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Bridging the Nature/Culture Divide with Ecological Restoration

By Guest Observer July 28, 2016

By Jon Weller

Galiano Island in the Gulf Islands Archipelago, Canada Courtesy: Jon Weller

Galiano Island in the Gulf Islands Archipelago, Canada
Courtesy: Jon Weller

Lately, many members of the conservation community have been asking the question of how we resolve the dissonance in our thinking between the goals of conserving ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. One area where this question is being dealt with in an engaging way is within the field of ecological restoration. What the dialogue happening within this field demonstrates is that far from being antagonistic towards each other, as it is often portrayed, the goals of conserving ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ can be intricately intertwined and mutually reinforcing.

Restoration ecology is a practice that has traditionally sought to return disturbed natural environments to what they were before a point of human disturbance. But, this is increasingly recognized as an unlikely goal. On the one hand there is a growing awareness that there has never been an original point of pre-human contact to return to, and secondly, in a world where anthropogenic change is pushing flora and fauna far beyond their historical range it is “futile to try to restore past conditions.”1 Therefore, contemporary restoration ecologists do not aim to ‘recreate’ the past, so much as to reestablish the historical trajectory of an impaired ecosystem in order for it to continue its evolution.

Galiano Island in the Gulf Islands Archipelago  Courtesy: Jon Weller

Galiano Island in the Gulf Islands Archipelago
Courtesy: Jon Weller

More than a changing understanding of the role of history, however, the field has also broadened its mandate beyond the natural world. What is being called ‘comprehensive ecological restoration’ is an approach to intervening in ecological systems that takes as its goal the recovery of the entire socio-ecological system. A comprehensive approach recognizes that, if successful, its efforts contribute to the overall well-being of the ecosystem and the societies that rely on them by renewing economic opportunities, rejuvenating traditional cultural practices, and enhancing ecological and social resilience to environmental change.2 Emphasizing this broader picture pushes ecological restoration into the realm of what alternative fields understand as cultural landscape management. Furthermore, a broader mandate injects an important element of transparency, engagement, and communication with citizens and stakeholders to determine the goals and objectives of interventions.

Off the west coast of Canada, on a small island in the Gulf Islands archipelago, The Galiano Conservancy Association offers an exciting model of how traditional nature conservation, can, and is, being transformed by these dialogues and practices. Formed in 1989 with a mission “[t]o preserve, protect and enhance the quality of the human and natural environment” on Galiano Island, the Galiano Conservancy Association was one of BC’s first community-based land trusts.3

Galiano IslandPrtotected Areas Network Courtsey: Jon Weller

Galiano IslandPrtotected Areas Network
Courtsey: Jon Weller

Originally organized as an “instrument for community-based acquisition, management and conservation of land and habitat,” the Conservancy has successfully protected important ecological communities through direct land purchase and cooperative partnerships. It conducts work such as extensive long-term biological monitoring; but it has also grown to take on a broader range of activities than traditional conservation organizations that focus on the preservation of relatively intact ecosystems. This work includes the stewardship and restoration of ecosystems, (much of the island’s land was degraded through intensive logging operations) as well as efforts to educate the public and raise awareness of sustainable human relationships with the natural world. Instead of simply seeing their sites as degraded ecosystems, the Conservancy has embraced the history of human habitation (and degradation), not by preserving it in the sense of a cultural landscape, but rather by documenting it, allowing it to remain, incorporating it into educational programming, and refashioning it in contemporary ways such as establishing food forests on earlier agricultural land.

Galiano Island Courtsey: Jon Weller

Galiano Island
Courtsey: Jon Weller

The management of a multi-use landscapes is most certainly a complex and complicated process, but because of the kind of activities that are available it is possible, in the words of Conservancy Board Member Lorne Wilkinson, to “begin to create a model of how we might bring together natural systems and human systems in ways that are mutually reinforcing” and serves also to educate “people in their relationship to the natural world.”4 More than simply a protected natural or cultural landscape, the Conservancy’s properties are an ongoing example of how the restoration and conservation of natural and cultural systems can be integrated in a sustainable way. Such a model for community-led restoration of ecological systems, where the cultural connections to the land are deeply connected to all of the activities, offers a compelling case for reconciling the division between nature and culture.

