Fellows in Focus: Mapping Our Most Resilient Landscapes

By Jon Gorey, February 16, 2024


The Lincoln Institute provides a variety of early- and mid-career fellowship opportunities for researchers. In this series, we follow up with our fellows to learn more about their work.

As the director of The Nature Conservancy’s North America Center for Resilient Conservation Science, ecologist Mark Anderson led a team of scientists in the development and mapping of TNC’s resilient and connected network: a detailed, nationwide map of linked landscapes that are uniquely suited to preserve biodiversity and withstand the impacts of climate change. In 2021, Anderson received the Kingsbury Browne Conservation Leadership Award and Fellowship, named for the Boston lawyer and former Lincoln Institute fellow whose work led to the creation of the Land Trust Alliance. In this interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, he explains why connected natural strongholds are critical to combating our biodiversity crisis.

JON GOREY: What is the focus of your research?

MARK ANDERSON: Conservation of land and water is extremely expensive, and it’s long term. What we’ve really been focused on is making sure we’re conserving places that are resilient to climate change—really thinking about biodiversity loss, and where are the places on the ground or in the water that we think will continue to sustain nature, even as the climate changes in ways that we can’t fully predict.

As we dove deeper and deeper into the science, the beauty of it is that the properties of land and water—the topography, the soil types, the way water moves and collects—actually build resilience into the system. When you hear about a climate disaster, for example, a drought or a flood, you kind of picture it as a big swash everywhere. But in fact, there’s all sorts of detail to how that plays out on the land, and we can actually use an understanding of that to find places that are much more resilient and places that are much more vulnerable. So the effects of that are spread in understandable and predictable ways, and that’s what we are focused on: finding those places where we think nature will retain resilience.

Climate change is very different than any other threat we’ve ever faced because it’s a change in the ambient conditions of the planet. It’s a change in the temperature and moisture regimes. And in response to that change, nature literally has to rearrange. So a big question is, how do we help nature thrive and conserve the ability of nature to rearrange? Connectivity between places where species can thrive and move is key to that.

We divided the US into about 10 regions, and in each of those regions, we had a large steering committee of scientists from every state. They reviewed it, they argued about the concepts, we tested stuff out, they tested it on the ground, and that’s what improved the quality of the work, it’s all thanks to them. By the time we finished, it took 287 scientists and 12 years, so it was a lot of work. We involved a lot of people in the work, and so there’s a lot of trust now of the dataset.

Resilient Land Mapping Tool
Anderson led the development of The Nature Conservancy’s Resilient Land Mapping Tool, which allows users to generate customized maps of the places in the US where species can survive and thrive in a changing climate. Credit: The Nature Conservancy.

JG: What are you working on now, and what are you interested in working on next?

MA: The US has not signed on to the global 30 by 30 agreement [to protect 30 percent of the world’s lands and oceans by 2030], but we have America the Beautiful, which the Biden Administration has launched as a 30 by 30 plan. People get hung up on that 30 percent, which is important, but if we want to sustain biodiversity, what’s really important is, which 30 percent is it? Are we representing all the ecosystems, are we reaching all the species? Are we finding places that are resilient, and are we connecting them in a way that nature can actually move and be sustained?

Our work is all about resilience and connectivity and biodiversity, and it turns out that the network we came up with, that has full representation of all the habitats and ecoregions and connectivity, turned out to be 34 percent [of the US]. So we have internally adopted it within TNC as our framework: We are trying to conserve that network, and that’s been super exciting. Because over the last five years, we conserved 1.1 million acres, of which about three quarters was directly in the network.

A lake nestled in a forested mountain valley
In 2023, The Nature Conservancy protected high-priority landscapes including Fern Lake, which spans the Kentucky-Tennessee border in the Cumberland Gap. Credit: PapaBear via iStock/Getty Images Plus.

