brush is not worth stemming.
  • Wet Meadows face a similar predicament – when agriculture was extensive, these meadows were kept open as part of the overall hunger for agricultural land. As farming has declined, these lands have often been allowed to revert to wooded wetland, because their regular dampness can add complication (or at least mud) to their management. From a conservation perspective, there is nothing wrong with wooded wetlands, however, so long as we do not allow Beaver to return to their historical levels of activity and so return extensive Beaver meadows to our landscape, our suite of native wet meadow organisms may require these ‘artificial’ wet meadows for their survival.
  • Ancient Forests refer to those stands in our forested landscape that have apparently never been entirely opened for agriculture. They may, however, have been at least partially logged and/or served as forest pasture. Because of that use, most of our regional Ancient Forests are not Old Growth, but, like Old Growth, they have been forested since the return of trees after the last glaciation. Agricultural conversion can dramatically alter soils and destroy slow-to-disperse plant populations, thus Ancient Forests can harbor species who are absent from the secondary forests resulting from regrowth on former farmland. Much of our county’s forest, especially on flatter ground, is indeed such secondary forest. Unfortunately, most people do not distinguish between Ancient Forest and secondary regrowth, and thus development activities rarely differentiate between these two forest types. The risk from development has increased as modern technology and the individual wealth of some allows the relatively easy construction of residential infrastructure in formerly impractical areas such as ridgetops, where Ancient Forest was more common. Once a parcel is developed, its Ancient Forest has been destroyed and the ecology of adjacent Ancient Forest stands may be at greater risk due to fragmentation and edge effects.

Our goal with this research is to bridge that gap between generalized habitat descriptions, which apply at a relatively large scale and are the basis for most habitat models, and the realities and nuances that shape conservation given the uniqueness of any particular landscape. By profiling these habitats, we hope to not only inform the conservation efforts of regional organizations, but also build public interest in their conservation.


Why at the County Scale?

Wet Meadow
A colorful Wet Meadow.

We work at the county scale for several reasons: it is a tractable scale for identifying the ecological patterns underlying habitat-to-species relationships, it means limited noise from the ubiquitous biogeographical variation in such relationships, and it is a scale that many people can identify as their ‘backyard’. We realize that this scale might make our efforts seem parochial. We propose to begin with detailed work at the County-scale and then potentially regionally test those patterns revealed within Columbia County by mapping and spot checks in some of the surrounding counties. We are conscious of the utility of doing work of broader applicability while, at the same time, being aware that ecological patterns can vary markedly even over relatively small distances (i.e., they are, in fact, parochial). Hence, we plan to start small and build out from there.

Successful conservation requires not only having a fly-over view that identifies one’s place in the regional or national priorities but also an ‘in-the-weeds” perspective tying the fly-over view to the ground and revealing important details that are necessarily glossed over when creating a larger picture. Our intention with the field guide and with the work proposed here is to help provide that linkage through both research and outreach.


Background Considerations

In considering the incorporation of public habitat perception into conservation, it is important to recognize several points:

  • Habitat is an abstract concept rather like color – it is real from the perspective of any one organism, but is fluid and lacks definitive boundaries; by teaching people to recognize habitats, we are essentially trying to teach them to see in color and think ecologically.
  • Habitat identities can be subtle and can sometimes be overlooked. As noted above, few probably recognize the difference between secondary forests returning after farm abandonment and those forests which, while periodically harvested, were never completely cleared, i.e., “ancient forests”. Likewise, shallow wetlands are sometimes considered muddy wasteland and dry hillside fields seen as useless vacant ground. However, from the perspective of certain elements of our biodiversity, each of these can be crucial habitat.
  • In terms of biodiversity conservation, habitat loss is not only a key issue on its own, but also exacerbates the ecological consequences of climate change by limiting the connectivity of the landscape and the ability of organisms to put together habitat bridges as their distributions are forced to change. Habitat conservation is thus a necessary component of climate change resilience.
  • Our landscape is dynamic for natural and human-caused reasons. Habitats flash on and off over years, decades, centuries, and millennia. Planning for the future involves trying to recognize this dynamism and adjust our own influence so as to maximize the conservation of native biodiversity. Modelling habitat trajectories is one way to build this recognition.
  • Habitats do not exist in isolation – they have an influence on and are influenced by their surroundings. For this reason, healthy habitats (i.e., those maintaining many of their historical species and ecological processes) often require broader habitat health at the landscape scale, because it is from that that landscape that biological and physico-chemical impacts on natural areas can arrive. Conversely, particular patches of worked land – such as organic farms trying to benefit from beneficial insects – can benefit from the organismal flow out of natural areas. The three habitats listed above do not exist in isolation and, in some ways, they should be seen as flagship habitats that, in part, reflect the fate of the landscape as a whole.
  • Habitats are place-specific because constellations of plants and animals vary geographically, and because people interact with the actual landscape around them, not an abstraction of that landscape. Thus, while we can learn from and share with efforts at larger scales, effective conservation relies on local information and action; it depends on helping people see their backyards in a new light.