1) Luis Balaguer, Adrián Escudero, José F. Martín-Duque, Ignacio Mola, and James Aronson, “The historical reference in restoration ecology: Re-defining a cornerstone concept,” Biological Conservation 176 (2014): 13.

2) Society for Ecological Restoration International Science & Policy Working Group, The SER International Primer on Ecological Restoration, Society for Ecological Restoration International (Tucson, AZ, 2004)

3) Galiano Conservancy Association, “Our Mission.” http://galianoconservancy.ca/our-mission#Purposes (accessed 18 June 2015)

4) Deborah Curran, Resource Guide to Collaborative Conservation Planning (Galiano, BC: Galiano Conservancy Association, 2013), 8.

Jon Weller is a researcher and heritage advocate from the University of Victoria where he studies alternative approaches for culture-based land and resource management. This article was first presented as a paper at the University of Massachusetts’ 2016 conference ‘Nature/Culture: Heritage in Context’ in Prague

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How is Restoration Relevant to Stewardship?

By Guest Observer August 27, 2015

Peter Bridgewater   Centre for Museum and Heritage Studies, Australian National University.

Groundle Glen Australia Credit: Peter Bridgewater

Groundle Glen Australia
Credit: Peter Bridgewater

Can Landscape Stewardship really include restoration? Even more the concept of novel systems and their management? The upcoming workshops on the implementation of the European Landscape Convention in October have the sub-title “the landscape knows no boundaries”. That is true, but it is as true in time as it is in space, and that’s where restoration, and management of novelty, become important….

At the turn of the century Jessica Brown and Brent Mitchell (2000) described Landscape Stewardship as “usually thought about in terms of the essential role individuals and communities play in the careful management of our common natural and cultural wealth, both now and for future generations”. This was more contemporaneously expressed by Jianguo Wu (2013) as a “place-based, use-inspired science of understanding and improving the dynamic relationship between ecosystem services and human well-being in changing landscapes”. Both of these views strongly emphasis the role of people in landscapes, as key elements of their stewardship. Wu’s quote also embraces the ecosystem service paradigm more familiar in the second decade of the century, whereas the earlier quote emphasises natural and cultural wealth. But all seems linked to the maintenance of landscapes as they are, although Wu does use the word dynamic.

So what’s the relevance of restoration in stewardship? Simply put; we are no longer able to just “preserve” landscapes (or biodiversity at finer scales) as if they were Jams and Marmalades, as Gary Larson (1989) once wickedly suggested!

Landscapes which are degraded do have enormous potential for restoration, but it is often thought that intervention in landscapes now dramatically altered from their “natural” state needs to take into account both their current status and the potential effectiveness of traditional conservation or restoration measures (Richard Hobbs and colleagues, most recently 2014). In this context we should be broadly aware that:

  • Biodiversity can enhance the resilience of landscapes to environmental changes;
  • Biodiversity is changing across many different taxonomic groups and biomes as a result of recent environmental change;
  • Effective sustainable management requires understanding of the ecological, cultural and social dimensions and requires coherent policies at all levels of government;
  • Policy options include community-based projects, carefully designed restoration projects, and/or appropriate management of novel ecosystems, economic incentives combined with public participation, and effective monitoring and enforcement.

Restoration is often viewed as returning a landscape or ecosystem to a previously functioning “natural” state. Yet more and more this is impossible, as landscapes are increasingly a matrix of ecosystems or “biodiversity patches” modified in various ways from an observed, or frequently presumed, original state. This landscape matrix, although it may be ecologically sub-optimal, can, and does, deliver a range of ecosystem goods and services; for people, but also for adjacent landscapes/ecosystems.  It should also be recognised that landscapes which have been changed can either “self-restore” or move to a new state, depending on the prevailing ecological conditions. Management challenges and opportunities presented by these landscape matrices encompass how the degree of modification affects broader-scale processes e.g. eco-hydrological activity, gene flows, cultural perceptions and interactions, animal movements between adjacent or far-distant landscapes etc.

