What is ACEC stewardship?
A central goal of the Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) Program is to promote resource stewardship through the participation, cooperation, and expertise of a variety of interest groups. ACEC stewardship involves a proactive approach to resource management that uses education, networking, research, planning, land protection, and regulatory and technical tools. Some of these tools are described below in more detail. By becoming active stewards, community members begin looking past immediate problems toward long-term strategies that ultimately benefit present and future generations.
Who is an ACEC steward?
Stewardship of ACEC resources is best achieved through the shared efforts of groups who work together to provide information and technical assistance, identify and address problems, design management strategies and tools, conduct public outreach, and implement recommendations.
• Individuals are encouraged to become stewards in their backyard and neighborhood by doing such things as conserving water, using environmentally friendly landscaping, and supporting local bylaws and regulations that protect resources. Individuals can also volunteer with land trusts, watershed groups, and open space committees, and start or join other stewardship groups in the area. Property owners can prepare formal or informal management plans for their land and its resources and provide permanent land protection through conservation restrictions, easements, or the sale or donation of land for conservation purposes.
• Nonprofit groups and academic institutions play a role in education, advocacy, land protection, habitat restoration, and scientific research and monitoring. Their efforts to better understand and advocate for these sensitive environments are often combined with other aspects of planning, management, and outreach in an ACEC.
• Municipalities sharing an ACEC are encouraged to work together on a variety of planning and stewardship activities. Each town or city may also incorporate the ACEC into their local planning, conservation, and health regulations as well as into their open space and master plans.
• State agencies are directed to administer programs, set policies, and revise regulations to meet the purpose of an ACEC designation. State agencies are responsible for coordinating their actions with one another and with local communities. ACEC Program staff work with other governmental agencies, review state-permitted and state-funded projects, provide assistance to communities, and help facilitate stewardship activities in ACECs.
• Regional and federal agencies provide technical assistance, review proposed projects, provide grant support, and coordinate with other partners in an ACEC.
These groups and individuals often contact each other informally as the need arises to network and solve problems. However, establishing a formal working group of partners with regular meetings and other forms of communication, such as websites and newsletters, can provide another and sometimes more effective way to exchange information, discuss ideas for technical assistance, and collaborate on a variety of projects.
What are stewardship tools?
Different kinds of outreach, planning, and management approaches are needed for ACEC stewardship to be successful. Partners often work on a variety of projects such as wetland restoration, open space protection, and water quality monitoring as opportunities arise. The following examples highlight some of the tools that ACEC stewards can use to further their goals of natural resource management.
• Education is an important part of stewardship as it increases the public’s awareness about the values of and threats to an ACEC. Through a variety of outreach activities, the environmental, economic, recreational, and cultural importance of ACEC resources can be communicated. Some ways to engage and educate the public include newspaper articles, boat or van tours, guided hikes, brochures, slide shows, websites, volunteer monitoring efforts, and school group activities.
• A proactive, local stewardship group can advocate and work to protect ACEC resources. Members of these groups are often from different communities or agencies and work together on regional projects to address ACEC issues, public education, and resource protection. An active stewardship or friends group can write grant proposals, review local development projects, coordinate monitoring and restoration projects, and request assistance from agencies and conservation groups to help manage the natural areas in their communities. Stewardship groups in a variety of ACECs are using websites and internet listserves to help exchange information and improve public outreach efforts.
• Project reviews provide opportunities for individuals and communities to offer comments to local boards and commissions about proposed development projects in order to ensure that natural resources are not negatively impacted. For projects subject to state environmental review, particularly MEPA (Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act) review, public comments are also solicited about a project, its alternatives, potential impacts, and proposed mitigation measures. Although an ACEC designation does not prevent development within an ACEC, both local and state participants can ensure that adequate information about a development proposal is provided, efforts are made to avoid adverse impacts to resources, and sustainable development is encouraged through project review.
• Grant proposals can be written by stewardship groups, conservation organizations, municipalities, agencies, or a combination of these partners. Grant funding provides the financial resources needed for innovative projects to protect, manage, and promote stewardship of natural resources. Applicants in ACECs have been awarded grants to restore wetlands, develop brochures and other public outreach materials, implement water quality improvement and monitoring programs, acquire conservation land, and conduct studies and write reports about the natural resources in an area.
