Conservation Partners connecting working lands conservation from the Gulf of Mexico to the High Plains with the vision of a sustainable landscape of natural resources resilient to the threats and stressors associated with our changing world.

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Conservation Coordinator 

James Pahl interview: Pulling together in the Gulf to address Sea Level Rise and other long-term issues

Date: 07/10/15

As a Coastal Resources Scientist with Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, James Pahl wears a variety of hats.  These have included chairing the Gulf of Mexico Alliance (GOMA) Habitat Conservation & Restoration team as initially constituted, which became the Habitat Resources Priority Issue Team in 2014 (see GOMA & LCCs for more background), as well as being a key participant in the Gulf Coast Vulnerability Assessment (GCVA).  The GCVA arose out of a collaboration among four Landscape Conservation Cooperatives along the Gulf (GCP LCCGCPO LCCSALCCPFLCC) and GOMA.  It uses an expert-opinion approach to qualitatively assess the vulnerability of ecosystems to future change.  Specifically, the GCVA assesses the vulnerability of mangrove, oyster reef, tidal emergent marsh, barrier islands, and associated species to climate, sea-level rise, and urbanization.  

Genesis and evolution of the GCVA

“My earliest discussion of the GCVA was with Laurie Rounds at the 2012 GOMA All Hands meeting in Corpus Christi.  This was a direction that the Habitat Conservation & Restoration Team (HCRT) wanted to go in.  I have had an advisory role in the GCVA since then,” said Dr. Pahl in a recent pre-All Hands meeting interview.  

In 2012, HCRT was working on restoration issues, with one of the prime concerns being sea level rise (SLR).  The team was commissioning SLR predictive modeling using the Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM), and ultimately the Gulf Coast Prairie LCC funded a comprehensive set of SLAMM SLR scenarios for the Gulf Coast from Brownsville, TX to Key West, FL.  

“Because of that work, people were thinking about the next step uses of the SLR information -- What is the point of knowing these projections?  Why are we doing this?  TNC was using the projections to flag nonpublic lands that would be important targets for creating marsh migration corridors as marsh moves inland in response to rising sea levels.  The GCVA [currently led by Amanda Watson and Cynthia Edwards of the GCPO LCC] builds on that work by helping us to start identifying additional vulnerable habitats, and it will also help all five Gulf states identify priority areas for conservation as well as restoration.”

Where does the GCVA fit into Gulf conservation efforts?

The GCVA includes cumulative analyses and recommendations from 144 sets of assessments by 59 species and ecosystem experts, focused on six broadly defined ecoregional zones along the Gulf Coast (an expansion of EPA Level III terrestrial ecoregions).  “The existing GCVA is a first step, everyone recognizes there is more work to do in the future,” Pahl said.  This includes work on additional focal species, data gaps, and the issue of how vulnerability assessments can help inform future conservation actions.  The June 2015 GOMA All Hands Meeting in Biloxi, MS included GCVA presentations before the new Wildlife and Fisheries Priority Issue Team as well as a cross-team meeting of the Habitat Resources and Coastal Resilience Teams.

“There are a tremendous number of Gulf conservation and restoration efforts with hundreds of millions of dollars from the Gulf RESTORE Program, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, Natural Resources Damage Assessment, and others.  The focus of the 2015 All Hands meeting is restructuring:  breaking down the stovepipes between conservation, habitat restoration/creation, and community and ecosystem resilience.  Our first priority is to develop in-depth action plans because we anticipate having some funding from the Alliance next year for plan implementation” (GOMA’s Gulf Star program funded through public and private sources).  

Next steps depend on consensus

The Alliance is state led, so priority issues and action steps have always been a matter of consensus among all five states. Going into the meeting, James Pahl had no predisposition about the ways in which the GCVA, any future adaptation planning, or many other initiatives will be folded into the agendas of GOMA’s priority issue teams or other initiatives such as Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan.  Subsequent to the meeting, Pahl stated, “The idea of GOMA working with the LCCs to help coordinate conservation, restoration, and resilience actions across the U.S. Gulf States and help implement next steps in the continued quantitative development of the GCVA is definitely on the table.”

Louisiana’s 2007 and 2012 Comprehensive Coastal Master Plans were developed by CPRA, the government program located under the governor’s office.  CPRA is currently working on its next five-year revision to the Coastal Master Plan, due in 2017.  “Each plan has focused broadly on hurricane protection, habitat protection, and ensuring the sustainability of coastal recreational and commercial fisheries as well as coastal human culture,” explained Pahl.  “There is the potential for this iteration of the GCVA to help flag broad areas where species have vulnerabilities, although it remains to be seen how it will influence individual projects.”