Some landscapes which look (and are appreciated) as natural today are in fact restored or reconstituted. The Isle of Man has many National Glens, which are well forested, and most visitors and many locals see them as natural. Yet most have been deliberately restored to wooded valleys during the early part of the C19th, to attract tourists. A minor consequence has been that such afforestation (often with species that may have been present, or maybe not), has allowed the rich bryophyte and lichen flora to flourish. The photograph (© Peter Bridgewater) is from Groundle Glen, showing the dense understorey – and a surprise component in Cordyline australis- widely grown in gardens across the island, but here established, apparently adventively.

All this means any stewardship plan for such landscapes must include inclusive development of conservation, restoration and management strategies that comprehend rapid spatial and temporal change, and reflect the complexity of the current landscape patterning. Which brings us back to the definition of landscape stewardship quoted at the outset – stewardship is very much about management, recognising that change is inevitable, and embracing and managing for change where that seems preferable to simply leaving things as they are. Above all using restoration as part of landscape stewardship is also about being prepared for surprises and adapting to the new, while valuing the old, where it is still sustainable so to do.

References:

Jessica Brown and Brent Mitchell. 2000. The Stewardship Approach and its Relevance for Protected Landscapes. The George Wright Forum. 17. 70-79.

Richard J. Hobbs et al. 2014. Managing the whole landscape: historical, hybrid and novel ecosystems. Front Ecol Environ 12. 557-564.

Larson, G. 1989. Wildlife Preserves; Far Side collection 10. Andrews and McMeel, Kansa City, Mo, USA.

Wu, J.G., 2013. Landscape sustainability science: ecosystem services and human well-being in changing landscapes. Landscape Ecology. 28. 999-1023.

This blog contribution is used with the permission of  Hercules a project to empower private and public actors to protect and sustainably manage cultural landscapes. It is part of a series on the science and practice of landscape stewardship and will be further elaborated in the course of a book chapter. We are looking for real-world cases of good practices that exemplify the principles of landscape stewardship and that serve as a model to inspire implementation in other landscapes. Please share examples or thoughts by adding a comment!

 

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Green Fire: The Landscapes of Aldo Leopold

By Brenda Barrett April 30, 2013

One of the great champions of a holistic view of the world is Aldo Leopold. His slim volume A Sand County Almanac (1949) consistently ranks as one of the most influential “must reads” for the conservation and environmental movement.  The book is a crossover favorite as it integrates both humanistic and natural values arguing for an approach that he called land health.  Ben Minteer in his book The Landscape of Reform (MIT Press, 2006) believes that if Leopold were writing today this would be a very modern message ” …he would frame much of his discussion of land health in the language of ‘ecosystem services,’ those natural services such as purification water, cycling of nutrients, assimilation of wastes and regulation of climate that human communities derive from healthy ecological systems”.

Credit: Aldo Leopold Foundation

Aldo Leopold Shack in Baraboo, WI. Credit: Aldo Leopold Foundation

Books are great, but it was the sense of place that inspired Aldo Leopold’s values and his writing from the mountains of New Mexico to his family’s shack in Baraboo, Wisconsin. For those who want to have a better understanding of this connection, I recommend that they seek out the recent Emmy award-winning movie Green Fire. It tells the story of Leopold’s life by walking in his footsteps and following the evolution of his thinking about the balance of man and nature across the landscape.

The movie is a project the Wisconsin based Aldo Leopold Foundation whose mission is to inspire an ethical relationship between people and land through the legacy of Aldo Leopold. It has been shown in special screenings, in conferences, and now on PBS stations across the nation. For show times visit the web site at www.greenfiremovie.com. For how you can become involved in foundation’s Land Ethic Leadership program go here.

Movies are a great medium for telling conservation and landscape scale stories where images help carry the message. So I am surprised that there are so few examples. Two documentaries with strong historical footage are the Greatest Good (A history of the US Forest Service 2006) and The Life of Maurice K. Goddard (WITF 2010), which can be watched on streaming video.   Also see an earlier LLO post on Maurice Goddard here.

Enjoy!

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What are the Components of Creative Conservation?

By Brenda Barrett November 30, 2012

Many thanks to Bob Bendick, Director of U.S. Government Relations at The Nature Conservancy in Washington, D.C., for sharing his recent article Creative Conservation: Reflections on a Way to the Future published in the October 2012 of Land Lines, the quarterly magazine of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. He makes an excellent point that the most hopeful and innovative strategies for landscape conservation are emerging at the ground level within individual landscapes like the Blackfoot Valley in Montana, the Flint Hills in Kansas, and the Hudson Valley on the east coast.

