Conservation by Computer—Land&People

Green Valley Road weaves through the dark, productive bottomland of southeast King County, Washington. Roadside signs advertise brown eggs and homemade berry jams, remnants of a time when this part of the county was entirely agricultural. Other signs remind the traveler that the region is changing, with burgeoning Seattle only 45 minutes to the north. Giant real estate signs promise rural peace amid the placid Holsteins. Arched wrought-iron gates mark where a one-time farm has become a luxury residence for a commuter or telecommuter. Where the road crosses the Green River, every bridge holds another kind of sign, this one depicting a graceful salmon above the words "This stream is in your care."

Lisa Parsons has taken that message to heart. Parsons is founder and executive director of the Middle Green Coalition--composed of recreation groups, governments, and conservation nonprofits, including the Trust for Public Land, working to protect a wild, 12-mile stretch of the Green River and to guarantee that, as the region changes, the lands needed to protect the health of the river and its salmon are conserved.

By way of example, Parsons takes me to a parcel of privately owned land where Icy Creek springs from a hillside quilt of leaves, moss, and ferns. Surrounded by native cedar, Douglas fir, maple, and hemlock, this clear, frigid rivulet delivers a consistent and pure supply of water to the Green River, especially important in the dry summer months. Where the creek meets the river, a state salmon hatchery also relies on the cool, clean water to fill its pond, brimming with restless, two-inch-long salmon smolts. On the day we visited, returning salmon--nearly as long as the creek was wide--finned in the current among slick boulders. This land, says Parsons, could be developed with 28 homes.

"This place is home to bear, cougars, ospreys, eagles, pileated woodpeckers, and these incredible salmon that come all the way up the Green River through pollution and sludge to reach this stream," Parsons marvels. "It just makes sense to save land like this before it gets developed."

To Parsons and many other residents, it seems self-evident that lands such as those surrounding Icy Creek should be protected, if only for their importance to water quality and fisheries. But while King County has been a national leader in conservation, it faces a daunting challenge in prioritizing conservation expenditures.

Now an innovative GIS computer modeling approach developed by TPL and its partners is helping King County decide what lands need to be protected and why. GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems: computer-based tools for gathering and analyzing information about land and its uses. The Icy Creek watershed is one of many places that may benefit from this groundbreaking technology.

King County covers 2,130 square miles--an area the size of Delaware--from the Cascade Mountains in the east, through thick evergreen forests cut by rushing snowmelt rivers, to the densely populated shelf of coastal land that is home to Seattle and many of the county's 1.8 million residents. The county is home to five threatened or endangered species of fish that depend on clean land and water. But this is far from the only conservation need. Farms and forests are being threatened by inappropriate development. Land needs to be conserved to mitigate flooding, and a growing population is demanding more parks and trails for recreation.

How do you decide which land is most important to protect and which should be protected first with limited conservation funds? This is the problem facing the county's Water and Land Resources Division (WLRD), which must apportion limited (and shrinking) conservation dollars to five separate programs: parks and trails, ecological open space, flood control, agricultural protection, and forestry. Agency staff and elected officials have long sought an objective way to ensure that every dollar invested in purchasing, restoring, and managing land provided maximum benefit, says Mark Isaacson, assistant director of WRLD. "In the past, it was very hard to pull together our team and figure out how to divvy up a limited pot of funding," Isaacson notes. "Everyone had their priorities with good justification. Sometimes we even had several programs competing for the same money."

Mapping Conservation

TPL calls its computer mapping service for conservation "greenprinting." In turn, greenprinting is part of TPL's larger effort to help regions and communities develop a proactive conservation strategy in the face of growth. In response to local concerns, TPL has developed greenprints for cities, towns, counties, and watersheds across the country. Other county- and ecosystem-wide greenprints now under way include those for the Quinault Nation of Native Americans on Washington's Olympic Peninsula; around Biscayne Bay in Florida; in the ecosystem of Cherry Creek near Denver, Colorado; and in northwest Connecticut's Litchfield County.

The King County Greenprint is among TPL's most ambitious to date. It includes data on every parcel of land in the county--more than a half million parcels in all. The county had heard about TPL's greenprinting work and asked TPL to create a greenprint for the county. Partners in the project also included the Seattle-based firm of Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects and Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), the primary producer of GIS software and developers of the software used in the project. "This was a tremendous partnership effort," says Breece Robertson, TPL's director of GIS, whose team also included consultants from Foresite Consulting and Earth Analytic, Inc.

To create the greenprint, Robertson and her team gathered information on topography, geology, plant and animal biology, and hydrology, along with data about population growth, zoning, and road networks, and fed it all into a greenprint model. Demographic data was added to analyze where parks were needed most. The computer was programmed to prioritize 42 different criteria that define the resources of greatest concern to the county.