• Scientific research and monitoring provide the information needed to study the condition, impacts, and restoration of natural resources. Research and monitoring results are often used by resource managers to develop policies, plan conservation strategies, and design technical assistance programs. Research can be provided by a variety of groups ranging from high school classes and local stream teams to academic institutions and state and federal agencies. Examples include collecting data before and after a wetland restoration project, monitoring water quality to determine sources of pollution, or documenting impacts to wildlife and erosion before and after a hiking trail is established in a conservation area.
• Land protection is an important part of a long-term conservation and stewardship strategy. ACECs include a combination of public conservation and recreation lands and private property. Identifying strategic parcels for protection, ensuring ongoing communication with landowners and developers, and networking with potential partners are essential elements of land protection and stewardship. At times, the most effective way to protect a critical parcel and its ecological significance to the surrounding landscape is to either purchase it or place a conservation restriction on the land. Open Space Residential Design (OSRD) is a local planning tool that can be used as an alternative to the conventional subdivision of land. OSRD encourages early planning and discussion to preserve open space and natural areas while constructing subdivisions in a more economical and efficient manner. Low Impact Development (LID) is a sustainable land development pattern in which site planning focuses on preservation of the natural resources and maintenance of the natural hydrology of a site. Both OSRD and LID can be used together to minimize adverse impacts to ACEC resources.
• Natural resource maps are used as planning tools to identify important waterways, wetlands, floodplains, forests, and wildlife habitats and to guide protection and restoration efforts by illustrating where these resource areas overlap. Maps can be displayed at a variety of public locations, meetings, and workshops to demonstrate local planning or regional issues such as how activities in one community can affect natural resources in neighboring towns. Local stewards can help improve management decisions by ground-truthing these maps to improve their accuracy and by adding new information to the data layers. Geographic Information System (GIS) analysis and mapping are increasingly being used as tools to help understand and manage complex ACEC resources.
• A natural resource inventory compiles information from studies and reports about the unique resources found in an ACEC, highlights gaps in research, and identifies threats and impacts that should be addressed. In addition to a literature review, talking with land managers and scientists is another way to acquire valuable information about natural resources in an ACEC. It is also important for a resource inventory to describe human activities and facilities in an ACEC, such as types of land use and sources of pollution, to illustrate how humans have interacted positively or negatively with these ecosystems.
• A management assessment investigates the effectiveness of regulatory and nonregulatory approaches to resource management at a local or regional level. An evaluation of local regulations and bylaws will identify and highlight the strengths and weaknesses of provisions designed to help protect important resources. A review of state and federal regulations and policies, as well as comparisons of local regulations and bylaws with those of neighboring communities with shared natural resources, can show whether approaches are consistent, complementary, or in conflict with one another. It is also important to identify successful nonregulatory strategies such as working to acquire or protect open space, grant writing, or developing stormwater management plans. A management assessment, which can also be completed through a local master planning process, may reveal variations between communities’ priorities and goals and their levels of staff, expertise, or funding needed to address environmental concerns.
• Issue-focused management plans address specific natural resource concerns such as open space, wetland restoration, shellfish restoration, or wildlife management. These plans provide the guidance needed to implement effective management decisions and can create a foundation for communities deciding to draft a more comprehensive resource management plan.
• An ACEC Resource Management Plan (RMP) may be written by communities with help from regional and state partners to more comprehensively address ways to protect, restore, and enhance ACEC resources. Many approaches described above are often combined in an RMP. The process of developing an RMP requires that interest groups come together to: 1) describe the resources in an ACEC; 2) assess problems and threats; 3) define and prioritize strategies to address the problems; and 4) describe how the ACEC communities will implement strategies, monitor progress, and adapt the plan as needed. Public outreach and participation is essential throughout the process, as success of an RMP requires involvement and support from ACEC residents and an established stewardship group. Since most designated ACECs have boundaries that include more than one municipality, towns are encouraged to work together to develop and implement an RMP and seek help from regional, state, and federal partners to develop these plans.
How do you get started or keep going?
Identifying and discussing issues, interests, and opportunities with potential partners is one of the first steps in initiating ACEC stewardship. Gathering additional information and developing strategies and actions inevitably follow. Several of the stewardship ideas presented above have been tried in different ACECs and many models exist for communities interested in these initiatives. Please contact ACEC Program staff for more information about useful products and contacts, as well as with any stewardship ideas or suggestions you might have.