I know this is true, as I have seen the success of the Pennsylvania Wilds or the Lower Susquehanna in my home state of Pennsylvania. Bendick identifies a number of critical ingredients for these efforts such as working at a landscape scale, recognizing the human benefits, involving the people who live in the region, and mentoring a new generation of local conservation leaders. Government is assigned the role of maintaining a fair and consistent regulatory process and providing economic incentives for the right things to happen.

But can our government do more? With the election behind us, it is time to revisit the vision sketched out by the America’s Great Outdoors and other landscape scale programs initiated over the past four years. Call it what you will, these big ideas can help support local efforts and fire the imagination of what might be possible. I have seen it happen with the Conservation Landscape work in Pennsylvania and the many governmental partnerships in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Theodore Roosevelt’s vision of government as the protector of the common good should still be an important part of the mix.

Do read the article Creative Conservation. It is a great summary of some of our biggest challenges and best opportunities.

 

 

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New Featured Landscape

By Eleanor Mahoney October 31, 2012

Be sure to check out the newest featured landscape – Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. Located on Whidbey Island, Washington State, Ebey’s Landing is a landscape that illustrates a continuous record of Pacific Northwest history. The land appears much as it did a century ago. Patterns of settlement, historic homes, pastoral farmsteads and commercial buildings are still within their original farm, forest, and marine settings. A visitor can experience a variety of diverse physical and visual landscapes within a small geographic area. The community of Ebey’s Reserve is a healthy, vital one that allows for growth and change while respecting and preserving its heritage.

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Gullah Geechee National Heritage Corridor: Keeping the Promise

By Mary Means September 24, 2012

South Carolina low country landscapeI’ve had a lifelong affinity for South Carolina’s Low Country (there are Means family buried in the Episcopal Church yard in Beaufort) and one of my earliest memories is of the golden marshes and moss-draped live oaks. For the last year, a volunteer assignment has taken me to St. Helena Island numerous times. There, we have guided the recently adopted strategic plan for Penn Center that will assure it continues to serve the Gullah Geechee communities. Begun in 1862 as Penn School, one of the first schools for Africans (they were still enslaved; this area of the state was occupied by the Union Army throughout the Civil War), this National Historic Landmark was struggling as it approached its 150th celebration. Though the transition may at times be difficult, Penn Center’s leaders are successfully moving to a much stronger and more sustainable condition, on course to a much brighter future.

Steeped as I have become in the this fascinating place, and having led the consultant teams for management plans for several National Heritage Areas, I’ve been looking forward to reading the recently released Management Plan for the Gullah Geechee National Heritage Corridor, for Penn Center is smack dab in the middle of it. Moreover, St Helena Island is one of the strongest concentrations of Gullah Geechee people. Here is one of the few remaining distinct peoples who can trace their beginnings to the west coast of Africa, mostly what is now Sierra Leone and Angola. Penn Center’s mission revolves around preserving and interpreting Gullah Geechee history and culture.

Sprawling coastal development continues to decimate many of their communities; physical evidence of their existence is fading fast all along the coast. Penn Center and St Helena Island are probably the most intact remaining cultural landscape in the Low Country. With the inevitable diaspora, language and cultural practices also disappear. The ability of people to hold on and stay here hinges as much as anything else on the ability to make a living. Bringing appropriate economic development is key; heritage tourism represents a promising albeit complex opportunity. So, time is of the essence if current and future generations are to be able to hold on to their traditional communities.

If ever there was a cultural landscape worthy of being a heritage corridor, it is this one – especially in the Low Country. Local and regional leaders fervently hoped national designation would bring badly needed public exposure, funding to preserve, interpret and market the corridor’s sites and communities, and greater clout when advocating for the preservation of fragile communities. In 2004, the Corridor made the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Eleven Most Endangered Sites list.

