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The Conservation Challenge

Landscape-level Challenges


Appalachia is in an era of monumental conservation challenges.  These include: the wholesale loss and fragmentation of natural habitats; genetic isolation of species; increasing threats associated with wildfire and change in natural disturbance regimes; dramatic changes in the water cycle with an increased risk of flooding as well as water scarcity; and the expansion of harmful invasive species.  The effects of these threats will be exacerbated by expanding and emerging land-use changes and the changing climate. It is imperative that natural resource management agencies, science providers, conservation organizations and other industries and communities work together to understand the impacts of these stressors and determine how best to address these challenges within the Appalachia in order to sustain natural resources and their economic benefits to the region.

Agriculture and Forestry

Forested riparian corridors are inadequate or lacking along significant stretches of Appalachian streams, and this may be the biggest challenge to overcome in relation to the ag and forest industries.  Best management practices (BMPs) recommended or sometimes required to mitigate these impacts are well known, but more widespread use of BMPs is needed.  The Appalachian LCC could serve an important role in coordinating and standardizing monitoring techniques to establish baseline conditions and track incremental improvements in habitat quality, habitat connectivity, and population viability as a result of strategically planned BMP implementation.  Human dimensions research would help target high priority ecosystem services, clarify reasons that landowners might decline to participate in BMP cost-share programs, and identify the most effective means to increase conservation.

Urbanization

The sprawl of urban and rural development associated with increasing human populations is a growing threat in the Appalachians.  Urbanization alters ecological structure and function and leads to a homogenization of biotic communities.  Human settlement patterns create complex landscape mosaics that typically fall on a gradient from natural areas through exurban and suburban to urban.  The amount and degree of habitat fragmentation that results from development varies depending on the interspersion of housing or other infrastructure and natural areas within a landscape.  The Appalachian LCC could support the development and use of urban expansion modeling based on current land-use patterns and econometric models in a large-scale planning effort to better integrate human geography pattern considerations and achieve a more sustainable matrix of conservation lands.

Energy Opportunities & Challenges

Energy development has emerged as a significant economic opportunity for Appalachian communities that carries with it complex challenges for natural resource sustainability and species conservation.

Coal Mining. Surface mining and underground mining techniques are both prevalent within the Appalachian LCC.  Environmental concerns include degraded groundwater and surface water from coal fines and chemicals used during processing, acid mine drainage from active and abandoned mines, risks of accidental releases and spills, and direct loss of forest and stream habitats especially through valley fills associated with mountaintop removal.  Problems persist on lands that were not subject to reclamation requirements, known as "abandoned mine land."  Environmental problems associated with abandoned mine lands include surface and ground water pollution, non-reclaimed or inadequately reclaimed refuse piles and mine sites (including some with dangerous high walls), sediment-clogged streams, damage from landslides, and fumes and surface instability resulting from mine fires and burning coal refuse.  The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) created within the Treasury of the United States a trust fund known as the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund administered by the Secretary of the Interior, under which State abandoned mine reclamation funds generated by grants from SMCRA are established by each State pursuant to an approved State program.  The federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) also oversees the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI), a voluntary program developed focuses on restoring forests where deforestation has occurred as a result of coal mining in the Appalachians.  The Appalachian LCC has an opportunity to help advance these efforts in partnership with OSMRE.

Natural Gas / Shale Extraction.  The Marcellus shale formation, a gas-productive formation spread across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Ohio, Maryland and Virginia, has become the premier focus of the natural gas industry in Appalachia.  Shale gas has long been produced from shale with natural fractures. In recent years, however, there has been increased development of gas shale due to the introduction of techniques that create artificial fractures around well bores – a procedure known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”  Researchers in other regions estimate that horizontal wells, undergoing multi-stage fracturing, can use between 5 and 6 million gallons of water.  In addition to water and sand, other chemical compounds are injected into the hydraulic solution including friction reducers, biocides, surfactants, scale inhibitors, and hydrochloric acid is also used as part of the fracturing process.  It is possible that the potential for some Marcellus shale drill cuttings to generate acid and mobilize metal pollutants, presenting a serious threat to aquatic systems and communities.  The Appalachian LCC has a tremendous opportunity to engage the gas industry, universities, communities, governmental and non-government partners to develop targeted research projects and effective best management practices for shale development, including addressing concerns for habitat fragmentation resulting from land clearing for well pads and access roads.  The associated Utica formation will be another area of expanding energy exploration in the not-too-distant future.

