Tracking stream conditions on private lands in the southern appalachian mountains
Sullivan, Jeremy Charles
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Monitoring the impacts of exurbanization on streams poses several challenges to researchers that include accurately predicting where residential development is likely to occur, and obtaining landowner permission to access streams on private lands. Here, we implemented two complimentary strategies for detecting changes to streams on private lands undergoing the early phases of urbanization. The first phase of this study was a “top-down”, long-term monitoring project that utilized a predictive land use/land cover model to accurately forecast residential development in selected sub-watersheds. We detected differences in water chemistries and fish communities between forested and suburban sub-watersheds that fall in line with the “urban stream syndrome” and suggest the early phases of biotic homogenization. Next, we developed and tested the Southern Appalachian Stream Visual Assessment Protocol: a “bottom-up”, landowner-centered, habitat survey, modified for wadable streams of the Southern Blue Ridge eco-region. Field testing of the protocol demonstrated that individual scoring elements correlate strongly with paired habitat metrics, while overall scores correlate with fish index of biotic integrity scores. We also showed the protocol can reliably be used by both novice and expert users to determine overall stream habitat ratings. Lastly, in an interdisciplinary investigation of the relationship between landowner perceptions of stream health and stream habitat condition, we found most of photo-survey respondents generally prefer streams with forested riparian zones, and that these preferences change depending on whether streams are used for recreation vs. aesthetic enjoyment. To our knowledge this is the first study to incorporate a “top-down”, scientist-led, long-term ecological monitoring project; and a “bottom-up” landowner-centered stream habitat assessment, in an investigation of stream responses in watersheds undergoing different degrees of residential and commercial development. Our work demonstrates the importance of including private lands in studies of ecological change in regions undergoing rapid development, and the benefits of engaging landowners in stream stewardship. Our hope is to provide a model for future collaborative and interdisciplinary projects that seek to bridge the gaps between academic research, conservation practice, and public perception.