Local planners play key role in conserving biodiversity

One survey respondent reported persuading a local planning board to limit development on a 52-acre parcel with significant wetlands, preserving forest canopy and a biodiversity corridor for animals. Another negotiated a proposed 150-unit subdivision’s replacement with a smaller cluster of homes. A third supported passage of a stronger floodplain development law.

Each was a success story in efforts to incorporate habitat conservation into municipal land use planning – local decisions that can have far-reaching implications for biodiversity, said Shorna Allred, associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment and Department of Global Development, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Cornell impacting New York State

“That’s huge,” Allred said. “You really need someone that has the capacity and information behind them to show that development can either be avoided or done in a way that’s sensitive to a community’s conservation needs.”

Allred is the lead author of “Incorporating Biodiversity in Municipal Land-Use Planning: An Assessment of Technical Assistance, Policy Capacity, and Conservation Outcomes in New York’s Hudson Valley,” published March 4 in the journal Land Use Policy.

The study evaluated the impact of a state program that provides voluntary training, tools (such as habitat maps) and grants to municipal planners and conservation organizations in the Hudson Valley region. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (NYSDEC) Hudson River Estuary Program, which funded the study, runs the Conservation and Land Use Program in partnership with Cornell.

Allred and Richard Stedman, professor and chair of the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, were co-principal investigators on the study. Additional co-authors are Laura Heady, Conservation and Land Use Program coordinator, and Karen Strong, a conservation consultant and principal at Strong Outcomes.

The researchers surveyed more than 250 people who participated in the Conservation and Land Use Program between 2000 and 2011, analyzing the factors that made them more or less likely to incorporate biodiversity into local plans, policies and procedures – the subject of little research to date, Allred said.

Outside of protected parks and preserves, the study notes, most land-use decisions are the purview of municipal decisionmakers – those serving on planning and zoning boards, open space commissions and conservation advisory councils, which vary in resources and technical expertise and frequently are volunteers. Because natural resources – forest and stream corridors, for example – may traverse private lands spanning multiple jurisdictions, local decisions can “collectively degrade or support their value for biodiversity and the overall integrity of the broader ecological landscape,” the authors wrote.

New York, for example, is a home rule state with more than 1,600 municipalities. Ninety percent of the habitat in the 150-mile-long Hudson Valley – a watershed containing biodiversity “of national and global significance,” according to the study – sits on private land governed by 260 municipalities.

The research determined that most Conservation and Land Use Program participants (representing about half the region’s municipalities) reported using the program to inform local planning decisions, such as those described in dozens of success stories.

What factors predicted those positive outcomes? In terms of municipal capacity, encouragement from leadership contributed to biodiversity measures in local land use planning, the study found. Vocal input from external stakeholders helped. Staffing wasn’t a major influence, though having a wetland inspector made a difference. Uninterested municipal leadership had the greatest negative impact.

“Individual capacity” turned out to be critical – program participants’ personal motivation to get involved and learn, the number of hours of training they attended, past experience in leadership roles and a belief that the training was relevant to their work in a community.

“People coming to it with that kind of passion really did matter, and also leadership within municipal governments saying this is something that’s important,” Allred said. “So how do we raise awareness about the importance of these issues?”

Fostering and developing what the Conservation and Land Use Program calls “spark plugs,” who act as catalysts for municipal biodiversity and help drive interest among decisionmakers, is as important as imparting technical knowledge, the researchers said. They recommended establishing conservation advisory councils where they don’t exist, to help engage those most committed to biodiversity. And they said smaller municipalities could consider pooling resources to share a natural resources planner, or to seek funding to address regional issues like landscape connectivity, watershed protection and climate change.

Program participants who didn’t incorporate biodiversity in local planning reported having changed roles, limited opportunities to apply their training or lacking support from elected officials. The researchers said the slow pace of policy change underscored the value of a long-term approach to providing biodiversity training and building capacity at the local government level.

“Providing outreach and assistance to municipal officials today positions them to seize the moment in the future when barriers to taking action are fewer,” they wrote, “and the timing is right.”

The study was funded by the New York State Environmental Protection Fund through NYSDEC’s Hudson River Estuary Program.

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