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W.Va. seen as stronghold against climate change

Courtesy photo
The Nature Conservancy's Bear Rocks Preserve, located along the Allegheny Front adjacent to the Dolly Sods Wilderness, is among climate change "strongholds" identified in new study.

CHARLESTON, W.Va.-- The highland forest along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains in eastern West Virginia has been identified as a key stronghold for allowing plants and wildlife to withstand the growing impacts of global warming in the U.S. northeast and southeastern Canada.

A new study by The Nature Conservancy has identified a series of landscapes in eastern North America that, if left intact, are predicted to be resilient enough to endure climate change.

The study, funded by Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and The Nature Conservancy, analyzed 156 million acres of land stretching from Virginia to southeastern Canada. Landscapes with the most diverse topographies, elevation ranges, and geologies were judged to offer the greatest potential for accommodating plant and animal species needing to move to more habitable regions as climate change alters their traditional homes.

The Appalachian mountain range in general and the eastern highland forests of West Virginia in particular were determined to be among the most resilient landscapes identified in the study. Other key landscapes included the limestone flats of northern Maine and adjacent portions of Canada, the coastal plains and oak-pine forests of New Jersey and Virginia, and the floodplains of northeastern New York.

The study also identified important corridors that link resilient landscapes. In West Virginia, such corridors included the east side of the Cacapon River watershed in the Eastern Panhandle and the Allegheny Front along the west rim of the South Branch Valley in Grant and Pendleton counties, according to Rodney Bartgis, state director of The Nature Conservancy's West Virginia office.

Bartgis said the Dolly Sods and Cranberry Wilderness Areas, the Seneca Creek Backcountry and portions of Cheat Mountain, all within the Monongahela National Forest, were identified as key strongholds for providing habitat as the climate warms and dries, as were the New River Gorge and portions of the Greenbrier Valley.

"If we can keep these strongholds intact and connected, it increases the odds for plants and animals to persist through climate change," Bartgis said. "If you have enough land with enough variety in elevation, geology and landforms, and that land hasn't been broken up by things like highways, when it starts to warm up, plants and animals can move upslope or to a different face of the slope they're on."

  "As we work to manage some of America's most iconic lands, it's critical to know which natural systems are going to be the most resilient to large-scale changes like climate change," said Clyde Thompson, supervisor of the Monongahela National Forest. "Information from this research can help our management and restoration decisions support the conservation of our nation's heritage."

But even if the stronghold areas and connector zones identified in the study are left intact, they will not be able to save all species living in the region.

"Unfortunately, there will be many species that will not be able to relocate as climate changes makes their neighborhoods unlivable," said Mark Anderson, eastern division science director for The Nature Conservancy. "That is why the ultimate goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop climate change impacts from worsening. Until that happens, these resilient landscapes offer a much needed safety net to allow many species to survive, interact and ensure healthy natural systems."

"Climate change is a serious issue," said Bartgis. "If we make conservation investments in these places now, we will be able to make changes that will have a long-lasting legacy. People often ask what they can to do to help reduce the impact of climate change. This is something they can do that will have a major impact."

Scientists for The Nature Conservancy are conducting similar studies across the United States to identify other natural strongholds with the potential to withstand the impacts of climate change.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.

 


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