Jessica Graham came to the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership (SARP) with a keen appreciation for ecological connections and a focus on habitat-based conservation. “That’s what brought me to SARP,” she said in a recent interview, “because I’m a holistic-minded person. SARP approaches things with a habitat perspective rather than a species perspective. Of course, conservation is always about both.”
Jessica grew up fishing with her father in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and she eventually moved to Florida where she studied marine biology and researched corals. The habitat-based ecological approach to her research allowed her to make the leap to freshwater when she was hired by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to lead restoration on the Chipola River. “I enjoy making the jump from the planning world to the in-the-water world. My ecological training has allowed me to cross disciplines, but please don’t ask me about fish biology!”
Reconnecting SARP to applied science
Jessica explained that SARP’s primary focus is delivery of on-the-ground conservation. SARP also provides science products, such as the assessment of riparian habitat in the Southeast (available on the South Atlantic LCC’s Conservation Planning Atlas), and the GCPO LCC-funded project on species-habitat relationships, which will help to prioritize the conservation of aquatic systems.
SARP’s Southeast Aquatic Habitat Plan originally established eight different priorities for conserving aquatics in 2008. The plan was updated in 2010 and is now currently being updated again. Graham views the current update as an opportunity to “reconnect SARP to science.” Initially lofty goals and targets are being scaled to a more realistic level in the context of present funding levels. “I like SARP to focus on applied science,” stated Graham, “which will facilitate conservation delivery.”
SARP recently asked states what their priority objectives were and is now working to establish work groups for each of six priority focal areas. Each work group is chaired by a Steering Committee member and populated by any partners with an interest in the issue; they provide direction as well as a list of needed projects by priority watershed. SARP’s six focal workgroups are riparian zones, connectivity, coastal, flow, physical habitat, and the Native Black Bass Initiative. This cross-cutting focus will allow SARP to connect with myriad efforts addressing these issues and incorporate those efforts into a regional perspective. For example, there may be a role for SARP to assist in the outreach components of the recently established Tennessee River Basin Network. Eventually they plan to display aquatic projects online both by watershed and by priority issue -- the two ways in which most aquatic conservation RFPs are announced.
Graham’s approach to this current science-based planning effort is to understand what everyone else is doing in order to avoid duplicating efforts. Although other entities are out there doing similar work, Graham said they are often working at a different scale. “We are in unique position because we can couple everything going on across the Southeast and put it into a regional context.”
The biggest challenge for SARP in many conservation efforts is the difference in quantity and quality between terrestrial and aquatic data. It just takes more effort to gather good aquatic data. “But we could spend forever gathering data and exploring options,” admits Graham. “At some point, we have to put projects on the ground, and I don’t want the planning to distract from the conservation work we are doing. On the other hand, grant proposals need to provide a science rationale for the work that is being proposed. It is most difficult to connect local projects to the regional perspectives when the metrics reported indicate an insignificant regional impact.” In other words, the scale of spending on aquatic conservation is not nearly commensurate with the need.
Integrating conservation planning across LCCs, states, and other boundaries
“The interesting thing about drawing boundaries,” Graham pointed out, “is that priorities become relative within those boundaries. You can’t intuitively expand your boundaries and keep the same priorities because they will change relative to the new area of comparison. This is something that the LCCs may be grappling with as the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy progresses. It’s difficult to expand those priorities out to the Southeast region without doing a re-analysis. That’s where I want SARP start exploring from an aquatic perspective.”
SARP spans nine LCCs that touch its region, including small components of some LCCs as well as all of the South Atlantic, Peninsular Florida, Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks, and Gulf Coast Prairie LCC geographies. Graham is in the process of developing a plan of attack for integrating LCC priorities into the SARP planning process.
Graham wants to look at what all the LCCs are doing, analyze state wildlife action plans, and integrate that information with what she has already received from state fisheries programs. She already has a draft map based on her consultations with the fisheries chiefs in each state, which shows where states are working and why. “I started with states because we are a SEAFWA ‘joint party committee,’ which means the directors elect to participate with other entities for a specific purpose. SARP has to connect with the state missions, so I always try to make the linkage with state priorities.”
Working with states to leverage conservation funding
For aquatic conservation especially, an approach that concentrates work in priority watersheds is more likely to yield measurable results. Graham pointed to an example from her own experience: the restoration projects on the Chipola River, a tributary of the Apalachicola. In that case, a few small restoration projects on private lands acted as a catalyst, and people started paying attention. Then more private landowners wanted similar projects on their property, and the demand is still growing. After that, the counties came on board and are assisting by paving roads, which actually has led to a measurable reduction in sediment. Significant amounts of money are being spent, and because all the partners are concentrating their resources into one area, measurable results are being achieved.
“This partnership driven approach is very difficult, however,” said Graham, “because it’s kind of like asking people to put all their eggs in one or two baskets when that basket may not fall within their jurisdiction, making it difficult to keep folks coming to the table. Graham has been working with states to try to diversify the resources coming into the region and expand the number of baskets collecting eggs!
SARP has only a small pot of money through the National Fish Habitat Partnership (NFHP). “What we need is a list of projects from every state and watershed, so when an RFP opens, I can write proposals for other projects that are not funded by NFHP,” said Graham. “This comprehensive set of information and priorities that we are building will help us to obtain more resources to put toward southeast aquatic conservation priorities. Essentially, I’d like to have a wish list for every basin and watershed!” States are now becoming more receptive to Graham’s message.
Graham also has a vision for sharing SARP project information online. She would like to have not only current and past projects, but also priority future projects displayed in an interactive map online. The map could show projects that have been completed as well as where there is a need for work, along with potential project managers. “I would love to have that for every single state,” she said.
Completing the reconnection
Graham’s timeframe for completing this ambitious planning process is fluid. “I would love to see it within a year, but with staffing changes, I also need more capacity. We won’t solve everything with this reconnection effort. I would like to get a first draft out and have darts thrown at it, like the South Atlantic LCC’s iterative blueprint process.”
For those interested in learning more or participating, SARP will be hosting a symposium at the Southeast Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies conference in Asheville on November 2nd. The focus will be building a fish passage community of practice, and will include presentations such as lessons learned from dam removals, etc. The SARP Steering Committee meeting will also be held November 3rd. Any partners interested in attending are welcome but should contact Jessica Graham in advance.