St. Helena Island, South CarolinaLegislation to create the GGNHC was first introduced in Congress in 2000, and it was finally designated in 2006, with the designation set to end in 2021. The process of creating the corridor management plan has been managed by the National Park Service in cooperation with the 21-member Commission established to oversee the corridor. The plan document is nearly 300 pages long and reflects a great deal of work and public involvement. I’m sure it fully meets NPS standards for planning, which seem to revolve around counting, studying and consulting – always mindful of not committing NPS to anything too specific, being voluminous in documentation and lofty goals, while micrometer thin when it comes to implementation. It has taken six years of the NHC’s fifteen-year shelf life to get to this point. Buried deeply in it is the acknowledgement that funding will have to come from elsewhere. Remember, NPS funding for national heritage areas is roughly $18 million dollars. Today, there are 49 designated heritage areas all scrambling for crumbs of the budget pie. Six years of planning fatigue and high hopes. Now what?

Partnerships. When there is no money, the solution always offered is partnerships. Throughout the GGNHC Management Plan it is a major theme: to work with existing sites and organizations, to bring financial resources and technical assistance, to make marketing efforts more effective. Yet nowhere in the plan is there a realistic assessment of who those key partners must be for this to succeed. There are hundreds of organizations and agencies – NPS even notes “too numerous to list” in the plan itself. Apparently the planning process did not involve actually identifying, much less brokering a couple of these key partnerships.

Brick Church Penn CenterIf the survival of the communities of the GGNHC must depend on partners, shouldn’t the planning process have focused less on NPS internal policies and more on what might motivate some of those key entities to invest in priority initiatives in the Corridor? Shouldn’t it help articulate the benefits that could come to a few key “others” for becoming an active partner in achieving the visibility and interpretive infrastructure the Corridor badly needs?

In addition to the economic climate of our times, there’s another hurdle for the GGNHC. During this same time-frame, Charleston struggled to explore the feasibility of a capital campaign to build an International African American Museum. Research for the campaign revealed the daunting task of raising millions in a state that has not even begun to process the legacy of slavery and its resultant climate of racism. The sad truth is that preservation of cultural landscapes that are predominantly those of the descendents of slaves is painful and does not touch the hearts and wallets of preservation’s traditional philanthropists.

Penn Center is one of those struggling Gullah Geechee sites. Its story is one of blacks and whites working together during the Civil War, through Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, into the Civil Rights movement and beyond. Its newly adopted direction builds from these roots. As a National Historic Landmark with a rich association with education, self-sufficiency, community building, civil rights and social justice, Penn Center can play an important role in bringing the Gullah Geechee NHC into being. Penn’s leaders believe there is mutual benefit to be had in becoming a strong partner to the Commission, to the best of its own ability. Discussions will soon begin about how best to achieve it.

The Corridor Management Plan is available here. Learn more about the Penn Center here.

Mary Means is nationally known for her leadership in heritage development and planning. Prior to forming her firm Mary Means + Associates, she was vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and led the team that created the National Main Street Center.

Photos:  Mary Means

 

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Landscape of Loss: Defending the Appalachian Trail

By Brenda Barrett August 23, 2012

For many of us folks on the eastern seaboard the Appalachian Trail (AT)  is our National Park.  The trail links communities from Maine to Georgia along its 2184 mile length. It is an unparalleled example of a large landscape conservation effort. It is also the National Park Service’s most successful long-term partnership effort. Since 1925 the nonprofit Appalachian Trail Conservancy has managed  this resource for the park service raising millions of dollars, harnessing the energy of thousands of volunteers  (206,000 volunteers hours in 2011), and partnering with hundreds of landowners.  Today the NPS claims that over 99% of the trail is preserved for the benefit of the over 2 million people who use the trail every year and  for the generations who will be hitting the trail in years to come.

But is it really protected?  Every once awhile the social contract that connects this landscape breaks down. Trails are an inherently fragile resource; they are only as strong as the weakest link. So it is important that we react to what is happening along the AT on the Kittatinny Ridge in Pennsylvania.  Recently the Appalachian Trail Conservancy found out that Berks County officials were proposing to build a cell tower next to Pulpit Rock an iconic site on the AT.  The conservancy contacted the local government owner, Hamburg Borough. Since the property had been deeded to the borough with provisions to protect the AT, the conservancy hoped the issue could be quickly resolved. This did not happen.

