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Protect land: Strategic land protection

Protected conservation lands are depicted in three layers: 1) Conservation Restrictions Areas (private lands currently protected from development through the use of conservation restrictions), 2) protected open space that is owned by land trusts and other private conservation organizations, and 3) conservation lands owned by public agencies (federal, state, county or municipal). The next two layers depict Index of Ecological Integrity Scores (IEI-I) produced by the Conservation Assessment and Prioritization System (CAPS) at UMass Amherst for those areas identified as Biomap2 Core Habitat or Critical Natural Landscape. The colors represent different ecosystem types: forest = green, coastal uplands = orange, shrubland = yellow, freshwater wetland & aquatic = blue, coastal wetland and aquatic = cyan. Darker colors indicate higher value. Conductance is a measure of importance for regional-scale connectivity based on the Critical Linkages analyses conducted by UMass Amherst. Areas with high conductance values are represented in brown; the darker the color the more valuable the area is for connectivity. Forest cover and land use from the 1830s comes from Harvard Forest (2002. 1830 Map Project. Harvard Forest Archives, Petersham, MA.)


Protected conservation lands are depicted in three layers: 1) Conservation Restrictions Areas (private lands currently protected from development through the use of conservation restrictions), 2...

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Adaptation Strategies and Actions

Protect land: Strategic land protection

Adaptation type: 
Land protection
Planning and prioritization
Species conservation and management


Permanently protect enough undeveloped land to ensure healthy, self-sustaining ecosystems and maintain the Commonwealth’s fish, wildlife and biodiversity resources.

Unlike western states, where public lands make up a large proportion of the landscape, the vast majority of Massachusetts is private land. Given the large number of private landowners in MA, it is an ongoing challenge to protect interconnected areas of sufficient size to support wildlife, biodiversity, and ecosystem services for future generations. Large, interconnected conservation lands are particularly important as a strategy for adapting to climate change because the distributions of plants and animals are likely to shift and keep shifting as temperatures, precipitation, storms, sea level rise and the timing of seasons continue to change over the next several decades.


Adopt a Strategic Approach to Land Protection
Although much of the state is undeveloped, when you look at a map of permanently protected conservation land one is struck by how fragmented the landscape would be if these parcels were, in some future time, all that remained of natural habitats in Massachusetts. Much of the unprotected landscape is divided into many, relatively small parcels. A large percentage of landowners are over 60 years old and we are on the cusp of a significant generational turnover in land ownership. The challenge of producing a viable network of conservation lands that can withstand the stresses of climate change is significant.

Adapting to climate change in a way that conserves fish, wildlife and biodiversity resources will require protecting blocks of interconnected conservation land large enough to maintain self-sustaining ecosystems and viable populations of plants and animals (as well as microbes and fungi). Given the limited resources available for land conservation and the need to act quickly to protect land before it is divided into ever more fragmented ownership, land conservation organizations, agencies and municipalities will need to adopt strategic land protection programs that are nested at various scales: local, regional, statewide, and beyond.

These elements are part of a strategic approach to land conservation:
Rare Species Habitat. Biodiversity (the variety of life and its processes) is essential for maintaining the long-term integrity and functioning of ecosystems. Areas that lack natural diversity are unlikely to possess the resilience necessary to cope with the rapid changes in species distribution and ecological functions expected from climate change. A key strategy for maintaining biodiversity is to take steps to secure species and populations that are rare or otherwise at risk of being lost.

Rare or Unusual Natural Communities. Rare natural communities, such as those identified by the MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP), should be a priority for protection where they occur. NHESP’s Classification of the Natural Communities of Massachusetts describes over a hundred terrestrial, palustrine, and estuarine natural community types.  Some ecological communities, although they may not be listed by NHESP as rare, may be unusual for the region and may merit special consideration. Although the locations of some rare natural communities are known, most natural communities have not been comprehensively mapped. Local knowledge and expertise can be particularly useful for identifying areas with rare or unusual natural communities.

