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The Value of the George Wright Society Conference

By Eleanor Mahoney March 4, 2021

Over the past year, parks and other protected areas have served as sites of dialogue, research, and rejuvenation. But how do we ensure that these landscapes, which vary tremendously in their scale and their approaches to resource management, remain connected to one another? What mechanisms can be put in place to facilitate knowledge exchange among staff, partners, and volunteers? And how can we continue to bridge the artificial divides of science / humanities and nature / culture that (still) remain so pervasive? 

One place to looks for ideas on how best to foster crosscutting interchange is the George Wright Society (GWS). For 35 years (1982 – 2017), the GWS sponsored a biennial meeting that explicitly sought to bridge institutional and scholarly divisions. Named for George Meléndez Wright, the first chief of the National Park Service’s wildlife division, the GWS promotes protected area stewardship by bringing practitioners together to share their expertise. As David Harmon, the Society’s Executive Director, explained to me over email, “We in the GWS believe that you HAVE to cross boundaries in order to make any progress against really big issues like climate change, loss of biodiversity, erosion of historical literacy, the challenges to genuine civic engagement, and, now, the growing epistemological divide in the United States. The GWS conferences modeled a kind of discourse — collegial, stimulating, and, yes, fun! — that really does bridge divides.” 

We in the GWS believe that you HAVE to cross boundaries in order to make any progress against really big issues like climate change, loss of biodiversity, erosion of historical literacy, the challenges to genuine civic engagement, and, now, the growing epistemological divide in the United States.

David Harmon

In 2015, I had the chance to take part in the GWS biennial Conference on Parks, Protected Areas, and Cultural Sites in Oakland, California. I was in the middle of writing a dissertation on the politics of National Park creation after World War II and came hoping for some inspiration. At my panel, a number of the attendees had worked for the National Park Service (NPS) during the postwar period and generously shared their firsthand knowledge of events chronicled in my study. In addition, they and others present discussed how my findings might impact future NPS decision-making. There was a general openness to new ideas and a lack of pretension. It was an excellent meeting and I was already looking forward to future gatherings.

Unfortunately, the GWS conferences have been on hold since 2017. According to Harmon, the conference was negatively impacted by changes to federal government travel rules. After the media reported on a few extreme examples of employee misconduct at conferences (in no way linked to the GWS), scrutiny over all travel costs increased. It became almost impossible to plan any event with a large federal presence. Review by some departments became so onerous that approval or rejection of travel might only have occurred ten days before a meeting. Even with these challenges, the GWS still hopes to re-start its meetings, but much depends on how the federal government manages its travel programs in the future.

Origins of the GWS Conference Idea

The origins of the George Wright Society conference are quite interesting. Harmon told me that the roots actually go back to the late 1970s. During that period, two NPS scientists, Robert M. Linn and Theodore W. Sudia, helped organize two agency-wide science conferences. Both men also served as the chief scientist of the NPS and were among the co-founders of the GWS. The meetings proved valuable, and Linn and Sudia hoped to expand them. “They recognized the need for a mechanism of sustained information exchange to support better research and management, not just in terms of science, and not just in terms of US national parks, but across disciplines and for all kinds of parks, protected areas, and cultural sites,” Harmon noted.  “This was their key insight, and it became what sets GWS apart: the need to bring together people from different perspectives, from different disciplines, for the common purpose of conserving and protecting important place-based cultural and natural heritage.”

Building on those initial NPS-wide science conferences, while also expanding to include interdisciplinary perspectives, the first GWS meeting took place in 1982. This was only a few years after the organization’s founding in 1980. It took a little bit of time, but, by the 1990s, the GWS conferences had become one of the premier opportunities for protected area managers from across the U.S. – and indeed, the world – to gather and learn from one another. Rolf Diamant, who served as the superintendent of multiple NPS units and as a past president of the GWS board, emphasized the international significance of the meeting to me in an interview. He recalled that Tim Badman, Director of the Nature-Culture Initiative for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), always tried to make the GWS meetings “because, as he could only get to the US infrequently, it was the one single event anywhere in the US where he could connect with the very latest in park & conservation thinking and practice – all under one roof.”  

Want to know more about the George Wright Society Conference? Read our interviews with David Harmon and Rolf Diamant.

As the conference matured, the GWS also sought to expand its reach and purpose. The organization, Harmon stressed, mounted sustained outreach to Native peoples through an Indigenous Involvement Working Group, “a Native-led group that had direct input into the conference program at the highest levels.” An Indigenous Participant Travel Grant Program, primarily funded through NPS donations, helped support this endeavor. In addition, a parallel program for students of color and other under-represented groups, the George Meléndez Wright Student Travel Scholarship, also took shape. Significantly, despite the conference hiatus, the Indigenous Involvement Working Group is still working on a number of projects.

The Value of the GWS Conference 

For agencies like the NPS, the U.S. Forest Service, or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in-person interaction is essential, yet also limited. Geography is one challenge, but so too are intra- and inter- agency institutional silos. Exchange with academics, whose research often touches directly on protected area management, also remains uneven across programs and bureaus. This is why the George Wright Society conferences were so vital.

The meetings brought diverse groups of people together, to share ideas, experiences, and perspectives in often unscripted and creative ways. As Diamant put it, the meetings “engaged an interesting mix of academics and practitioners presenting on both theory and practice. These were not two separate worlds (the agency and the academy) coming together for a meeting, rather, the program was largely made up with presentations and panels that referenced university projects being undertaken in parks and in partnership with park staff.”

