The Zoo is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Entry passes are required for all guests, including infants. Plan your visit.

The Changing Landscapes Initiative is a Smithsonian-led program bridging the gap between scientists and communities. CLI scientists work alongside community members to evaluate the impacts of land use change on wildlife, ecosystem services and community health. Its mission is to combine research with community wisdom to help secure a vibrant and healthy future for people and wildlife.

Healthy functioning ecosystems are essential to human life. They provide fresh water, food, a stable climate, resilience to flood and disease, and beautiful landscapes to explore. CLI scientists investigate how changes in land use could impact ecosystems and the services they provide to humanity, both now and in the future.

People and wildlife rely on several types of ecosystem services for their physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.

CLI researchers ask: In the face of change, how will land use decisions we make today impact the things we care about tomorrow? And what can scientists do to help plan for the future?

By collaborating with community members, CLI scientists ensure that the information they develop is timely and relevant to the needs of the people it is intended to serve. CLI shares this information with communities, planners, conservation groups, and other scientists to help develop resilient, long-term plans that preserve the natural, cultural, historic and economic resources that make a place special.

Where We Work

For the past five years, the Changing Landscapes Initiative has focused on a 15-county region in Northwestern Virginia that surrounds Shenandoah National Park and borders George Washington National Forest.

This region comprises forests, meandering rivers, rolling mountains, native grasslands, farms, and historic towns like Charlottesville and Harrisonburg. This biodiverse landscape hosts a number of charismatic plant and animal species, such as native orchids, bumblebees, and large mammals like bobcats and black bears.

  • A map of a 15-county region in Northwestern Virginia where Changing Landscapes Initiative scientists work. The key includes forest, grasses, crops and developed land, which is detailed in the map.

    The Changing Landscapes Initative’s pilot study area is located in a 15-county region of Northwestern Virginia.

  • A pie chart displaying the current land cover in Northern Virginia: 56.8% forest, 29.5% grassland, 3.6% cropland, and 10.1% development.

    The composition of the land in the Changing Landscape Initiative's pilot study area of Northwestern Virginia, as of December 2020.

The landscape in Northwestern Virginia provides opportunities for agriculture, recreation, and tourism — all of which uphold thriving local cultures and economies and create a unique sense of place. Residents and visitors alike can hike the Appalachian Trail, shop at a community farmers market, and enjoy live music at a local winery, all in one day. Yet, this region is also experiencing rapid change driven by its proximity to nearby cities like Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.

There is significant pressure for development to accommodate an increasing population. The expansion of development into historically rural and agricultural areas has already begun to impact wildlife habitat, water quality, and scenic views in some parts of the region. Overall, however, the landscape has remained ecologically rich and maintains its charming rural character..

In 2016, CLI scientists collaborated with community leaders across the region to develop a set of potential future scenarios for Northwestern Virginia. CLI then combined the scenario narratives with data to develop maps which show what each scenario could look like in 2060, from a bird’s eye view.. They also completed an analysis on the impacts of land use on water quality, forest connectivity, and pollinators, such as bees, butterflies and birds.

CLI scientists are able to share these maps and ecosystem service analyses with county planners, conservation advocates and community leaders. With this information, communities can make informed decisions in order to preserve the region’s rural landscape, ecosystem services and community wellbeing.

This science is now being translated into graphic visualizations, such as infographics and simulated future landscapes, that will help communities connect with the science. As a new year begins, CLI scientists hope to expand their work to other regions across North America and are actively exploring new collaborations.

Photo Gallery

A portion of the forest-covered Blue Ridge Mountains at Pinnacles Overlook in Shenandoah National Park.

The Blue Ridge Mountains are a cornerstone of the Changing Landscape Initiative’s pilot study region of Northwestern Virginia. Communities can use CLI’s data on land-use change and its impacts to ensure treasured mountain views, like this one at Pinnacles Overlook in Shenandoah National Park, are preserved for the long-term.

An aerial view of a portion of the Shenandoah river with muddy waters, surrounded by forests under a clear blue sky with few clouds

The Shenandoah River bends its way through the forests and farmlands of Warren County, Virginia. CLI scientists analyze how decisions made on the land will impact water quality.

A researcher stands among tall trees in a sunlit forest in Virginia.

A field researcher collects data in the verdant forests of Front Royal, Virginia. CLI staff conduct research to understand the current and future impacts of land use decisions on forest connectivity, wildlife migration and biodiversity, among other essential ecosystem services. 

A researcher uses a remote control to operate a small, flying drone in a grassy area of Virginia

Landscape ecologist Iara Lacher operates a drone camera in the grasslands of Albemarle County, Virginia. CLI uses drone photography to create graphic communications tools that can help planners and conservation organizations in their advocacy for strategic land-use planning.

A red barn surrounded by grass and a few trees with farm animals grazing beside it.

In Northwestern Virginia, and similar places across the world, agriculture is a driver of the local economy and a fundamental aspect of the region’s culture. The Changing Landscapes Initiative develops information that can help guide land-management practices and preserve agricultural land into the future, like this family-owned farm in Frederick County, Virginia. 

People sit on chairs and blankets on a wide, grassy lawn surrounded by trees

Landscapes across the United States are adapting to shifts in population dynamics, like this community in Loudoun County, Virginia. The Changing Landscapes Initiative serves as a resource for county planners and helps them accommodate shifting populations while also preserving the natural resources that communities rely on to live and thrive. 

The Changing Landscapes Initiative Team

Craig Fergus, Spatial Analyst and Lab Manager

Craig Fergus is a spatial analyst for the Changing Landscape Initiative and lab manager for Working Land and Seascapes. He focuses on using GIS and other tools to examine the connections between landscape patterns and functioning ecosystems. Learn more about Craig Fergus.

Tom Akre, Ph.D., Founder and Program Scientist

Tom Akre is the founder of the Changing Landscapes Initiative and the program scientist for Working Land and Seascapes. He coordinates efforts to study and conserve biodiversity and the processes that support the delicate balance of healthy, productive ecosystems in human-dominated landscapes. Learn more about Tom Akre.

Iara Lacher, Ph.D., Program Lead

Iara Lacher is a landscape ecologist and project lead with the Changing Landscapes Initiative. Her current work combines scenario planning and spatially explicit land-use models to illustrate how different land-use features may impact biodiversity and ecosystem services. Learn more about Iara Lacher.