Berks County insisted on moving forward with the tower and the matter ended up in county court. Not wanting to wait even for even a judicial resolution, the county recently filed an eminent domain action to take the property owned by Hamburg Borough for the purpose of extinguishing the deed restriction that protects the trail. This act places the whole structure of the AT at risk.  The great thing about the conservancy is its partnership approach to land conservation. The organization saves us all money by caring for the trail with volunteers from 30 trail organizations and by preserving the trail on public land through easements and deed restrictions.  Because of their work, the federal government has  not had to purchase of every foot of the trail.

Everyone including the National Park Service had thought the trail in Berks County was protected. While most of the AT is owned in fee, easements or similar deed restrictions have been considered adequate protection. However,  if local government partners can erase the deed restrictions on this property, it will send shock waves through the length of the trail. It calls into question a cooperative strategy that has worked for decades.

Hopefully, the Berks County Commissioners will rethink condemning one of our national treasures and seek alternative locations for their tower.

 

 

 

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Conserving a Peopled Landscape: How are we doing?

By Brenda Barrett July 25, 2012
New York City in a Landscape of Water

New York City in a Landscape of Water

A recent conference (June 19, 2012) Landscapes: Improving Conservation Practice in the Northeast Megaregion brought together over 125 practitioners and state and federal officials to share insights on successful practices and build a network between comparable efforts. Hosted by the Regional Plan Association and America 2050, the event built on the organizations’ research on large landscape efforts in the Northeast and the principles in their February publication Landscapes reported in earlier Observer post.

The meeting was held in New York City and attendees who came early were treated to a tour of Governor’s Island and a different perspective on the city as a place rising from a landscape of water.  Maybe it was the location. Among many large landscape topics touched on through the daylong conference, the importance of people, community, and telling the story on a landscape scale came up over and over.  A poll taken at the end of the conference showed that 94% of the participants voted that to improve landscape practice and policy in the Northeast it was important to  “[c]reate a narrative of the region that motivates the people who live there.”

Why all this talk about the importance of people and populated areas? Mark Anderson, Director of Conservation Science at the Nature Conservancy, presented the conferees a compelling reason. His work has shown that species diversity is highly correlated with a diversity of landscapes – rivers, forests, coastlines and a variety of soil and underlying geology.  It seems that conservationists are delivering solid results preserving upland forests, but not the rich soils and riverine landscapes where people have flocked to settle for thousands of years. In other words, we have done okay on the easy stuff. Now to achieve real gains, particularly in the Northeast United States, we have to take conservation to where people live.

For more conference updates and information on some upcoming pilot projects, see Ron Pirani’s article Going Regional with Landscape Conservation on the Regional Plan web site.

 

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Charting a Future: National Heritage Corridor to become our next National Park?

By Brenda Barrett May 24, 2012

Interested in the future of National Heritage Areas or in the bigger issue of partnership management in the National Park Service (NPS)?  If so, the proposed legislation to rethink the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor may be of interest.

In the past, one of the selling points for designating National Heritage Areas was offering a model that was   an alternative to a NPS park unit. Within the boundary of a heritage area, the NPS would not own any land, would avoid costly maintenance of historic buildings, and would be able to count on partners and volunteers to make a major contribution to the work.  In return, the NPS would be able to tell nationally important stories of industry, agriculture and cultural heritage on a large landscape scale that would otherwise be impossible to imagine. This was certainly the idea in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan signed into law the first national heritage corridor along the Illinois and Michigan Canal. This model was also fresh in Congress’s mind when they created the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor two years later.

For a quarter of a century the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Commission, in partnership with the NPS, has managed a 550 square miles corridor that spans two state and 24 communities. The landscape of the Blackstone Valley illustrates an arc of the nation’s industrial history stretching from sites of early industrial innovation to environmental exploitation, then abandonment, and finally regeneration. The mission of the Blackstone Valley Commission included both natural and cultural resource conservation. It boldly tackled issues like water quality, local land use and even leadership training for residents and government officials. The commission was recognized as a model for partnership management of a living landscape.

Despite these successes, the community, political leaders and the NPS seem to have taken a new path and are proposing to create a new National Park unit. A recent NPS Special Resource Study (2011)  recommended a more traditional approach – the creation of the Blackstone River Valley Industrial Heritage National Park. The sweeping ideas of the original heritage corridor – partnership management of the valley – have been reduced to NPS staff preserving a collection of industrial heritage sites. And this is not just a study; Congress has introduced legislation to make it a reality. (See SB 1708 and HR 3191).

