Emily M. Bateson is the Coordinator for the Network for Landscape Conservation. Before becoming Coordinator, Emily was the Network Co-Chair, and helped move the collaborative from its early formative stages to a more established, funded, and widespread network with active strategies and specific programs to help advance conservation at the landscape scale.
LLO: How did you become interested in the field of landscape conservation?
Bateson: For me, landscape conservation is much more a matter of logical continuum rather than one recent “ah-ha” moment.
I spent my childhood summers in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States. Protected under the New York State Constitution as “Forever Wild,” about half of the land within the six million-acre “Blue Line” is actually private land and populated hamlets, and the objective is management that sustains both natural and human communities. Founded in 1892, the Adirondack Park is one of the earliest examples of landscape conservation and management in the U.S.
My environmental career started at the New England-based Conservation Law Foundation, where we had a long battle in the 1980s, in and out of the courts, to keep offshore oil drilling out of the Georges Bank fishery off the coast of New England and Canada. I worked with diverse experts and stakeholders, including scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, local fishermen’s associations in New Bedford and Gloucester, MA, recreational interests on Cape Cod and the islands, and our Canadian counterparts to stop the drilling from going forward. This trans-border marine ecosystem was highly valuable ecologically, economically, and culturally, and needed to be managed as an integrated system – all the elements of landscape conservation today. That was when I learned to appreciate the critical need to work at the ecosystem scale, connecting sound science and local communities to environmental planning and policy.
As I moved on to land-focused New England projects and positions, I cannot think of a single example where working across whole landscapes was not fundamental to long-term success. At CLF, where I was Land Project Director for 16 years, we appealed a 1986 Management Plan for the White Mountain National Forest that looked at biodiversity piecemeal rather than across the whole Forest or across the whole region. Large-scale biodiversity protection was ecologically vital but not common practice at that time (and our appeal was actually before the word “biodiversity” was in use). As a funder at Sweet Water Trust in the 1990s, we worked to help people in New England protect larger and more connected areas based on biodiversity values – key components of landscape conservation and resilience today.
I then co-founded and served as the first director of Two Countries, One Forest, an early landscape conservation initiative founded in 2003 to help connect and protect the 80 million-acre Northern Appalachian/Acadian region in the eastern US and Canada – particularly through conservation of nine key habitat connectivity areas (work that continues to this day through its Staying Connected Initiative).
That initiative broke a “green ceiling,” since U.S. conservation maps (and associated conservation activity) had previously just shown white space above Maine. But the fundamental difference between political and ecological boundaries, the importance of ecological science to conservation planning, and the difference between top-down and collaborative conservation was already clear to me and to many, many others who had worked in conservation for the past 20 years.
LLO: How does landscape conservation differ from other approaches to the protection of places with cultural and ecological significance?
Bateson: The U.S. has a remarkable conservation legacy and impressive ongoing programs and progress. However, the loss of our natural and cultural heritage continues to occur at an alarming rate. The fact is that current programs and traditional, piecemeal conservation is simply no match for the ecosystem scale of the challenges confronting us today. Habitat loss and fragmentation, water scarcity and degradation, climate change impacts, and more threaten the integrated systems upon which human and natural communities depend.
We know today that even our largest protected areas are not big enough or connected enough to protect our ecological and cultural heritage. Conservation at the landscape scale is the practice of people working together – horizontally, not top down – across sectors, cultures, and geographies at the necessary ecosystem scale to conserve and connect our natural and cultural landscapes. This highly collaborative conservation approach embraces the complexity of working across these boundaries, from the urban and suburban environs to our wildest places, and across the public-private land continuum.
Today, more and more people across the country, continent, and the globe are advancing a landscape approach, working together to conserve their local landscapes for clean water, healthy outdoor recreation, climate resilience, sustainable local economies, connected wildlife habitat, cultural heritage, and local sense of place for the generations that follow.
We are erasing the hard lines between protected “versus” populated, and nature “versus” people. The landscape conservation approach recognizes that our natural and cultural landscapes are invaluable, intertwined, irreplaceable, and part of the very fabric of our society.
LLO: Could you provide some examples of how landscape conservation works – what do these types of initiatives look like on the ground and how might they differ based on location and community needs?
Bateson: Although many of the older landscape conservation efforts are regulatory in origin (such as the Adirondack State Park and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency) many of the new landscape conservation initiatives are community-grounded, informal efforts. Many of these initiatives are also “nested,” so that an initiative focused on one culturally and geographic appropriate landscape is also part of a larger effort. And a good number have support from the growing number of state and federal programs that recognize achieving regulatory mandates must include support of conservation beyond public land boundaries.
For example: in central Massachusetts, the 500,000-acre North Quabbin Regional Landscape Partnership, founded in 1997, focuses on conserving “ecologically, historically, and culturally significant lands.” Local municipal leaders, land owners, land trusts, agencies, conservation organizations, and academic partners work together on key activities, including mapping conservation and climate resilience priorities, expanding trail systems, promoting agricultural sustainability, improving conservation zoning, and developing a land acquisition transaction costs regrant program. Together, partners have conserved more than 12,000 acres of high priority lands, attracting far more in federal funding and making a far greater contribution to the future of the region than they ever could have alone.
