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Capstone to Conservation
CAPS landscape decision-support tool guides decision makers
Benton Brook in Massachusetts. Photo credit: Shep Evans

“It’s the beginning of how we can start to think about ecological restoration in novel ways that might actually be more cost effective and get us more environmental benefits than the more traditional approaches we’ve had up until now.” 
- Scott Jackson

The Conservation Assessment and Prioritization System (CAPS) is a computer program that provides a cutting-edge landscape-based assessment of the ecological integrity and biodiversity value of a given landscape. UMass Amherst researchers Kevin McGarigal, Scott Jackson, Brad Compton and Kasey Rolih (Department of Environmental Conservation) comprise the core CAPS team that has developed and refined the system over the past 12 years.

Every city and town in Massachusetts is mapped through CAPS; every point in the landscape is assigned a score on the Index of Ecological Integrity (IEI). The CAPS system accomplishes this by first mapping ecological communities such as forests, shrub swamps, deep marshes, tidal flats, and coastal dunes. The system then employs resiliency and anthropogenic stressor metrics, formulas developed using raw data collected statewide, and in doing so calculates the degree of stress that a landscape is likely to endure.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has long supported CAPS research. DEP has taken a particular interest in the application of CAPS to conserve wetlands and aquatic ecosystems, an area that CAPS is pioneering.  The Department has used CAPS to develop habitat maps, which designate certain areas as “Habitat of Potential Regional and Statewide Importance.”

The Nature Conservancy, which is dedicated to preserving high-priority wilderness, has worked with and supported the CAPS team for the past ten years. Andy Finton, Director of Conservation for the Massachusetts chapter, has employed the system as various models were developing. “We’ve been using their data as soon as it comes out of the oven,” Finton says.

Finton says that CAPS helps the Nature Conservancy use science to make the best possible decisions and uses it regularly to assess the ecological value of land parcels. For example, the chapter used the system to assess whether to extend the commuter rail south, towards Cape Cod. In analyzing the data with CAPS, Finton and his staff found that the commuter rail would run through important freshwater marshes. “We try to make sure the best ecological data is on the table,” says Finton.

According to Jackson, Massachusetts was an interesting place to develop the system, as it is the third most densely populated state in the country yet is over 60-percent forested. CAPS helps ensure that ecologically important areas are identified and that they remain intact and contiguous. It allows landowners, prospective buyers, and conservation organizations to assess an array of factors simultaneously—biodiversity, water distribution, slope, soils, traffic rates, habitats, resiliency—all of which determine the ecological integrity of a parcel. Municipalities and others can use CAPS as a way to quantify the multitude of elements that are necessary to consider when deciding which areas to preserve.

In order for the program to work, raw data is needed. The team has conducted extensive field research over the years to create a fast and accurate system, as municipalities and agencies often need to make land decisions quickly. CAPS functions as an objective way to evaluate; it is intended to inform decisions “no matter what” the goals.

Shep Evans of Great Barrington, Massachusetts works with private buyers and sellers of land through his real estate company, Friday and Co., and through his work on the town’s Master Planning Committee and the Housatonic Valley Association. Evans says that he uses CAPS at least once a month and that it has enhanced his knowledge of certain parcels and helps him communicate “conservation messages.”

And interest is spreading beyond the state. The CAPS team has pilot watersheds under development in Maine and Maryland, and Jackson estimates that within three years the entire North Atlantic region will be mapped in CAPS. McGarigal, Jackson and the team are also working to manipulate the CAPS system to calculate the future effects of climate change, an area that could have an important impact on preparing for global climate change.

“It’s the beginning of how we can start to think about ecological restoration in novel ways that might actually be more cost effective and actually get us more environmental benefits than the more traditional approaches we’ve had up until now,” Jackson says.

Kevin McGarigal, Professor and Director of the Landscape Ecology Lab in the Department of Environmental Conservation, leads the CAPS team alongside Scott Jackson, an Extension Associate Professor. They conceived the idea for the program in 1999 and reeled in ecologist and modeler Brad Compton and community ecologist Kasey Rolih for further development the following year.

Amanda Drane ‘12