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Ecological Systems within the Protected Areas of Continental US

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If conservation of biodiversity is the goal, then the protected areas network of the continental US may be one of our best conservation tools for safeguarding ecological systems (i.e., vegetation communities). We evaluated representation of ecological systems in the current protected areas network and found insufficient representation at three vegetation community levels within lower elevations and moderate to high productivity soils. We used national-level data for ecological systems and a protected areas database to explore alternative ways we might be able to increase representation of ecological systems within the continental US. By following one or more of these alternatives it may be possible to increase the representation of ecological systems in the protected areas network both quantitatively (from 10% up to 39%) and geographically and come closer to meeting the suggested Convention on Biological Diversity target of 17% for terrestrial areas. We used the Landscape Conservation Cooperative framework for regional analysis and found that increased conservation on some private and public lands may be important to the conservation of ecological systems in Western US, while increased public-private partnerships may be important in the conservation of ecological systems in Eastern US. We have not assessed the pros and cons of following the national or regional alternatives, but rather present them as possibilities that may be considered and evaluated as decisions are made to increase the representation of ecological systems in the protected areas network across their range of ecological, geographical, and geophysical occurrence in the continental US into the future.
Materials and Methods: Data Description
We used the National Gap Analysis Program (GAP) Land Cover and US Geological Survey GAP’s (USGS-GAP) Protected Areas Database of the US (PAD-US 1.0) as the national datasets for our analyses. The land cover data contains 3 nested hierarchical levels of vegetation communities. Level I contains 8 groupings, based on generalized vegetative physiognomy (e.g., grassland, shrubland, forest), while Level II has 43 groupings representing general groups of ecological systems based on physiognomy and abiotic factors (e.g., lowland grassland and prairie, alpine sparse and barren). The third hierarchical level contains 551 map classes, including 518 ecological systems. We focused on the non-modified, non-aquatic classes at each level (Level I: 5 classes, Level II: 37 classes, and Level III: 518 ecological systems).
The National GAP Land Cover was compiled from the Southwest, Southeast, Northwest, and California GAP land cover data completed during 2004–2009. We incorporated data from LANDFIRE (www.landfire.gov) for the Midwest and Northeast. These national land cover data were based on consistent satellite imagery (Landsat Thematic Mapper (TM) and Enhanced Thematic Mapper (ETM)) acquired between 1999 and 2001 in conjunction with digital elevation model (DEM) derived datasets (e.g., elevation, landform) and a common classification system (i.e., ecological systems) to model natural and semi-natural vegetation. The resolution is 30-m and typically the minimum mapping unit is 1 ha. Regional accuracy assessments and validations have been conducted and, based on those, in general, forest and some shrub ecological systems typically had higher accuracies than rare and small patch ecological systems, such as wetlands.
Jocelyn L. Aycrigg, Anne Davidson, Leona K. Svancara, Kevin J. Gergely, Alexa McKerrow, J. Michael Scott.