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Looking Back on Landscape Scale Conservation

Pelican Island National Wildlife Preserve

The origin history of the landscape scale conservation movement has not yet been written. However, in the United States, there has been a long tradition of managing fish and wildlife habitat with the understanding that species preservation required the conservation of the wider ecosystem. States have worked for decades to manage fish and wildlife within their borders and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service focused early on in preserving refuges for migrating and breeding populations of wildlife. The first refuge established in the era of Theodore Roosevelt was Pelican Island (1903) in Florida, an important rookery and refueling site for migrating birds. Today, this has grown to a system of 564 wildlife refuges across the nation. Recognizing the continental scope of the issues, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and the Canadian Minister of the Environment signed he North American Waterfowl Management Plan in 1986, which calls for the establishment of Migratory Bird Joint Ventures. 

A more recent cross boundary wildlife conservation effort is the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative.  Focused on the vast mountain ecosystem stretching from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon, it is grounded in partnerships to conserve land and steward the region’s natural resources. Today it encompasses five American states, two Canadian provinces, two Canadian territories, and the traditional lands of over 30 Native nations. What began as an effort to preserve Grizzly Bear habitat has become a model of collaborative wildlife management. As noted in a 2015 National Academy of Science report on Landscape Conservation Cooperatives : “With advances in landscape ecology over the past quarter century, conservation planners, scientists, and practitioners began to place a greater emphasis on conservation efforts at the scale of landscapes and seascapes. These larger areas were thought to harbor relatively greater numbers of species that are more likely to maintain population viability and sustain ecological processes (e.g., fire, migration) and natural disturbance regimes – viewed by most ecologists as critical factors in conserving biodiversity.”

This is important work as the drivers behind the proliferation landscape scale initiatives are some of the greatest environmental challenges of our time, issues such as climate change, habitat fragmentation, energy development, and urban sprawl.  All are topics that transcend political and disciplinary boundaries and demand solutions to match the scale of the threat. All of which, it should be noted, impact cultural resources as well as natural resources. 

Role of the National Park Service

The National Park Service’s position as a leader in the landscape scale idea is also instructive. National Parks were set aside to protect their special qualities within clearly defined boundaries, but conserving park values as an island within a larger ecosystem has its limits. As early as 1964, Secretary Udall wrote to the Director of the NPS that “effective management of the National Park System will not be achieved by programs that look only within the parks without respect to the pressures, the influences and the needs beyond park boundaries.” 

This recognition was part of an overall national policy shift in the 1960s favoring the conservation of natural and cultural resources reflected in such laws as the Wilderness Act (1964), the National Historic Preservation Act (1966), and the National Environmental Policy Act (1968).  The NPS began experimenting with new ways to conserve larger landscapes particularly to provide park and recreational experiences near population centers. An early test of this new kind of park was the creation of Cape Cod National Seashore (1961). The park boundaries were authorized with the recognition that ownership of the designated 43,500 acres would always be a mix of federal, state, municipal and private landowners, which included parts of six cape communities. To address the issues of mixed ownership, the authorizing legislation contained a number of innovations to mesh the new park presence with the existing conditions including harnessing local land use planning.

The Santa Monica National Recreation Area (1978) was another test of how to create a National Park presence in a complex landscape, in this case the highly urbanized Los Angeles Basin. Stretching from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Pacific, it encompasses one of the largest and most significant examples of Mediterranean-type ecosystems in the world. To protect this significant resource, the National Park Service adopted an innovative green line approach.  Setting a boundary around the resource to be conserved and then turning to a wide range of partners to make management of such a large landscape effective and affordable.

Building on the idea of protecting large landscapes through partnerships, in the 1970s, the NPS proposed creating a system of National Reserves also known as Areas of National Concern. These were envisioned as multilayered governmental partnerships connected by jointly prepared management plans. Under these schemes, land protection would be provided by local controls and there would be limited federal property acquisition. In the end only a few reserves were created. The best known are Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve (1978) in Washington State and the Pinelands National Reserve (1978) in New Jersey. A feature of both reserves was the tradition of long-standing human use. In Ebey’s Landing, it was agriculture uses. In the Pinelands, it was harvesting cranberries and other natural resources. In each landscape, residents wanted to see such activities carried forward into the future. 

In the 1980’s, the expansion of the National Park System was halted by changes in national policy that discouraged federal spending, land acquisition, and new parks.  However, the agency adapted earlier innovations into a new approach to conserve the cultural, natural, and recreational resources of a region with limited federal involvement, known as the National Heritage Areas program. The concept drew upon ideas such as establishing boundaries that include multiple property owners, management plans developed with the local community, and valuing the place as a lived-in landscape.  The biggest change under this new strategy was the role of the federal government. It would invest limited dollars in stabilizing and interpreting the resources, but management was in the hands of local management entities.

More recently NPS explicitly called for the agency to focus on large landscape initiatives to protect both natural and cultural resources. In the agency’s 2016 strategic plan, The Call to Action, Action #22 recognized the need to scale up the service’s work stating:  “Promote large landscape conservation to support healthy ecosystems and cultural resources. To achieve this goal, we will protect continuous corridors in five geographic regions through voluntary partnerships across public and private lands and waters, and by targeting a portion of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to make strategic land acquisitions within national parks.”

Towards a National Policy 

The boldest effort to launch a national policy initiative for landscape scale conservation was the U. S. Department of Interior’s 2009 Executive Order to establish the Landscape Scale Cooperatives (LCC). These were a network of 22 individual, self-directed conservation regions covering all of the United States as well as some Pacific and Caribbean Islands and parts of Canada and Mexico. The network focused on providing science expertise and the capacity to catalyze conservation planning across multiple jurisdictions. The LCCs were defined as “Landscapes capable of sustaining natural and cultural resources for current and future generations.” 

As of this writing the LCC initiative has been discontinued, but Interior agencies such as the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are continuing the work of landscape scale conservation science and planning. In addition, there are landscape scale initiatives embedded in other Federal agencies, the 2015 National Academy report identified ten other programs ranging from the Department of Defense to NOAA.   

Network for Landscape Conservation

The rapid growth of the movement to conserve large landscapes has now matured to the point that it has spawned an organization, with the exclusive mission to document and advance this field of work. In November 2017, the Network for Landscape Conservation and partners convened the National Forum on Landscape Conservation, gathering 200 leading landscape conservation practitioners from the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The Network  has also published a report, Path Ways Forward: Progress and Priorities in Landscape Conservation . It documents the growth of the movement not just by the number of landscape scale projects, but, more importantly, by the growing understanding of what it means to successfully sustain them. The new report tackles critical topics such as the need for effective communication, wide ranging collaboration, and targeted investments. It also explores the role of science and the challenge of gaining the necessary support from policy makers. It breaks new ground by fully recognizing the essential role of the human dimension in all landscape scale efforts and in appreciating that communities and their cultural values are integral to our future. Or as the report poetically states landscape scale conservation can ” reweave the natural and cultural fabric of the larger landscapes that define and sustain our character and quality of life.”