After a yearlong effort all this information has now been converted into visual workflows that can be viewed as maps, revealing which parcels are most important for each of the county's programs. The results also inform DWLR which specific places would achieve the highest number of conservation objectives through protection.

"This is the first time anyone has undertaken such a complex landscape-level analysis," says Roger Hoesterey, director of TPL's Northwest and Rocky Mountain Region. "The project encompasses not just biological data and mapping. It combines natural systems, demographics, and social and economic considerations such as park equity and development threats to help King County prioritize future acquisitions."

King County Executive Ron Sims recalls that previously the county "had no sense of which pieces were the most critical. Now we can think parcel by parcel, from the highest peaks to the bottom of Puget Sound. It is absolutely key to have that capacity because we can answer questions such as 'What land do we need for salmon?' With this tool you can really see and understand the land."

An Objective Measure of Conservation Need

"For 20 years I've been asking for something that can help determine gaps and prioritize among choices," says Terry Lavender, who has been working on county conservation efforts for more than two decades and chairs the citizens' advisory committee for King County's Conservation Futures Fund.

The old methodology for determining protection priorities involved colored pencils and large pieces of paper, Lavender recalls. But those maps couldn't be updated--when parcels were developed, for example--as the computerized greenprint can be. "Having the ability to show people the changes is going to be very powerful," Lavender predicts. "The most important and threatened parcels are going to jump out at us and say, we need to get that conserved."

Another strength of the greenprint, Lavender points out, is that it can objectively highlight critical conservation lands that may not enjoy vocal political constituencies--places like the still sparsely settled area targeted by Lisa Parsons and the Middle Green Coalition. "A lot of really important open space doesn't have champions to push for it," she notes. "The maps will be visual champions for those places."

County Executive Ron Sims agrees. "Decisions have sometimes been made because a particular property had a gallant spokesperson who knew how to work the system and said 'Save this!' With the greenprint as a guide, King County will be able to respond appropriately. Sometimes the spokesperson's efforts will be rewarded and sometimes they are going to have to wait because we will be able to judge how the property fits in to the big picture."

Already the greenprint has provided important insights. TPL and consultants for the Point Wilson Group, another project partner, conducted one-on-one interviews with the leaders of 24 of the county's 39 municipalities. From this work a single map has been produced that includes a complete inventory of properties acquired by all agencies, priority acquisitions for each community, and a vision for how a regional system of parks and natural areas might be created and connected. By comparing existing parks and open space with census data, the greenprint reveals where new parks are needed to serve changing populations. And by including underwater and shoreline data, the greenprint shows what land needs to be protected to save aquatic resources and increase public access to Puget Sound.

The new greenprint is also yielding important insights for those who must prioritize conservation purchases among WLRD's five conservation programs. A TPL analysis based on the greenprint identified 30,000 acres whose conservation would serve all five of the program areas. Likewise it specified an additional 39,000 acres that could support four areas, and an additional 35,000 that would be important to at least three areas. The parcel where Icy Creek meets the Green River rates high for forestry and ecological value.

TPL is already studying how to fund an ambitious slate of priority acquisitions based on the greenprint. In the opinion of ESRI's Bill Miller, TPL's integrated approach to conservation--its ability to follow up greenprints by helping to raise funds and complete transactions--sets the organization's work apart from other GIS efforts. "TPL integrates the process that identifies land resources with the ability to implement conservation action. Lots of advanced analysis gets done, but often nothing happens. You just get a nice plan to put on the dusty shelf with other plans. TPL takes the analysis to the ground."

Roger Hoesterey is thrilled with the greenprint for King County and its potential to aid the conservation community. He has every intention of taking it to the ground. "We can go forward with a positive message that says, 'Specific actions can preserve and improve ecological health even in a heavily developed area.' With this tool, we can help local, county, state, and federal entities work together in more strategic ways with the funds that are available. Plus, we can enhance economic development by steering growth to low-priority lands while protecting the places that preserve the character of the region."

This message is sure to be welcomed by Lisa Parsons of the Middle Green Coalition and by others racing to protect important natural resources across King County. Parsons remembers driving by the entrance to the Icy Creek headwaters parcel, seeing the subdivision notice, and saying, "You have got to be kidding! We're going to allow development of one of the most pristine places in the Green River watershed?!" With the King County GIS Greenprint to back up her passion, perhaps the next new sign will read "This property protected for salmon and the citizens of King County."

Former TPL staffer Sandra Tassel is a conservation consultant and freelance writer based in Seattle.