So I get asked often if my job is just walking around in the woods. So what does a Conservation Biologist actually do?
As my first blog post, I want to explain a bit about what I do as the Conservation Biologist for the Southern Conservation Trust. When it comes to natural resource protection, we have two different types of fieldwork that are incorporated into conservation easements. These are baseline documentation reports that are documented before an easement is written, and annual monitoring that takes place after an easement closes.
Before an easement is written, initial site visits take place to document the current state of the property. We look at the property as a whole to determine its status. Things to take into consideration are: wildlife species detected, current vegetative communities and species found, habitat types, water sources/hydrology, scenic road frontage, connectivity to existing conserved lands, and any historical or culturally significant areas.
– Wildlife: We look for signs of animal activity. These include tracks, scat, and actual animal sightings.
– Vegetation: We identify plant species that are present at the time of the site visit.
– Habitat Types: The Georgia Department of Natural Resources has a State Wildlife Action Plan (https://georgiawildlife.com/WildlifeActionPlan) that outlines the state’s “Priority Habitats” based on ecoregion. We use these definitions to determine if the site has designated “Priority Habitats”. These habitats are based on topography, vegetative composition, and hydrology. Examples include “Oak-Hickory-Pine Forest, Granite Outcrops, and Streams.”
– Water Sources/Hydrology: We look for any standing water, ponds, streams, springs, or drainages. We then track where any water sources drain, and how the protection of the property affects areas downstream.
– Road Frontage: Access to the property and public viewsheds are important as well. The scenic character adds Conservation Value, especially when protecting greenspace in a highly developed area.
– Connectivity: Understanding how a property adds to the landscape is essential. Nearby conserved lands create a matrix of habitat and potential wildlife corridors.
– Historical/Cultural Significance: Some properties contain historic/cultural areas. These can be old structures, farmsteads, cemeteries, mills, dams, etc. Historic areas in Georgia can be found through Georgia’s Natural, Archaeological, and Historic Resources database.
Once the site visit is complete, these site characteristics are documented through a “Baseline Documentation Report”. These documents range in size and include important maps, resources, and site photographs taken during the site visit. When writing these reports, the “Conservation Values” of the property are determined. The IRS has defined the following “Conservation Values” for conservation easements.
- Preservation of open space (farm and forest land), pursuant to clearly delineated federal, state, or local governmental conservation policy, yielding significant public benefit.
- Preservation of open space for the scenic enjoyment of the general public, yielding significant public benefit.
- Protection of significant, relatively-natural habitat of fish, wildlife, plants, or similar ecosystem, including but not limited to, habitat for rare, threatened/endangered species.
- Preservation of historically important land or certified historic structure.
- Preservation of land for outdoor recreation/education of the general public.
Once a conservation easement closes, that easement stands in perpetuity. Within an easement, the landowner gives up and sometimes retains certain developmental rights on the property. It is the job of the easement holder and in our case the Southern Conservation Trust, to monitor the easement property annually for the perpetual life of the easement. We use a variety of methods to check a property and make sure that all stipulations of the conservation easement are being upheld.
- Drone Use – We use unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or “drones” to fly over properties and check for any significant disturbances or problems. These small aircraft allow us to pinpoint problem areas for further investigation.
- On Foot – Some of our smaller properties are monitored solely on foot. This allows us to check for any problems and see the whole property without the use of the drone. When using the drone, we will go in on foot to look for problem areas that we have observed from above.
- Original Baseline Report/Previous Monitoring Report – One of our biggest tools is understanding the state of the property prior to the current monitoring visit. Every year when we monitor a property we fill out a monitoring report, documenting any problems or news related to the property. These past reports allow us to monitor gradual changes over time. Before we go out, we look over these documents in order to know what we are looking for.
Some of the disturbances that we look for include: clearcutting, dumping, and unapproved construction. Typically dumping is the only problem that we face when monitoring, but we strive to prevent it and make sure it’s cleaned up when we find it.
Once we document any problems and determine the site and easement status, we write our monitoring report for the year.
This may not look daunting at first glance. However, as a growing organization, SCT now conserves over 46,000 acres! What does that look like on a fieldwork scale? Try close to 70 baseline site visits and written reports within an 8 month period with a few biologists. During the long baseline portion of the year, we are also monitoring existing easements, private preserves, and our public nature areas. With 8 public nature areas as well as a few in the works, 181+ conservation easements, and 20 some odd private preserves, that’s A LOT of monitoring to squeeze in! During this time of year I’m in the car driving all over the southeast to visit properties old and new. Putting miles on the road and boots on the ground is one of my favorite things to do!
!!!!Fun Wildlife Fact!!!!
Virginia Opossums have a thumblike toe on their back feet that help them grasp while climbing!
Until next time! – Matthew Ivey, Senior Conservation Biologist