Although this may appear small in scale to some, the North Quabbin Initiative is also the southern anchor of the equally effective two million-acre Quabbin to Cardigan Partnership that stretches up into the White Mountains of NH. And these two efforts are also part of a larger Network of 45 landscape conservation initiatives or “regional conservation partnerships” that together cover more than 70 percent of New England and increasingly learn from each other and work together on shared regional goals. This scale and structure fit the geography and culture of New England.
In the intermountain west, the Blackfoot Challenge in Montana focuses on conserving the 1.5 million-acre Blackfoot watershed (“Better Rural Communities through Cooperative Conservation Action”). Although the focus may be more on rangelands than the forests and agricultural lands around the North Quabbin, this group is similarly focused on watershed protection and has also had notable success through consensus-based and community-grounded collaborative conservation. They are also nested in larger efforts, including the 18 million-acre Roundtable on the Crown of the Continent and the 2,000-mile long Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative. As Executive Director Gary Burnett stated in a recent presentation, “But our watershed is a small place, and we need our neighbors – right across the fence and clear across the county – to sustain our local work and bring it to scale for people, water and wildlife.”
Are there differences across landscape conservation initiatives? Yes, context matters. And despite the similarities between North Quabbin and the Blackfoot Challenge, groups choose different governance structures, conservation priorities, and approaches. For example, The Intertwine Alliance, more than 150 public, private and nonprofit organizations working to integrate nature more deeply into the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan region, is wrestling with higher density populations, local urban-specific priorities, and smaller scales than the Blackfoot Challenge. Their strategies and solutions may not look identical.
But I would suggest that there are more similarities than differences. Landscape conservation initiatives are working to achieve conservation that is both locally grounded and regionally significant. They are working, by and large, to look at conservation more expansively to include culture, community, traditional local economics, health, recreation, and local sense of place, while never losing sight of the long-term importance of healthy, connected natural systems for the future of their own landscapes and the world overall. Landscape conservation helps put the future back into the hands of informed and committed people living and working on the landscapes they love.
LLO: What are the biggest challenges as well as opportunities right now in the field of landscape conservation and how might the roles of public vs. non-governmental entities be changing in the coming years?
Bateson: Regardless of geography and scale, initiatives often share similar challenges regarding 1) meaningful collaboration and effective governance; 2) conservation science and planning at the local-to-landscape scales; and 3) funding for and commitment to long-term collaboration and conservation implementation.
One major challenge has been that there was no central place for sharing information, identifying best practices, tackling common challenges, and developing cutting edge research and analysis in this new field. That of course is what we are trying to change through the Network for Landscape Conservation.
Although I hope I am wrong, I think the current federal administration may be a challenge, which is too bad as conservation has been a robust bipartisan issue for many years. And recent Republican and Democratic administrations have made so much progress on moving toward a landscape conservation approach at the federal agency level, from the National Park Service Scaling Up program to the Landscape Conservation Collaborative Network and much, much more.
Despite the challenges, there are boundless opportunities in this rapidly growing field. We have enormous forward momentum in specific landscapes, and an increasing number of examples of effective initiatives and enduring success. Conservation at the landscape scale is increasingly embraced in local and regional landscapes across the country, continent, and beyond. It is the groundswell of local understanding and support that will carry this imperative conservation approach inexorably forward.
LLO: Your organization recently changed its name from the Practitioners’ Network for Large Landscape Conservation to the Network for Landscape Conservation. Does this reflect a shift in its mission or area of emphasis?
Bateson: The Network has only shortened its name, and not changed its mission. We decided it was evident we are a network for “practitioners,” and we dropped the “large” because many people thought it suggested only large, wild landscapes and not the equally valuable efforts in urban or other smaller-scale settings.
Founded in 2011, the goal of the Network continues to be building a “big tent” network and a robust community of practice to support and advance the rapidly growing landscape conservation movement. Before the Network, there was no central forum for landscape conservation practitioners to connect – there was too much reinventing of the proverbial wheel and opportunities for progress and innovation were being lost. Our Network of professionals in the private, public, non-profit, academic, and philanthropic sectors has already grown to almost 100 organizational partners and 2,000 individual practitioners.
We work with partners to build a valued nexus for connecting with peers, accessing information and resources, building skills, leveraging individual efforts, improving on-the-ground performance, and innovating new landscape conservation. One of our highest priorities continues to be connecting practitioners to each other and showcasing their work for the broader community.
We are all figuring out this pivotal, new landscape conservation approach together. I hope individuals and organizations will continue to join the Network for Landscape Conservation to help build the conversation and the community of practice, shaping the future of the local and global landscapes that will sustain our grandchildren and the many generations to follow.