For years, a single issue has plagued conservation research: access. The majority of forestland in the United States is in private ownership — in West Virginia, almost 90% of forests are privately owned. While our landscape is crisscrossed with property lines, plants and animals neither know nor care who owns the habitat they call home. But for researchers studying forest-dwelling species, property lines are an ever-present issue — access to private lands is often siloed or completely out of reach. A new collaborative approach to conservation is stitching together public and private forests to give scientists and researchers access to more forest habitat than ever before. The results of the collaborative approach will achieve real conservation benefits at scale.
A program of the National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO), the Wildlife Conservation Initiative (WCI) is a collaborative approach to species conservation that includes millions of acres of private forest land across the country. Through the WCI, NAFO member company scientists collaborate with the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), universities, farmers and ranchers, conservationists, and state and federal agencies to better understand and support at-risk species conservation.
In West Virginia, scientists from Davis and Elkins College are collaborating with the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources to develop predictive maps of potential small whorled pogonia habitat. The small whorled pogonia is an at-risk orchid usually associated with specific forest conditions: where an open canopy and an understory with limited shrub cover are present. The species’ specific needs indicate that it could benefit from modern forest management. When the predictive maps are published, the WCI will fund researcher boots on the ground to begin field investigation on private lands identified as potential habitat. The researchers will study the conditions in the private working forests to better understand the small whorled pogonia’s habitat needs. The results of this research will inform site-specific management decisions throughout the thousands of forested pogonia habitat acres in the WCI network.
There are WCI projects and active collaborations underway across the country, in every USFWS region. Other examples of these types of projects include bat conservation work along the east coast, gopher tortoise research in the southeast, and Pacific fisher conservation projects on the west coast. These projects are prime examples of how to conduct what conservation stakeholders are calling “conservation without conflict” — a strategy embraced by a growing number of conservation stakeholders to achieve conservation results at scale.
Across the country, collaborative conservation is proving to be one of the best ways to achieve real conservation results at scale. Projects like these bring stakeholders together — to identify opportunities for collaboration, and work together to put species first. The result is a strategic nationwide partnership between USFWS and NAFO member companies, rooted in trust and collaborating with the key stakeholders.
The small whorled pogonia is not the only ongoing project in West Virginia. Other partnerships are underway or being planned for the future. For example, songbirds like golden-winged warbler, cerulean warbler, and wood thrush are benefitting from the collaboration of many stakeholders: West Virginia University, American Bird Conservancy, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), and others. Together, researchers are developing a field study that will evaluate and inform management strategies across millions of acres of forests. Projects are also underway to coordinate research to support at-risk riparian and aquatic species across property lines throughout the state.
Through the WCI, we are learning more about how modern forest management can support a brighter future for at-risk species in West Virginia.
To learn more about the NAFO Wildlife Conservation Initiative, visit nafoalliance.org/issues/wildlife.
To learn more about efforts in West Virginia, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.