Cool Tools in Conservation

Tennessee GIS

"When you're talking about millions of dollars, it's just as important to know what not to buy."

Joey Wisby (left)
GIS Manager
The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee

"We analyzed all of the lands in the SWAP model and we quickly found that most of the Bowater properties weren't worth acquiring."

Chris Bullington (right)
Conservation Planner
The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee

By Paul Kingsbury

For sale: land one-third the size of Rhode Island…much of it across Tennessee's biologically rich Cumberland Plateau.

The price: More than $300 million…far beyond what you can afford. But you can buy a few crucial pieces and conserve them. How do you know which tracts to pursue?

That's the dilemma that faced The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee and the Tennessee state government when Bowater Inc., a pulp and paper manufacturer, put 230,000 acres of largely intact forests on the market in early 2006, intending to sell dozens of properties quickly.

150 Years of Data and State-of-the-Art Software

So the Conservancy used a cutting-edge, customized computer tool that takes 150 years of information on at-risk animals across Tennessee and marries that data to the latest in mapping software — geographic information systems (GIS).

The result: a map that Conservancy staffers used to steer state conservation officials toward a handful of ecologically critical properties — 12,500 acres rich in wildlife. The state bought them for $17.3 million and turned them into public landholdings.

“When you’re talking about millions of dollars,” says Joey Wisby, a GIS manager for the Conservancy in Tennessee who helped develop the mapping tool, “it’s just as important to know what not to buy.”

Color-by-Numbers Conservation

The Conservancy and other conservation organizations have used databases for many years. But this tool — known as the "SWAP model," short for State Wildlife Action Plan — is unique: It considers a habitat's numerous species all at once and displays the results in maps that are intuitively easy to grasp.

The SWAP model incorporates 150 years of information on:

  • Animal sightings in Tennessee; 
  • Their preferred habitats; 
  • Threats to these animals (such as road construction or dam building); and 
  • Conservation actions known to counteract these threats.

The software tracks 664 at-risk animals across the state — on land, in water, and in caves — with data mathematically weighted toward most recent sightings, species most at risk, and other key factors.

Then it produces maps that display color areas where at-risk species are proven to live and thrive. The darker the color, the more viable the habitat.

So when the Bowater lands became available, the Conservancy could target its most biodiverse portions, according to Chris Bullington, conservation planner for the Conservancy in Tennessee.

“We analyzed all of the lands in the SWAP model," says Bullington, "and we quickly found that most of the Bowater properties weren’t worth acquiring.”

Avoiding the Snail Darter Phenomenon

Part of what makes the SWAP model so innovative is that it turns the longstanding conservation strategy of preserving a habitat for the sake of a single rare species (such as the infamous 1970s controversy about saving the snail darter fish) on its head.

“That’s the old, standard way of conservation thinking,” says Bullington. “The SWAP model allows us to see all the at-risk species in an area that will benefit by removing certain threats or restoring habitat." And that expanded vision, he adds, allows the Conservancy to focus its efforts and get “bang for the conservation buck.”

Another intriguing aspect of the SWAP model is its ability to project hypothetical scenarios. What if the Conservancy were to restore a farmland pasture to wooded wetlands, for instance? Would that help the at-risk species in the area?

The SWAP model can predict the outcome. When Wisby and Bullington ran such hypothetical restorations in west Tennessee, they were surprised to find that in some cases, animals probably wouldn’t use the wetlands. The pasture was better off being left as is.

'It's My Conservation Bible'

The impetus to develop the custom computer tool came in 2005, when the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) asked the Conservancy to collaborate on writing the state’s wildlife plan, which was mandated by Congress.

While neither Congress nor TWRA expected a computer model, Wisby and Bullington thought developing it was essential to writing a reliable conservation plan for wildlife. They knew the animal sighting data — compiled by TWRA, universities, and the Conservancy — existed in Tennessee. In fact, there were great database mountains of it.

“It took us almost two years just to work through the data,” says Bullington, who worked with TWRA staff as well as Wisby in sorting and standardizing some 21,000 animal sighting records that went into the SWAP database. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation helped fund the work.

Fortunately, desktop computing has progressed to the point where off-the-shelf database and GIS programs can be customized to crunch those numbers and organize them.

In the end, the Conservancy and TWRA were able not only to compile a comprehensive 230-page document of findings and recommendations for Tennessee wildlife protection, but they also got the bonus of a dynamic new planning tool.

Introduced in mid 2006, the SWAP model is being embraced by several state agencies:

  • TWRA’s non-game conservation planners have it loaded onto their desktop computers and are using it to focus their work.
  • The state’s Heritage Conservation Trust Fund is now using the SWAP model in evaluating properties it funds for state land purchases. 
  • And the Tennessee Department of Transportation and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation will consult with Conservancy staff on factoring SWAP information into their projects as well.

Ultimately, Bullington and Wisby hope to put the SWAP model on the Web, where its goldmine of data can be easily accessed and updated by registered users.

At The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee, the SWAP model is now focusing all of the field office’s conservation efforts, testing long-held scientific assumptions, and — best of all — conserving precious conservation dollars.

“It’s my bible,” says Bullington, the conservation planner. “I use it in everything I do now.”

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