Humphrey School News—December 10, 2018

Visualizing Environmental Benefits with UMN’s New Assessment Tool

New tool tells you how your favorite piece of nature compares to the rest of the state


A wide view of Afton State Park in Hastings, Minnesota
Afton State Park in Hastings, Minnesota. Photo: Aaron Huber on Unsplash

Conservation practitioners face a formidable challenge when deciding what land to protect and why. Minnesota alone has more than 400,000 undeveloped and privately held parcels of land, with dozens of environmental benefits to consider.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, led by scientist Ryan Noe at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, have developed an evaluation tool that can be used to assess the environmental benefits of any undeveloped parcel in Minnesota.

The current system evaluates those parcels based on factors such as the amount of habitat, their proximity to other protected areas, or the presence of rare species. Noe says it’s impossible to perform that type of assessment on every undeveloped parcel in the state, meaning some valuable land could be passed over for protection.

The new tool uses existing data to score every undeveloped parcel on 11 environmental benefit factors that prioritize contributions to human wellbeing. For example: Instead of prioritizing parcels that had the best bird habitat, the researchers also included information on where people go to engage in bird watching, and gave the highest scores to parcels that had both high-quality bird habitat and high rates of bird watching.

“We tried to balance making the tool simple to use with the complexity of the land acquisition process,” says Noe. “Ultimately we hope the tool will complement existing approaches and provide a starting point for better understanding and communicating the values of these parcels.”

The research is supported by the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF). 

This story was adapted from a longer version published on the Institute on the Environment's website

Ryan Noe is a senior scientist in the Humphrey School’s Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy area. He oversees projects on water and land use with state agencies, planners, and policymakers in Minnesota. 

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