Protect Diverse and Unique Sites. The physical characteristics of a site, such as the type of soil, slope position, bedrock, and aspect, play a significant role in determining the types of plants and trees that will grow there. For example, sugar maple prefers cool, moist sites while white pine prefers warmer, drier sites. If we have a large number of diverse sites, it is likely that those diverse sites will grow diverse plants and trees no matter what climatic changes may occur. In turn, diverse plants and trees will support a diversity of habitats and wildlife. Therefore, prioritize the protection of unique sites that aren't typical of the surrounding landscape or the region (for example, an area of rock outcrops, the top of a mountain, a floodplain, or a forest that has never been cleared for agriculture). To find out if your land contains areas that were never cleared for agriculture, use the 1830s layer on the map which estimates woodlots that existed during the peak of agriculture.

Large Blocks of Habitat. Large blocks of habitat (e.g. forest, grassland, shrubland, emergent wetland) or large blocks of undeveloped land containing a variety of habitats tend to be somewhat buffered from the impacts of human activity. Some forest wildlife species are sensitive to “edge effects” and require substantial amounts of “core area” 300 m or more from adverse edges (edges where there are negative impacts). Other species are “area sensitive” and require habitats to be a certain size before they will be used. Large blocks of habitat or undeveloped land also are much more likely to retain their ecological integrity over time, resisting impacts from climate change, and allowing ecological process, like natural disturbances (floods, ice storms, wind throw) and regional wildlife population dynamics, to operate.

Corridors and Connectors. Throughout most of the state, large blocks of habitat or undeveloped land are not of sufficient size to retain their ecological integrity without corridors and connectors linking these hubs into interconnected networks. These can be especially important where remaining habitat occurs as numerous small areas rather than large blocks. Corridors are areas that facilitate animal movements and may be as narrow as a hedgerow. These areas provide opportunities for more mobile species to move from one habitat block to another. Connectors are areas of habitat that effectively link larger areas. Connectors provide intermediate habitat for less mobile species (such as red-backed salamanders, small mammals, plants) so that continuous populations can be maintained, increasing gene exchange and enhancing population viability. In some cases, it may make sense to allocate scarce land protection resources to ensure large blocks of protected habitat. In other settings, a network of hubs and connectors may be a more viable approach.

Wetlands, Water Bodies and Waterways. Many terrestrial species must have access to water. Conversely, many wetland wildlife species require adjacent upland habitat. Protection of rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, wetlands, and riparian? areas is an important element of habitat protection. Rivers, streams and adjacent riparian areas are often the only remaining habitat in developed landscapes, and are particularly important as connecting habitat for aquatic, semi-aquatic and terrestrial wildlife.

CAPS ecological integrity data (green) and Critical Linkages conductance (blue) showing areas of Massachusetts of particular importance for maintaining ecological integrity and landscape connectivity. Darker colors represent areas of higher value.
CAPS ecological integrity data (green) and Critical Linkages conductance (blue) showing areas of Massachusetts of particular importance for maintaining ecological integrity and landscape connectivity. Darker colors represent areas of higher value.

Prioritizing land protection
There is a wealth of information and analyses available for land protection agencies and organizations to use in creating an effective land protection strategy. NHESP has produced a blueprint for conservation in Massachusetts called Biomap 2 (the second generation of Biomap). Biomap 2 identifies areas with potential to support viable populations of state-listed rare and endangered species, known locations for uncommon natural communities, and land of importance for maintaining fish, wildlife and biodiversity. Sources of information used to create Biomap 2 included NHESP’s database of rare species occurrences and a landscape-based model called CAPS (Conservation Assessment and Prioritization System) developed by the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst).

Working with The Nature Conservancy, scientists at UMass Amherst used CAPS as the basis for the Critical Linkages project. This project identified areas in Massachusetts that were particularly important for their role in connecting other areas of high ecological integrity. The Northeast Resilience Analysis, a project of The Nature Conservancy, used information about landscape diversity and local connectedness to identify “…places that will be more resilient to climate change and serve as natural strongholds for diversity into the future.” All of these data sources are available as electronic maps that can be used in a Geographic Information System (GIS) to set priorities for land conservation.

For parcel level information about the habitat value of undeveloped land, see Massachusetts Audubon's Mapping & Prioritizing Parcels for Resilience Project tool.

Target Species, Species Groups, Habitats and Stressors

Scope and Constraints

Ongoing action
Immediate impact
Long-term impact
Moderate cost category
Higher cost category
Funds available
No jurisdiction required


National Fish Wildlife Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy Goal 1: Conserve habitat, diversity, and connectivity
Forestry Goal 3: Protect rare species and sites
Forestry Goal 5: Re-connect the landscape

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