Wind Energy.  Promoting green energy development is a national goal of our country, and wind-powered energy is the most rapidly growing renewable energy source.  The Appalachians topography is perfect for siting wind turbines, as evidenced by its long-term significance as an important migratory corridor for birds and bats.  The Appalachian LCC has the opportunity to support investigations to help assess and better understood the cumulative effects of wind turbines and turbine fields on migratory birds and endangered bat populations.  The LCC is also well placed to help distribute the scientific findings and to deploy management response techniques across the broader landscape to benefit multiple species and multiple conservation partners.

Climate changes are already evident in Appalachia.  Assessments conducted at greater regional levels in the Northeast and Southeast U.S. indicate increasing temperature trends over the past several decades (U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program,  Karl et al. 2009) and suggest these will result in:

  • longer growing seasons
  • reduced number and duration of snow pack and ice-over events
  • increasing frequency of days with extreme heat
  • increasing water temperatures, and
  • increased evapotranspiration by vegetation and in streams

 

Climate Change

Temperature changes will set into motion a cascade of environmental changes such as increased stream temperatures (which can reduce oxygen availability and other water quality parameters), increased stress on all species during extreme heat waves, and lower ability of native flora and fauna to compete or combat non-native invasive species and diseases.

Annual mean precipitation has also changed, generally increasing by approximately 0.14% per year. Changes in precipitation vary at the local level. Similar to observed mean temperature changes, changes observed for precipitation during summer months (June through August) were greater than the annual means (0.21% per year).  These changes will result in changes to climate such as (Global Climate Change Research Program, Karl et al. 2009):

  • increase in storms/heavy precipitation events
  • earlier spring snowmelt resulting in higher peak flow periods
  • changes to annual water budgets
  • scouring effects of intense storms, which will increase erosion and sedimentation and alter the geomorphology of stream habitats including mussel beds
  • periodic drought conditions or decreasing precipitation trends that could have extreme impacts on aquatic species dependent on specific instream flow regimes for feeding and survival, and
  • reductions in instream flow will also further exacerbate sedimentation, nutrient, and chemical contaminants in the waterways

 

Significant changes in precipitation intensity, duration, and timing will have profound effects on all species within the Appalachian LCC, including humans. Impacts will include changes in species distribution, abundance, and assemblages, or difficult-to-anticipate combinations of these. In addition, changing conditions will likely increase population fragmentation and species extinctions. Competition for sometimes scarce water resources will increase the risk for adversity between urban, agriculture, industry, and natural resource interests.  These factors will combine to influence the future condition of biotic communities of the Appalachians. Some examples documented in peer reviewed literature include:

  • Climate will bring additional threats to systems already stressed by development, fragmentation, pollution, and invasive species (Rogers and McCarty 2000, Noss 2001, Willis et al. 2010). Changes in the frequency and severity of disturbances will contribute additional stresses (Dale et al. 2001, Seidl et al. 2011).
  • Forest types and tree species distributions will generally migrate northward but fragmentation and other factors may prevent dispersal and lead to localized extirpations (Honnay et al.2002, Iverson and Prasad 2002, McKenney et al. 2007, Opdam and Washer 2003).
  • Other terrestrial species distributions are changing, or will likely change, as a direct result of changing climate conditions or in response to changing vegetation (Currie 2001, Huntley 2008, McCarty 2001, Parmesan 2006, Parmesan and Yohe 2003, Thomas et al. 2004, Travis 2003).
  • Annual phenological events measured over the latter portion of the 20th century appear to be trending earlier; a pattern observed across several taxa and geographic areas  (Inouye at al.2000, Walther et al. 2002).  Misaligned phenologies will increase species’ stressors and mortality.
  • Climatic changes will alter hydrologic regimes (Meyer et al 1999, Rouse et al. 1997) and greatly impact aquatic species; particularly those found in the higher elevations of the Appalachians (Flebbe et al.2006).
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