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Getting the Most Green for the Green

Image of land and river

(Photo: Bill Jenkins, Maryland Department of Natural Resources)

Real estate speculation is a high stakes business. Developers and venture capitalists risk hundreds of millions of dollars deciding where to invest: build apartments and a retail complex here, high-end residential housing over there. High risks, high rewards.

It’s largely the same for landscape planners and ecologists. Although their real estate decisions aren’t measured in profit margins, they are measured in healthy watersheds, clean air, and stable, diverse ecosystems.

Scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protections Agency’s Office of Research and Development are working with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to help the state make the best investments when it comes to landscape protection.

Bill Jenkins, a DNR landscape planner temporarily working for EPA’s mid-Atlantic headquarters in Philadelphia, says “EPA’s Office of Research and Development greatly assisted us in applying high-tech mapping and land assessment tools with the latest science of how ecosystems function over large areas. This became the foundation of a rigorous, scientifically sound strategy that state officials could use to assess land in terms of its ecological value.” 

Text Box: “It all starts with the data,” says research biologist James Wickham. Wickham and his colleagues at EPA’s National Exposure Research Laboratory collect and analyze a wealth of satellite image data to produce the highly-detailed land cover maps that states rely on for conservation activities.

That strategy is now the Maryland Green Infrastructure Program. Christine Conn, DNR’s Director of Landscape and Watershed Analysis, explains that the overall strategy is to identify and protect a network of large, intact natural areas across the state. These conservation “hubs” are then linked together by “corridors” of natural habitat, such as a buffer of green space left surrounding rivers that meander from one hub to another.

The Green Infrastructure Assessment helps Maryland legislators know where the state should concentrate its land conservation efforts—ensuring its citizens are getting the most green for their green. “At the click of a button we can assess the ecological value of a land parcel and make that information readily accessible to decision-makers at the highest levels of state government. It helps them know where money should be targeted for effective conservation. It’s been a tremendous benefit,” says Conn.

EPA is now working with other states that are considering similar programs, as well as continuing to work with DNR to update and improve the Green Infrastructure Assessment. Next steps include applying a similar approach at the local level in Baltimore County, developing more site-specific tools, keeping up-to-date information in the face of rapid urban and suburban land development, and adding to the suite of decision support tools.

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