This month’s Practitioner Spotlight is with Jeff Allenby, Director of Conservation Technology at the Chesapeake Conservancy’s Conservation Innovation Center. Jeff has worked in the field of environmental management and geospatial analysis for over 11 years. Prior to joining the Chesapeake Conservancy in 2012, Jeff worked with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Jeff has a Masters degree in Environmental Management and Certificate in Geospatial Analysis from Duke University, and a Bachelors of Science from the University of Richmond.
The Institute for Landscape Conservation Design (i4LCD) promotes practitioners with diverse experiences in landscape conservation design. We share their stories and highlight their project work. If you would like to be considered for a Practitioner Spotlight interview, contact us at: email@example.com, include “Practitioner Spotlight” in the Subject line, and give a short summary of your expertise and/or related landscape conservation design project.
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i4LCD: Who do you work for, Jeff?
Jeff: I’m the Director of Conservation Technology at the Chesapeake Conservancy and manage our Conservation Innovation Center (Center). The Center is an internationally recognized program focused on integrating technology and environmental management to address planning challenges throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed and increasingly across the country. We work with partners to help understand the unique challenges and data needs they have in their daily work and create new solutions that provide them with the information they need in a format they can easily access and integrate into their existing workflow.
i4LCD: How does the Center do that?
Jeff: We use GIS and remote sensing to provide our partners with a better understanding of the landscape they live in. We identify where conservation or restoration practices could maximize environmental benefits, such as habitat, water quality, and climate resilience. As much as possible, we want to help our partners look at their geographies holistically and across sectors to identify landscapes that can provide a multitude of benefits and represent the best opportunities out of all potential projects, not just what has been submitted.
i4LCD: What first interested you in GIS and/or remote sensing work?
Jeff: I’ve always been drawn to the field of GIS because of its power to inform decision making and to organize a group’s thinking and strategy development by applying the right analysis to a pile of data. Throughout graduate school, I saw a lot of untapped potential to apply emerging technologies to the environmental world. As other industries quickly identified the benefits of increased computing power and “big data,” the environmental community was lagging behind, often constrained by the mentality of “that’s out of our reach.” I had a natural inclination to challenge those conventions and often found myself asking “why not?”
i4LCD: What are some of the major challenges society faces in the geographic area where you work?
Jeff: One of the biggest challenges the entire conservation community faces is how to accomplish our goals when funding is continually being reduced right as we start to make progress. The natural world has a bit of lag; you’re not always going to see immediate benefits to an action. There’s often criticism that the conservation community hasn’t made enough progress for the investments made over the last four decades. In light of that, we’re trying to help quantify the anticipated benefits of projects, helping partners communicate the importance of continued action, and give funders a greater sense of confidence that wise investments are being made.
Closer to home, here in the Chesapeake, there’s been a concerted effort since the early 1980’s to improve water quality. It’s been a multi-jurisdictional commitment that, for the most part, has been upheld, and we’re starting to see the Bay’s health come back. A lot of the progress we’ve made has been the result of accomplishing the “easy” things, like upgrading wastewater treatment plants and permanently protecting some of the largest, undeveloped portions of the watershed. To truly meet our goals, we’re going to have to work acre-by-acre, literally, focusing on much tougher issues like non-point source pollution in agricultural and urban systems. We’re looking to technology as a way to help pinpoint where actions would be most beneficial and make sure that we don’t lose the momentum we currently have.
i4LCD: Do you think a landscape approach can address any of those challenges?
Jeff: Absolutely! We’re working with multiple partners to create a landscape-scale conservation and restoration vision for the Chesapeake Bay. We’ve been supporting the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership for the last four years, creating their Conservation Atlas which identifies threats and capacity throughout the region. It prioritizes landscapes for five focal regions that provide the greatest mix of conservation benefits.
i4LCD: What’s the purpose of the project?
Jeff: The ultimate goal is to conserve 50% of the Chesapeake by 2050. The mapping analyses we’re doing will inform future conservation planning projects by developing a series of long-term conservation goals for farms, forests, habitat, heritage, and human health. Our work identifies existing resources and possible impediments to achieving identified goals. The Chesapeake Conservation Partnership has used the information to identify 11.5 million acres of highly valued lands for conservation, meaning lands that have multiple overlapping values, such as farms, forests, and heritage lands. That’s 11.5 million acres in addition to the 8.8 million acres that are already permanently protected land in the watershed.
i4LCD: What does innovation look like within the context of landscape conservation design?
Jeff: A lot of the work we’re doing is focused on creating the data and tools our partners need to operate at a very fine scale, often at a sub-parcel/sub-field scale. Simultaneously, we are conducting these baseline assessments landscape-wide, identifying all of the conservation and restoration opportunities so we can evaluate individual projects within the context of the entire landscape, not just the few projects that have been proposed. The cost of processing data has dropped dramatically over the last five years so now we can leverage “big data” in our planning efforts and identify meaningful insights about the “best” places to work at various scales.
i4LCD: Can you give us a sense of what innovations are in development that might be useful in landscape conservation design?
Jeff: In the coming years, the conservation community will be using “near real-time” integrated models that don’t just model the potential benefits of an individual project (similar to what we have now), but we’ll be able to assess the interrelated impacts of a project with everything else that is going on in the landscape. We have the foundation for a lot of these models now, such as the Chesapeake Bay TMDL suite of models. However, because they’re so complex and rely on a variety of datasets that are only updated every 1-2 years. I see these models, and the datasets they run on, moving towards a system where they become “living” models. As projects are implemented or new information is collected, the model will automatically be updated and all of the interrelated aspects of the model will adjust accordingly. That will dramatically improve decision-making as planners and managers are able to proactively determine the impacts, both immediate and indirect, of proposed actions. We’ll be able to see how changes in the landscape are impacting critical environmental systems as they happen, instead of years later.
i4LCD: What inspires you and gives you hope for the future, Jeff?
Jeff: The ingenuity and passion of the partners we work with. Every project that we work on is essentially an applied research project. We work with partners to help understand what their current practice is, where they have roadblocks and inefficiencies, and then determine an appropriate path forward, creating new data, tools, or methodologies where needed. Without exception, the work our partners are doing and the creativity they’ve shown in building systems in a resource constrained environment, making the most of limited funding and time that they have, is incredible. In a lot of our work, we are releasing a bottleneck and it is amazing to see how quickly our partners embrace their new capabilities and how it accelerates the pace with which they are working. I’m excited to see how the fundamental nature of conservation and restoration is going to change in the coming decade, moving from a system that prioritizes effort, or how many trees were planted, to a system that incentivizes performance; getting the trees in the right places to maximize their impact.
i4LCD: Do you have any final thoughts to share, Jeff?
Jeff: I firmly believe that we are on the cusp of a revolution in land management and planning. Joel Dunn, the Chesapeake Conservancy’s President, often compares where we’re at to Bob Dylan’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, where he moved from acoustic to electric. We are only beginning to see the impacts, and benefits, of the technology that is just becoming available to the conservation movement. I’m excited to see how our community embraces it and begins to think differently about how decisions are made. Models are always going to have to make assumptions and offer an abstraction of the “real world”, but we are beginning to have the tools available to us that allow that abstraction to become less of a Picasso and more of a Monet. The natural world is incredibly complex and our understanding of it is still maturing. Part of my role is to make sure that technology, or our access to it, isn’t the barrier to making the best decisions possible.