Henry Woolsey: A Guardian of All Creatures Great and Small

Henry Woolsey

Henry Woolsey, Program Manager of the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) and leader of the team that created the recently releasedBioMap2, retired this year after 30 years.

In 1978, The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with the help of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), launched the Natural Heritage Program as part of a push to establish natural heritage programs in all 50 states. Henry joined the Program in Massachusetts in 1981. The NHESP is a program within the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, and it works to ensure conservation of the Commonwealth’s native biodiversity. Thanks in large part to Henry Woolsey, today Massachusetts’ NHESP is one of the strongest in the country.

The NHESP is focused on the species and natural communities in Massachusetts that are most in need of protection and stewardship. The 432 native plant and animal species listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act and the 108 types of natural communities currently described within Massachusetts are tracked by the program. As Program Manager of the NHESP, Henry had the lead responsibility of overseeing the field inventory of our state’s rare species, and was responsible for the development of the database used to track it.

In addition to keeping track of our state’s rare species and important natural communities, Henry also worked to see that our state laws help to protect them.  He played a very important role in the establishment of the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, which took 5 years to pass. He also is largely responsible for the requirement within the Wetlands Protection Act that proposed alterations to wetland habitats of rare wildlife be reviewed by the NHESP. By those who know him and worked with him, like Loring Schwarz a long-time conservation professional and colleague of Henry’s, he is understood as a “naturalist by nature with a valuable gift of political savvy” as well as someone who has “made the most of what a NHESP can be.”

While Henry’s work with the rare species inventory and its database and his effectiveness on Beacon Hill have a significant impact on our ability to protect rare species now and going forward, Henry’s final “parting gift” to the NHESP is probably the most visible to the broader conservation community—it is the recently released “BioMap2,” developed in partnership with TNC. BioMap2 is an invaluable tool not only used by the State in their own conservation initiatives, but also highly used by other government agencies, towns, and non-profit organizations like Mass Audubon to accomplish strategic land conservation that benefits rare species and preserves biodiversity. BioMap2 guides conservation by focusing land protection on areas containing rare and other native species and their habitats, exemplary natural communities, and a diversity of ecosystems. It consists of easy to use mapping data, available to everyone in the country (you can look at it here), depicting land in Massachusetts with the highest levels of biodiversity—making it possible for any conservation group or agency to develop goals precisely targeted at the most ecologically valuable habitat in the state.

“Henry did an excellent job of planning, organizing, and putting together BioMap2 from concept to production,” said Tom French, Assistant Director of the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and Henry’s supervisor. Prior to the creation of BioMap2, the conservation community relied on the original BioMap (terrestrial biodiversity) and Living Waters (aquatic biodiversity) mapping tools that were also created by the NHESP under the management of Henry as a guide to which areas of Massachusetts were most critical to the survival of biodiversity and rare species. The original BioMap and Living Waters maps are similar to BioMap2, however, BioMap2 combines them into one while incorporating  data denoting areas believed to be critical for climate change adaptation. Because of the climate change adaptation component, BioMap2 is recognized as one of the best examples of climate change adaptation planning in the country. No other state has created anything similar, though The Nature Conservancy has encouraged other states to imitate it.

Through BioMap2 and the preceding BioMap and Living Waters mapping tools, the management of a thorough rare species inventory and the database containing it, and his work in the establishment of state legislation that protects rare species, Henry has had a tremendous impact on the conservation of rare species in Massachusetts. Thanks to Henry, land protection practitioners statewide have access to the very best information available to guide them. Current and future generations of plants, animals, and people are indebted to him.