Every two years protected area managers, scientists, and every kind of experts on cultural and natural heritage gather at the George Wright Conference to present papers, engage in lively discussions and swap professional gossip at the bar. I always find these meetings to be the place to spot emerging ideas and trends in the field. For the 2017 conference titled Connections across People, Place and Time, I journeyed to the conference location in Norfolk VA with my attention focused on what is ahead for the large landscapes movement.
The answer: It is headed to the top of the charts. The conference’s opening session was titled “Making the Big Connections: The Future of Conservation on a Landscape Scale”. And it featured two of the preeminent leaders in the field of connectivity conservation, Harvey Locke, Co-founder and Strategic Advisor of the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative and Gary Tabor, Founder of the Center for Landscape Conservation.
They spoke about the vast scale needed to conserve migratory wildlife and of the critical need to work on a large enough canvas particularly as climate change disrupts our natural systems. For example, the Yellowstone to Yukon worked to identify bottlenecks to species movement and facilitate targeted land acquisition in this 3,500-kilometer corridor. Both speakers proposed that this big picture strategy needs to go global and that to thrive nature needs half.
So this was a strong start. What other ideas from the conference had implications for landscape scale work? Well here are a few:
1.The indivisible connection between Nature and Culture
The need for a dialogue between the disciplines of culture and nature is now out in the open and landscapes are an important place of intersection. As one speaker noted “Culture is the pathway to the conservation ethic”. One session reprised some of the highlights of the Nature Culture Journey at the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Hawaii where there were over 60 presentations on the topic.
Most interesting for someone not inside the National Park Service (NPS) was the inclusive tenor of the recently issued NPS Director’s Order 100. It states that 21st century resource stewardship requires coordination between natural and cultural resource programs and follows up with a host of proposed action to achieve such integration. A long time attendee, grasping the full scope of the order, said to me “ I have been waiting my whole NPS career for this”.
2. The importance of the Urban Interface
There were a good number of sessions on nature in the city. These included initiatives in Chicago, Portland, and Tucson. Many of these efforts are linked together by such groups as the Metropolitan Greenspace Alliance who’s tagline is “Nature is not a place to visit it is home” and Natural Neighbors which works to promote metropolitan and regional conservation alliances. And it is not just about nature. The Natural Neighbors web site identifies the importance of cultivating a community’s sense of belonging and of civic responsibility by valuing a region’s history and culture, as well as its natural environment.
And one more thing, the NPS Urban Agenda is making a difference. For example, every year the George Wright Society sponsors a prestigious program for graduate students called Park Break Program. This is an all-expenses-paid, park-based field seminar for graduate students who are thinking about a career in park management or park-related research and education. In 2016, the Park Break seminar was held in Detroit a place without a traditional national park unit to serve as home base. Under the direction of the city’s NPS sponsored urban fellow, the students tackled research on the cultural heritage of the city. This the way to develop 21st century protected area managers!
3. The recognition of Indigenous People in the Landscape
The George Wright Society has a strong commitment to ensuring that indigenous voices are represented at the biannual conferences. The organization puts it money where its mouth is by offering travel grants for participation by indigenous people from Canada, Mexico and the United States with the goal of encouraging discussion on parks, protected areas, and cultural sites. More than any other professional gathering I have ever attended, the George Wright meetings weave together indigenous viewpoints as part of opening ceremonies,the plenary presentations, the conference sessions, and at special events and receptions.
This year taking advantage of the conference location in the Mid-Atlantic, there were a number of sessions on the innovative work being done to better understand the deep time depth of the human occupation of the Chesapeake watershed. Many thanks to Chief Ann Richards and Chief Stephen Adkins for their perceptive presentations placed their people in this landscape in the past through to today. Sessions and discussions included contextualizing the recently designated national monument Werocomocco and an update of the Indigenous Cultural landscape approach to the home land of the Rappahannock people on the eastern shore of Maryland. Read the full report on Defining the Rappahannock Cultural Landscape.
Finally, and not directly related to large landscape practice, I was struck by the number of presentations that focused on the history of protected area management. Perhaps it is the current state of the nation, but attendees were seeking solace in lessons from the past. For the large landscape movement, this conference seemed to confirm that the time is now. As noted in NPS Directive 100, land and seascapes need to be managed to sustain biodiversity and viable ecosystems as well as to be managed in such a way as to understand the resources larger thematic and geographic context. However, when we look back on this moment in fifty years, will we see this as a break through moment or the beginning of a long slide down hill?