It’s very unlikely that the federal government is going to actually do the conservation; it’s really going to be done by the private NGOs, state agencies, and land trusts. In fact, in the Northeast, private land conservation over the last 10 years surpassed all the federal and state agency conservation combined. So our strategy has been to create a tool and get the science out and just encourage people to be using the science and thinking about climate resilience—with our fingers crossed that, if this makes sense to people, wherever they are, and we’re all sort of working off that, it will conserve the network in a diffuse way.

What we’re working on now is freshwater resilience, focusing on rivers and streams and the connectivity and resilience of those systems. Our vision of a resilient system is a long, connected network with good water quality that allows fish and mussels to move around and adapt to the changing climate. But a lot of those systems are fragmented by dams, their floodplains are developed, their water quality is poor, and there’s a lot of water use, because they’re in a residential area that’s extracting all the water.

JG: What do you wish more people knew about conservation, biodiversity, and ecology?

MA: Well, two things—one good, one bad. I wish more people understood the urgency of the biodiversity crisis. The fact that we’ve lost 3 billion birds—there are 3 billion fewer birds than there were 40 years ago. Our mammals are constrained now to small fragments of their original habitats. There’s a crisis in our insects, that is really scary. Most of my career, we were focused on rare things; now these are common things that are dropping in abundance. So I wish people really understood that.

And I also wish people understood that we can turn that around, by really focusing our energy and conserving the right places, and there’s still hope and time to do that. It’s a big task, and it can only be done by thousands of organizations working on it, but it can be turned around.

River otters in Indiana’s Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge. The Nature Conservancy recently purchased 1,700 acres adjacent to the refuge, expanding the valley’s connected wildlife habitat to more than 20,000 acres. Credit: Steve Gifford via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

JG. When it comes to your work, what keeps you up at night? And what gives you hope?

MA: Well, I’m a scientist, and there are so many potential errors and problems and data issues, they never end. So our results are not perfect. They’re pretty good, they’ve been ground tested a lot, but they’re not perfect.

The other thing is the future. I really want my kids and grandkids to have a wonderful world full of nature, and to get there, we’re going to have to really change our course.

JG. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned in your research?

MA: When we started this work, we didn’t have a concept of what the end was going to look like. And I probably thought of the end as a bunch of big places, you know? But it’s not a bunch of big places, it’s a net, it’s a web—a web of connected places, some big, some small. So that was a surprise to me.

JG: You work a lot with maps—what’s the coolest map you’ve ever seen?

MA: We have a concept called climate flow, which is predicting how nature will move through the landscape following unfragmented areas and climatic gradients. And one of our scientists successfully animated that map, so that you can see the movement of the flows—and that is one of the coolest maps. It’s not perfectly accurate, but it gets the concept across really nicely. And it was this map that helped us figure out that there’s a pattern to all this. It’s not random, there’s a pattern—there are places where flows concentrate, there are places where flow diffuses, and that’s really important to know.

Migrations in Motion TNC
The Nature Conservancy’s animated Migrations in Motion map shows the average direction species need to move to track hospitable climates as they shift across the landscape. Credit: Dan Majka/The Nature Conservancy.

JG: What’s the best book you’ve read lately? 

MA: My favorite book recently was Wilding by Isabella Tree. It’s a nonfiction book from the British Isles, where a farming couple in Knepp, they were never able to make the area a productive farm so they decided just to stop farming it and let it go wild, and they document the change from farming to wildness. They introduce some grazing animals that would be the counterpart of the aurochs and warthogs that would have been there, and immediately, the farm becomes a total mess—lots of weeds, dug up areas, the neighbors complain. But over time, all these rare species start to show up, all these owls that have not been seen, nightingales, turtle doves, and pretty soon it is like a total biodiversity hotspot. So it’s a very interesting read, it’s very hopeful.

In the last year I’ve read several books about African American perspectives on the environmental movement, and those are powerful. One was called Black Faces, White Spaces, by Carolyn Finney, and I’m reading one now called A Darker Wilderness, and it’s really eye-opening on the equity issues that are buried in conservation.

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Jon Gorey is staff writer at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Lead image: Mark Anderson. Credit: Courtesy photo.