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Taking Nature's Pulse

SALCC partners brainstorm at a conservation blueprint workshop
Monday, September 11, 2017
Hilary Morris
South Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative

How the South Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative Selects Ecosystem Indicators for the Southeast

A mission and a vision

The South Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) is a partnership of federal, state, and local organizations committed to sustaining the region's natural and cultural resources for current and future generations. Part of a network of 22 LCCs across North America, the South Atlantic LCC covers parts of six southeastern states, from southern Virginia to northern Florida. The mission of the cooperative focuses on the Conservation Blueprint, a living spatial plan that prioritizes opportunities for shared conservation action across the region based on the condition and connectivity of ecosystem indicators.

The ecosystems of the South Atlantic region are diverse, spanning upland hardwood forests to the open ocean. Ecosystem indicators help simplify the modeling of these systems by integrating many different ecological functions and representing other components of the system that are either too expensive or time-consuming to model and monitor independently.

We knew that designing and evaluating a shared blueprint for regional conservation priorities would require specific measures of success, and so selecting a suite of ecosystem indicators to represent both the cultural and natural resource components of ecosystem integrity was one of the South Atlantic LCC’s first major undertakings. Indicators are metrics that inform us easily and quickly about the overall condition of an ecosystem by representing other aspects of that system, such as riparian buffers in a freshwater system, coastal condition in an estuarine system, and regularly-burned habitat in a longleaf pine or prairie system.  

Decisions through collaboration 

In 2012, the South Atlantic LCC started by asking the broader online community what their cooperative should and should not do in the indicator process. Next, we assembled an indicator team to condense feedback into a framework and selection process. This group included about 20 people with a mix of different ecological, spatial, and organizational experience—including individuals like the NC Natural Heritage Program director, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service migratory bird biologist, a project director for the Nature Conservancy, and Dean Carpenter, a scientist with APNEP.

The indicator framework defined key terms, objectives, timelines, and selection criteria. Indicators would be chosen for each of the region’s marine, terrestrial, and freshwater ecosystems to measure the integrity of that system’s natural and cultural resources. The team set a goal of three indicators per ecosystem, based on the knowledge that too many indicators are challenging to model and that indicators can be difficult to remove or replace once selected. The team also identified explicit practical, ecological, and social criteria for selecting indicators. Essentially, indicators must:

  • Be easy to monitor and model across the whole geographical region using existing resources;
  • Represent other aspects of a healthy ecosystem, and;
  • If possible, resonate with the American public.

While the indicator framework team developed these criteria, another team worked on an indicator revision process. With the recognition that the first set of indicators would inevitably require some tweaking, the revision process outlined how to test indicators to ensure they meet the selection criteria, replacing or improving any indicators that fail to satisfy the requirements. A clear pathway for revision was a critical part of the South Atlantic LCC’s commitment to the “lean startup” process of rapid iteration and learning.

The South Atlantic LCC chose its first set of indicators in the spring of 2013. To avoid duplicating the good work of our partners, we started by compiling a list of indicators already identified in regional conservation plans (including APNEP's 2012 Ecosystem Assessment), then filled in any gaps with new indicators as necessary.

Revisting and reevaluating

Those original indicators have evolved as we’ve spatially modelled them and incorporated them into the various iterations of the Conservation Blueprint. Some could not be modelled across the whole geography and therefore did not satisfy the practical criteria. For example, we simply did not have the data to model acres of invasive species in the freshwater marsh ecosystem. Other indicators did not satisfy the ecological criteria when tested against other attributes of an intact ecosystem. Productivity of loggerhead sea turtles is a great example. Due to their high site fidelity, female sea turtles will return to the beach of their birth, regardless of how intact or degraded it is. In addition, sea turtles are intensively managed by people, who move nests to safer locations and install predator guards, making nest productivity more a result of these management interventions than overall beach and dune integrity.

Currently, more than 200 people from over 50 organizations have been involved in testing, revising, and providing data for the ecosystem indicators. The roughly 30 current indicators are fundamental to the work of the cooperative. Indicators serve as our shared metrics of success, allowing us to track progress over time. They serve as the building blocks of the Conservation Blueprint, since the plan is based on indicator condition and connectivity. They’re also graded in the State of the South Atlantic assessment to provide a current snapshot of the health of our region’s lands and waters.

Looking towards the future

Moving forward, the South Atlantic LCC will continue working on many aspects of the indicators. The cooperative has set measurable targets for many indicators, but the list is not yet complete and some targets are likely not achievable. Improving those targets is an important next step. We also continue to refine models linking conservation actions to indicator outcomes to help the South Atlantic conservation community demonstrate the collective impact of our work. In addition, the annual update cycle for the Conservation Blueprint is largely driven by improved indicator data. For example, the draft of the latest Blueprint, Version 2.2 (scheduled for final release this fall) incorporates improved data for the resilient biodiversity hotspots indicator and includes a new “marine birds” indicator. Future iterations of the Blueprint will incorporate indicator updates guided by input from the broader cooperative. A draft Blueprint implementation strategy has just been released for review. This draft incorporates feedback from the spring 2017 Blueprint workshops and information from nineteen different implementation strategies in the region, including APNEP's Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP).

The South Atlantic LCC intends the Blueprint to eventually become the “gold standard” for large landscape conservation. Members of the cooperative have already used the Blueprint in more than thirty different projects. It has helped partners bring national fire resilience funding to the region, compete for coastal wetlands protection and climate-smart wildlife management grants, provide landscape-scale context for public lands planning, prioritize fish passage efforts, and much more. So far, more than 450 people from 150 different organizations have actively participated in developing the Blueprint. The South Atlantic Blueprint also integrates with neighboring LCCs' spatial priorities as part of the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy, providing a Blueprint for the entire Southeast region. 

Interested in learning more or getting involved?

  • If you want to be part of selecting and testing indicators in the future, the South Atlantic LCC’s monthly newsletter will notify you about opportunities to participate. 
  • Explore the Blueprint in the Simple Viewer. 
  • Access the current Blueprint and underlying indicator data in the Blueprint 2.1 Data Gallery on the Conservation Planning Atlas.
  • To get help using the Blueprint or to share feedback on the indicators, reach out to Hilary Morris on the LCC staff (, 919-707-0252). 
  • Learn more about APNEP's initiative to develop ecosystem indicators for the Albemarle-Pamlico region through Monitoring and Assessment Teams

Hilary Morris works on Blueprint User Support and Communications for the South Atlantic LCC. She works with users to improve and implement the Blueprint, incorporating feedback to make it a more effective tool for everyone in the conservation community. She also handles communications responsibilities like the newsletter and monthly webinar series. Rua Mordecai, the South Atlantic LCC's Science Coordinator, is a member of APNEP's Science and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC), as well as its Decision Support Tools Action Team.