So why is this happening? One reason is clear just look at the NPS budget for National Heritage Areas. Unlike national park units who have predictable annual funding, the heritage areas funding has been shrinking just as the program has expanded. For the last decade the Blackstone Commission has had to lobby for adequate funding every year, making long-range planning, implementation of multi-year projects, and staff retention very challenging. However, the proposed solution is not necessarily more cost effective.  A comparison between the current Blackstone Heritage Corridor and the proposed new Blackstone park unit make a compelling case for the benefits of collaborative management:

Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor encompasses an entire watershed with a broad mandate for the preservation, redevelopment, and interpretation of the regional landscape. The Blackstone Commission has a current annual operating budget of approximately $1 million and 14 full-time employees.

Proposed Blackstone River Valley Industrial Heritage National Park would encompass four historic districts, the Blackstone River and Blackstone Canal with an annual operating cost of $3.5 million not including proposed planning costs, construction, rehabilitation and exhibits at four sites.

With 49 National Heritage Areas from Alaska to Alabama, these numbers are thought provoking. More problematic for the NPS are the implications for management based on partnership, community engagement and working at a landscape scale, rather than the traditional, ownership model.

A 2005 NPS study identified the critical ingredients for the Blackstone River Valley’s’ future success as: (1) strong collaborative leadership to carry forward the vision; (2) an ongoing relationship with the NPS; and (3) secure, sustainable funding. In 2012 two of those critical ingredients may be on the way, but the first and most important one remains uncertain.  Just as the NPS’s most recent strategic plan, calls for scaling up its work and promoting large landscape conservation to support healthy ecosystems and cultural resources, one of the best examples of collaborative lived-in landscape management may be headed for a down sizing.

Is this an overreaction?  Some of the longtime leaders of the Blackstone Corridor see the new legislation as a positive approach. They point out that the new park unit will have grant funding for continued partnership work in the region and they remain hopeful for the future. Let us know what you think.

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Newly Released Report on Landscape Conservation finds that Size Matters

By Brenda Barrett April 1, 2012

It is all the rage these days to convey information with “big” numbers and the just released report by the Regional Plan Association (RPA) is no exception. The report “Landscapes: Improving Conservation Practice in the Northeast Megaregion” uses state of the art mapping and statistics to look at large landscape conservation initiatives in the densely developed 13 states of the Northeast.

These initiatives seek to protect vital natural and cultural resources in a region of over 72 million people. While they vary in scale and in organizational structure, they share a whole systems approach that is both multi-jurisdictional and multi-objective. The new report makes recommendations for improving these large conservation efforts that stretch across city and state boundaries including how to address governance questions, ensure adequate financial resources, and create tools for measuring the impact of these regional efforts.

So let’s go back to the numbers.  The number of large landscape projects launched in the last couple of decades in the Northeastern United States as reported by the Regional Plan Association 165, the number of designated National Heritage Areas 49, the number of areas that want to become National Heritage Areas – even in this congressional environment – more than 12, and the number of Conservation Landscapes Initiatives underway right now in Pennsylvania 7.   The number of large landscape projects across the nation, well that is anyone’s guess!

To assist this new movement, the Regional Plan Association is  funding a peer exchange program in the fall of 2012 for qualified, non-profit organizations. The program will pair emerging landscape initiatives with more established projects in a series of workshops across the Northeast. Landscape scale conservation also will be the topic of a  conference scheduled for June 2012 in New York City.

So, by whatever trend-spotting metric you prefer, large landscapes is a growing field. Across the nation, the idea of working on a regional scale by engaging a multiplicity of partners and funding sources is being proposed and, in many cases, acted upon. But, while the program frameworks are different, the critical ingredients are often similar and so are the challenges. In the current political climate, the value of any project that does not deliver direct benefit on the ground (and even some that do!) can expect to be challenged. How to fund the infrastructure of partnerships and how to measure believable outcomes on a large landscape scale is the big question? And if your landscape project has not been asked this question yet, it is coming your way.

 

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