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Outside the Box and "Outside the Watershed"

Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

Ellie M. Cohen


I was recently honored to be the keynote speaker at the Marin Municipal Water District's Mount Tamalpais Watershed Symposium on "Preservation, Extinction and Change on a Local Scale."

The regional water district, steward to some of the most magnificent natural resources within a major urban area, is developing its new 10- to 15-year vegetation management plan. With great foresight, they gathered together scientists from a range of disciplines to share insights on how to manage for biodiversity and clean, abundant water supplies in our quickly changing world. Over 250 attendees, including many from the general public, joined in to address cutting-edge questions that are vital to our collective future.
Mount Tamalpais scene, Marin County, California.

How do we manage fire-dependent habitats in an increasingly arid—and thus fire-prone—environment, as more urban structures (e.g., family homes) are built directly adjacent to watershed lands? Do we use carefully selected herbicides to control noxious invasives such as Scotch and French broom, which essentially eradicate native species and the food sources so many birds and other wildlife depend upon? How do we prioritize conservation of sensitive species, with limited funding and competing interests at stake (e.g., birds versus wider fire trails or frogs versus recreational enjoyment of streams)?

Managing for the greatest biodiversity and ecosystem resiliency is fundamental to our ability to minimize the impacts of our ever-growing human footprint, from habitat degradation and the spread of invasive species to global warming. The urgency of the challenge requires creative thinking outside the box, or, as one of the scientists at the symposium suggested, "outside the watershed."

This includes not only expanding partnerships with adjacent public landowners (county, state, and federal) but also investing in innovative new collaborations with private landowners on the periphery of water district lands. Ensuring connectivity of habitats for species to move within is a fundamental conservation strategy.

For example, restoring riparian habitat on adjacent private lands can provide corridors needed for wildlife and plant life to migrate and to move through over time, rather than being stopped by the barriers of streets, housing complexes, and other urban development. Riparian restoration on private lands serves to slow down deadly flood waters, which are predicted to become more extreme in our rapidly warming world. Healthy riparian also replenishes underground aquifers, provides nutrients to adjacent upland habitats, and supports fisheries.

Beyond the Watershed
Ellie M. Cohen

Public-private partnerships should not stop at the edges of the watershed. Working with the marine fishing community is also essential to our ability to navigate the waters of change ahead. This year's precipitous decline in salmon returns from the ocean to their natal freshwater streams within Marin Municipal Water District lands (as well as across northern California and Oregon) demands more collaboration across a wide range of public and private entities on land and at sea.

As this Observer highlights, public conservation efforts in concert with private interests can have an enormously positive impact on our ability to protect species, enhance species diversity, and preserve ecosystem services, including fresh water, clean air, pollination and carbon sequestration, that wildlife and human life relies on.

With more changes ahead, we must look beyond traditional boundaries and practices to find common solutions. Kudos to the Marin Municipal Water District for truly thinking globally and acting locally!