NHARPC CORNER: Reboot your Natural Resources Inventory
The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA’s legal services or your municipal attorney.
The What and Why
Natural Resources Inventory (NRI) is a term used to describe a document that includes the natural and cultural resources information that all Conservation Commissions are required to inventory under New Hampshire law. RSA 36-A:2, the stature that enables cities and towns to form conservation commissions, states in relevant part that conservation commissions “[ ] shall keep an index of all open space and natural, aesthetic or ecological areas within the city or town, as the case may be, with the plan of obtaining information pertinent to proper utilization of such areas, including lands owned by the state or lands owned by a town or city. It shall keep an index of all marshlands, swamps and all other wet lands in a like manner, and may recommend to the city council or selectmen or to the department of natural and cultural resources a program for the protection, development or better utilization of all such areas.”
At minimum, an NRI typically includes tables and maps describing town/city and state-owned conservation land along with town forests, parks, and other recreational areas. NRI’s also include maps and tables describing wetlands, streams, lakes, ponds, and usually groundwater resources such as high yield aquifers. Important wildlife habitat areas and key natural features such as steep slopes, farmland soils, forest cover and other similar natural features are also included. Often, the NRI will also serve as a conservation plan and contain recommendations designed to protect a community’s natural resources which can include policy related recommendations such as changes to land use regulations, recommendations for managing town or city-owned conservation lands or strategies for land acquisition. In other communities, the NRI is strictly an inventory, and a separate conservation plan is prepared that focuses on conservation related strategies.
Active and engaged conservation commissions usually look beyond the minimum required components of the NRI to include a broader range of natural and cultural resources of particular importance to their communities. This article explores some different approaches and innovative practices that have been adopted by local conservation commission and the regional planning commissions working on their behalf. For more information NRIs, the publication, Natural Resource Inventories, A Guide for New Hampshire Communities and Conservation Groups prepared by the UNH Cooperative Extension is an excellent resource.
With every NRI update, community leaders decide whether to include topics beyond those foundational ones. Unique conditions and project budget inform which topics to include. A few scenarios are when a community decides–
- Recent growth in the local recreation economy warrants prioritization of a recreational resources section.
- New challenges require direct attention to inform targeted action, such as those with stormwater management and flooding, invasive species, or new threats to water quality pollution (e.g., Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances [PFAS]).
- Insufficient detail on priority natural resources calls for the addition of new data sources, when available. For example, expanded citizen science platforms (e.g., eBird, iNaturalist) may expand inventory of plants and wildlife.
- Urgent action is needed, such as on climate change due to worsening impacts (e.g., flooding, drought, maple sap production). New data sources (e.g., 2016 Resilient and Connected Lands by TNC) make this more possible.
The impacts of climate change on agriculture, as well as pandemic induced disruptions to food supply, highlight the need for increasing opportunities for local food production. An NRI provides a platform for communities to elevate the importance of the working landscape of agricultural soils and active and potential farmland as critical infrastructure needed to strengthen resiliency. In addition to food production and scenic, rural character, farmland provides a myriad of ecosystem services, including wildlife habitat, floodwater mitigation and storage, and carbon sequestration. Inventorying existing farms in town and mapping farmland soils are important first steps for adding food production and agriculture to the list of key natural resources in the community. Additional steps include developing an agricultural profile that provides a comprehensive overview of a community’s agricultural industry and includes information pertaining to soil type and acres, number and type of farms, and zoning and agricultural land use.
Threats from rising sea level and coastal storm surge require coastal communities to inventory natural resources needed to mitigate these threats. Salt marsh, tidal wetlands, dunes, and coastal rivers and streams form the frontlines of defense and protection of these natural resources can mitigate the impacts of sea level rise and storm surge. Vulnerability Assessments have been completed by the Rockingham Planning Commission for all coastal communities in New Hampshire and an NRI should reference the maps and recommendations included in these assessments.
Engaging Your Community
Developing an NRI presents an opportunity to engage your community on the issues and hear what is most important to them. A public involvement component can add legitimacy, improve transparency, and ensure the community’s needs and values are reflected in the document. An inventory of natural resources can be more effective if it can be seen through the lens of the community. Natural resources provide a range of services to people and nature, all of which have value. Part of the task of the NRI should be to parse out where and how each of these resources are valued so we can best meet the needs of the community and the environment.
An outreach component to an NRI may seek input on specific categories like agriculture, wildlife habitat, recreation, etc. and perhaps weigh them against each other. Outreach can also seek to align natural resource protection efforts in conjunction with other community goals, such as housing and economic development. Simple questions, like “what open spaces in town are most important to you, and why?” are great ways to engage and map out the most loved natural spaces .
The Central New Hampshire Regional Planning Commission includes a public input component to each NRI it conducts for its communities, typically through the use of online surveys, and events or open forums hosted by a project team of staff and town volunteers. The scale, scope, and sophistication varies depending on the need and budget, but an earnest effort to solicit input strengthens community buy in and adds value to the process.
Co-Occurrence and Weighted Co-Occurrence Analysis
Most NRIs have a co-occurrence analysis of some form, where different data layers representing natural resource features are stacked on top of each other to show which parts of town serve multiple natural resource functions. Features such as important wildlife habitat, drinking water aquifers, and buffers from streams can all be mapped to show where they overlap. Areas that have the most overlap are likely to have the most natural resource value because they serve multiple purposes.
Co-occurrence mapping can be taken a step further by weighting each input data layer. Public input can be incorporated by weighing more heavily natural resource layers that are most important to the town. If public outreach indicates that the community most strongly values its public water supply resource, the public water supply aquifer (or watershed) could be scored higher (10 points), with relatively fewer points (4 or 2) of other resource layers. The result is a map where each area has a combined score, with the highest scores representing lands with the highest natural resource value.
Communicating the Results
An NRI will need to have technical information and detail, but it is also important to make sure the information is accessible, and the primary points of the document are clearly communicated. One effective tool for communicating the NRI and its results is to pair the NRI document with an interactive online component, such as a story map. A story map is an online map that has been given context with supporting information, pictures, legends, and other functions to help engage the reader. A reader can scroll through the post and read descriptions of each map, with an ability to zoom, interact, investigate, and follow the narrative. https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/65b542e007ca411ca0fd8c9bcb5e94c3
By Craig Tufts (Central NH RPC), Jay Minkarah (Nashua RPC), Olivia Uyizeye (Upper Valley/Lake Sunapee RPC), and Theresa Walker (Rockingham Planning Commision)