Western Foothills Land Trust ME West GIS toolMembers of the Maine West initiative are using a new regional mapping tool to help prioritize community conservation projects with strong ties to other important community interests, such as health, education and the economy.

The GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping tool uses non-traditional metrics such as opportunity for educational programming, whether a project would help grow a town’s conservation infrastructure, and proximity to schools, hospitals, and town centers, to identify high priority projects. The tool encourages groups working on regional conservation efforts to think about conservation as a community engagement tool.

“The Western Foothills Land Trust is a small organization with a mission-driven proclivity toward community conservation, but no mapping support,” said Lee Dassler, the land trust’s executive director. “The Maine West conservation tool has been a godsend. I’m using it daily to visualize the stories beyond static tax maps.”

The Northern Forest Center coordinates the Maine West initiative, a collaboration of 13 organizations working to increase connectivity across the conservation, economic, health and education sectors throughout 27 towns in Western Maine. Participants include three land trusts, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, and Mahoosuc Pathways.

“This tool is an amazing asset to guide regional conservation planning and investments, and it’s especially exciting to have human health measures included,” said Brendan Schauffler, network facilitator with the Oxford County Wellness Collaborative. “The multi-sector design effort means that we ended up with a land use tool that intentionally balances benefits to human and wild communities, economic development, and sustainability.”

The Trust for Public Land created the tool for the Maine West team with support from the Open Space Institute and the Regional Conservation Partnership network. Climate resilience, adaption, and human health are additional factors integrated into the tool to help guide future community conservation decisions.

“As Mahoosuc Land Trust develops its own strategic conservation plan for the next 5 to 10 years, the GIS tool will be an important influence,” said Kirk Siegel, executive director with Mahoosuc Land Trust. "I have found it to be a quick way to understand how a property fits into the conservation landscape, and especially how its conservation values and other attributes jibe with the multi-sector efforts of our collaborative work at Maine West.”

Over the spring semester, Robert Turnbull and Ben Williamson, graduate students from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, used the GIS mapping tool to identify demonstration conservation areas that met multi-sector priorities and create a comprehensive background report for the Maine West initiative. “To be successful preserving land, conservation must be able to bring together these different communities that interact with the land as a shared resource,” said Turnbull.

Based on their testing, they recommended creating a separate proximity layer to show users a heat map of areas within walking, biking, or commuting distances of community hubs such as schools and hospitals, as well as other refinements for the GIS the tool. “The feedback from Robert and Ben has been helpful in thinking about how to refine the GIS tool in the future to make it even more effective,” said Siegel. The final report included a summary of non-traditional funding sources that multi-sector conservation groups can use to fund their projects.

“With time, we hope to see this regional tool used by planning boards, school groups, and other community members to help communities embrace the idea of strategic conservation as a community revitalization tool that can address multiple community needs,” said Mike Wilson, senior program director with the Northern Forest Center.

This summer the Trust for Public Land is providing additional support to update the regional GIS planning tool and make it even more user-friendly.

Robert and Ben were students in Strategies for Land Conservation at Yale, taught by Center board member Brad Gentry. They graduated in May. We thank them for their excellent work and wish them well in their future endeavors!

Top photo courtesy of Western Foothills Land Trust.