Another in a 2014 guest column series which builds on the one in 2009 where 50+ had written about how science/tech has evolved their hobby/interest.
This time it is Mark Crofton, Vice President, Mobility, Latin America at SAP AG. He is a fifth generation Floridian and writes about his passion – conserving the habitat of his early years.
I grew up in Central Florida and spent a lot of time outdoors: in the woods, orange groves and on the water (mostly the Indian River Lagoon). Still, I wouldn't have called or considered myself an conservationist until I moved up North. My first conservation thoughts came on trips home to Florida while in college in Boston. I would see more and more strip malls and fewer and fewer stands of pines and palmettos. Now, I'm a capitalist (I have an MBA for pete's sake) and I know that some development is inevitable, and even beneficial, but I thought, there must be a way to develop more smartly and to "conserve" much of what makes Florida unique.
I was introduced to The Nature Conservancy by a friend who had cooperated with them in his role at the US Forest Service and found them to have a realistic, cooperative, and, interestingly, a science-based (as opposed to political) approach to conservation. In addition, they partnered with private business and governments to achieve their goals. This cooperative approach resonated with me; there's room for chasing whaling boats , but that's not so much my style.
I've learned in the 12 years that I've been involved with The Nature Conservancy that the decisions made on which of the many environmental threats to address, which habitats to protect and what to do to protect them, are driven by what scientific research indicates. Below are three examples of Conservancy protects that I have been personally involved in that illustrate this:
1. Fire for conservation
The first thing I have to convince people of is that fire can actually be good. Many habitats, including most in Florida, are dependent on rejuvenation by fire. Many species in Florida like gopher tortoises, scrub-jays and longleaf pines depend on fire to reproduce or simply survive. Additionally, fire helps limit invasive species. Unfortunately, in the US we have been taught that fire is bad and we have long suppressed fire. In addition to not providing the benefits outlined above, fire suppression also leads to more dense vegetation. This means that when the land does burn, and it will, it will burn much hotter, killing many more organisms and becoming a bigger threat to humans.
The Nature Conservancy helps light “prescribed fires.” These are controlled burns (like one behind me in photo above) that are used as a management tool. As with all TNC work, science and technology play a role. Some of tools are admittedly lower tech: a sling psychrometer (to measure relative humidity) and a hand-held wind meter are part of every burner’s weather kit. Also, the Pulaski (combination hoe and axe) and a good Stihl chainsaw are fundamental. The Conservancy also participates in the federal government’s Landfire program which uses maps, models and Big Data to help land managers assess landscapes and make decisions about how best to conserve them.
2. Florida panthers
There are about 160 Florida panthers in the wild. A sub-species related to the western Mountain Lions, pumas and cougars, the Florida panther used to roam all over the Southeast, but is now restricted to a small area in SW Florida. The Conservancy is working with state and federal agencies to protect the panther and help increase its numbers. To do this, they first need to understand the panther.
That’s where the science and tech comes in. To track panther movement and understand where they live, many panthers have been fitted with radio collars. Information from tracking radio-collared panthers helped determine preferred habitat, home range size, dispersal behavior, and has provided information on birth rates and causes of death. Currently, the agencies are replacing the radio-collars with GPS collars. GPS can record locations more frequently and with greater accuracy. Also, data could be retrieved from the ground and not from low-flying planes. Motion-sensing cameras like this one from Bushnell help to track panther activity and confirm sightings. It also gives the Conservancy a sense for panther behavior.
With the help of these tools, the Nature Conservancy has indentified an area for protection. They have seen (radio, camera and live) a large number of panthers move thru a narrow part of undeveloped land between larger developed areas. This “Panther Crossing” connects land north of the Caloosahatchee River to protected lands in the Okaloacoochee Slough in Lee County and farther south in Collier County.They have already acquired some of the land, obtained conservation easements on more and are looking to preserve more.
3. Oyster Reef Restoration
Nitrogen levels from fertilizers in urban runoffs increasingly cause algal blooms. Oysters are a natural filtering resource as they consume algae. Their reefs buffer our coasts from waves and support the growth of essential coastal vegetation like marshes and seagrass beds. Yet, such reefs are the most severely impacted marine habitat on earth, with an estimated 85% of all reefs having been lost. Restoration of such reefs calls for sonar technology for acoustic seabed mapping and other marine science the video below describes. The video shows the Lagoon I grew up around so makes me feel even better about how science and technology is helping conservation in so many ways.