Dr. Stephanie Toothman, who served as the National Park Service Associate Director for Cultural Resources, Partnerships, and Science, also commented on the uniquely interdisciplinary nature of the conference. She served for seven years on the GWS board and supported the events as NPS Associate Director. “The conferences were very valuable in providing an inter-disciplinary forum to discuss issues of common interest from climate change to cultural landscapes and wilderness…the latter three topics were repeated over and over again. There was nothing like it and there still isn’t,” she told me. Toothman also commented on the importance of the GWS as a venue for practitioners in the NPS to share their research with colleagues inside and outside the agency. “Another value is that the conference provided opportunities for resource staff in the field to present without the peer review of journals.  So the conferences presented a lot more hands-on research than your standard professional conference.”

Looking Ahead – What Do you Think?

What does the future hold? Ideally, the Society would re-start its meetings as soon as possible, but given the pandemic, as well as the ongoing uncertainties of federal government funding, that appears unlikely – at least in the near term. Also, the climate impacts of air travel, especially, must be considered as we plan for events in the future.

The past year has demonstrated the value and malleability of virtual gatherings (webinars, conferences) but also their limitations. Great, even amazing, content is available, but interaction, especially spontaneous exchange, is limited. Rather than chatting with the person sitting next to you, we are often just a number on the bottom of a screen during a Zoom meeting, sending our questions anonymously to a moderator. The ability to form lasting connections just is not there for the most part. Mentoring opportunities are also limited. As Diamant noted, “by not meeting occasionally in person, you are also passing on opportunities to meet and get to know other people with similar interests and informally build collegial networks. Large organizations like NPS really benefit from this networking and from problem solving based on personal relationships with people scattered across the system.”   

Going forward, smaller, hybrid meetings may be an option – one I would love to see. Attendees in a local area might come together, with others able to attend virtually. Maybe a version of “speed networking” will launch virtually as well, which might aid in meeting new people, especially across experience, age, and background. Equity needs to be built into all gatherings from the ground up too. Virtual meetings allow those who might not have access to travel funds or the professional flexibility to travel to take part in important conversations – whether presenting information or asking important questions of those speaking. Accessibility must also be considered and prioritized from the beginning when planning any virtual or in-person meetings – and there is much to do to improve accessibility in both cases.

No matter what, we need more, much more, of the type of crosscutting conversations that took place at GWS conferences. With new leadership in federal land management, preservation, and humanities agencies, 2021 may offer a chance to re-new and build upon these types of gatherings. 

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To learn more, read interviews with David Harmon and Rolf Diamant. The LLO thanks Harmon, Diamant, and Dr. Stephanie Toothman for sharing their insights into the history of the GWS conference program.


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Take Notice: Trending for Large Landscapes

By Brenda Barrett April 25, 2017

Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area

Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area

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 Richardson 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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cultural Landscapes: The View from George Wright 2013

By Brenda Barrett March 28, 2013

In one sense, almost every session at the 2013 George Wright Conference  talked about cultural landscapes. If you define the term broadly – as landscapes affected by the interaction of humans and the environment – then sessions on climate change and adaptation, visitor use, tourism, extractive industries, integrating parks and local communities, and any session or keynote address with the word “anthopocene” in its title fall squarely within this rubric.  There were also sessions that directly examined the meaning of cultural landscapes.   For example:

The panel on Indigenous Cultural Landscapes: Developing a more Inclusive Approach to Large Landscape Conservation presented a concept that is being pioneered in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The approach seeks to identify and describe landscapes from the perspective of indigenous people who lived there at the time of Captain John Smith’s explorations of the bay region. Want to know more ? If you were not able to attend, you can watch Deanna Beacham’s thoughtful and concise presentation of this idea on youtube.

Jim Zorn, the Executive Director of the Great Lakes Indian and Wildlife Commission,  talked about the commission’s work to conserve Ojibwe traditional rights to hunt, fish and harvest wild rice and other resources on lands ceded by treaty. The organization represents eleven tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan and provides natural resource management expertise and conservation enforcement. Their work has expanded to cultural programing including language conservation programs.  And who knew that the NOAA was doing such innovative programs with tribes in Marine Protected Areas.  The agency’s Cultural Heritage Resources Working Group has been making waves in the world of maritime cultural landscapes.

For those who are into trend spotting, new ideas in cultural landscapes include the interest of traditional conservation agencies in expanding their mission to include cultural values and in particular to incorporate the indigenous viewpoint into conservation work.  We can all learn from this.

The 2013 George Wright (GW) conference was challenged by the congressional budget sequester that knocked almost all federal employees off the agenda. However, the conference presenters found inventive ways to work around this obstacle by webcasting the plenary sessions, skyping on the Imperiled History Report, presenting speakers through youtube clips, and such low tech solutions as having a partner present your remarks.  Those in attendance at the conference were the young (many on GW Student Travel Scholarships), the old (mostly committed retirees), the academic (presenting their  research) and thanks again to GW Society attendees with Native Participant Travel Grants.  So mix in some international visitors including representatives of the UN, IUCN, and our neighbors to the north, and you had a conference with a very positive dynamic. But the hard part is that so many up and coming government professionals missed the chance to take away new ideas and this is a loss for the field of cultural landscapes and so much more.

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