General Methodology

Taken together, these considerations dictate a course of awareness-raising, study, and action.

Study: Based on our previous fieldwork, we have selected the three focal habitats mentioned above as our initial candidates for deeper exploration, because of the unique flora and fauna they potentially support, the human activities that threaten them, and a widespread lack of public recognition of their value. For each of these habitats, we will choose organismal groups (such as butterflies in Dry Meadow, sedges in Wet Meadows, and mushrooms in Ancient Forest) whose conservation is particularly tied to the given habitat and will describe their diversity and natural history; we will attempt to pinpoint and, when practical, map the occurrence of these habitats, and, through a combination of remote sensing and historical research, to outline their likely trajectories. We will attempt to map and ecologically describe Wet Meadow, Dry Meadow, and Ancient Forest while contrasting them with more common habitats. Which unique organisms do they support and why? Where do they occur? At what rate and why do they seem to be disappearing? How does a land owner (be that a person, institution or government entity), know if they have any of these habitats within their purview?

Action: Habitat conservation can come about through preservation (i.e., the identification and protection of existing habitat patches) and restoration (i.e., the identification and conscious localized re-introduction of key habitat elements, such as dryland wildflowers or wet meadow shrubs). Preservation needs to be the backbone of our approach because a full understanding of all the ecological intricacies that would empower true habitat restoration often eludes us. However, restoration can also play a part, especially when applied to degraded former examples of target habitats or new lands adjacent to established habitat patches. Additionally, at least in the case of Dry and Wet Meadows, even preservation implies some level of continued maintenance, through grazing or cutting, in order to keep these habitats open. Based on the above study, we will create conservation plans for each type of habitat (e.g., Are there important large parcels or are we working primarily with a multitude of smaller parcels? What level of maintenance is required? Are there opportunities for synergies with new land uses, such as solar farms? How can public access to at least some of these habitats be ensured?), and then through the below outreach seek to encourage the implementation of those conservation plans.

Awareness-raising: Teach people to see color, to recognize habitats, to think ecologically. Broadly speaking, we see several audiences for such awareness-raising: the numerous private landowners/managers in the County (including farms); those governmental and non-governmental organizations, such as local land trusts, Conservation Advisory Committees, and extension offices, who help promote regional conservation; and those businesses, such as ‘green’ landscaping and solar installations, who are involved in active habitat manipulation. The above study and proposed actions will be largely irrelevant if not tied to effective outreach. We have, essentially, spent much of the past decade preparing the materials for this outreach, and our proposed study will add additional materials for our focal habitats. While the project proposed here will focus on the select habitats, we will also communicate the fact that we’re all in this together - the many flows occur among habitat patches, weave together the ecological landscape and result in an interdependence that should not be overlooked.


Dry Meadow
A hillside Dry Meadow flaunting its Little Bluestem.
Why Us, Why Here, and Why Now?

The Farmscape Ecology Program is well-suited to undertake this initiative because of its long-term local focus with a twenty-year history of public outreach and county-focused natural history research. This history has given us a track record within the County that, we hope, will facilitate our interactions not only with individual land owners, but also with regional governmental and non-governmental bodies involved in habitat conservation. Our program staff of biologists and a social scientist has experience in areas such as botany, mycology, entomology, human-nature interactions, and land-use history, thus bringing an important diversity of perspectives to our habitat conservation efforts. As we have in the past, we will look to supplement this expertise through our collaborations with other ecologists, naturalists and conservationists in the area. Our home base, Hawthorne Valley Farm, contains examples of each of our focal habitats, and so is a suitable venue for workshops and education.

Columbia County is an appropriate location for this work because of its habitat diversity, its proximity to the resources and outreach potential of New York City, and its still-modest population. Its landscape still holds traces of the agrarian history partially responsible for the existence of our focal habitats. Some active farms still support these traces and as former farmland converts to non-farmland, recognizing and maintaining these habitats is important for conservation. However, residential development and a decline in farming mean that while some habitats are being actively destroyed, others are disappearing because the activities that incidentally maintained them are now declining. Climate change and human response to it (e.g., renewable energy projects) put further weight on identifying and protecting these habitats. We have a limited window of time to recognize what we have and act to save it.

A project such as this at the regional scale can, at its best, be but a stepping stone towards a more ecologically healthy planet; a stepping stone that, elsewhere, will need to be replicated or melded with existing undertakings; a stepping stone that should learn from the experiences of others; and a stepping stone that will need to be based on scientific observation, effective conservation and management, and widespread experience of the little ecstasies of Nature.


Do you have questions? Are you interested in supporting these efforts? We would enjoy hearing from you!