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The Next Four Years: Trends in Landscape Scale Conservation

The conservation community is awash with lists of what the new administration needs to do to reduce if not reverse the damage of the last four years. The National Parks Traveler provides a good summary of actions needed to protect public land as well as the nation’s environment, see also the statement of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks on the need to rebuild the National Park Service and there are many more.

All of these recommendations will benefit landscape scale conservation and should be adopted posthaste. However, you cannot just turn back the clock. After all, four years have passed and we are now faced with the dual challenges of political division and a global pandemic. So, what are the trends that might impact landscape scale work and what should be considered as go forward? Well, not in priority order, they are…

  1. The need to recognize the role of the states in landscape work – States have always been a major player in conservation funding through dedicated bond funding and other revenue streams. Now, with the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act and assured funding for the stateside Land and Water Conservation Fund, the role of state’s in conservation assistance is critical. When the Federal government steped back or even actively discouraged conservation at scale, many states stepped forward. For example, some of the work of the short-lived federal Landscape Conservation Cooperatives initiative has been picked up by state Fish and Wildlife agencies. In addition, some states like Pennsylvania, have established their own conservation landscape programs.  We need to pay attention to these efforts as they are are both innovative and grounded in the real world. We need to invite the states to the conservation table as full partners as their contributions are more important than ever.
  2. The need to sustain the non-profit model of collaborative conservation – After the financial collapse of 2008, many smaller conservation organizations and land trusts had to retrench, merge, or give up. In the current pandemic this will undoubtedly be a real risk as economic conditions worsen and philanthropy focuses, and rightly so, on looming social service needs. However, to gain the benefits of landscape scale work – resilient habitats, essential ecosystem services and stronger cultural connection – nonprofit organizations or partnerships are essential to convening this work and making it happen. Yet, generating and sustaining funding for this work on a landscape scale remains daunting. Why is making the case for collaboration so hard? Is it because donors and politicians like shovel ready projects or that in hard economic times there is a cry to go “back to basics”? We need to be stronger advocates for collaborative conservation. We need show the value of the process and show how this work is linked to achieving significant conservation outcomes.

3. The need to rebuild federal landscape scale programs – The dismantling of the Department of Interior’s Landscape Conservation Cooperatives has received a lot of attention as it was specifically designed to be a cross agency, cross boundary landscape effort. However, the National Academy’s 2016 report A Review of the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives identified over ten landscape scale programs in federal agencies as diverse as the Department of Defense and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Some of these may have survived the recent administration, while others may be in tatters. With the incoming administration’s platform committed to conserving 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030 all these federal landscape programs could provide expertise and tools to revitalize big picture thinking to aid in achieving this ambitious goal. These programs could also be made even more effective by mandating that the landscape scale approach is a cross agency, ‘all hands-on deck’, effort to protect wildlife habitats and biodiversity, slow extinction rates, and grow America’s natural carbon sink. We need to seek these programs out, re-energize them, and coordinate their work to be most effective.

4. The need to foster expertise in landscape work – The last administration’s disregard for science and knowledge-based resource management is well documented. The fact that the nation went for four years without a Congressionally-confirmed director of either the National Park Service or the Bureau of Land Management was just one indicator.  The repressing of federal research on climate change is of course another. No wonder remedying this situation is high on the list of transition recommendations of most conservation groups. While nominating qualified agency leaders is a good first step, rebuilding expertise within the federal government will take time and intentionality. So many experts have left or have just given up. It is critical for researchers outside the walls of government to share their research to jump start science and science applications at the federal level.  This is particularly true for landscape scale work that requires data sharing across many platforms. We need to make updating this work a high priority. One idea might be to create a targeted public/private advisory committee on conservation research needs and recent developments in the field.

5. The need to put people in the forefront of the movement – An emerging trend in conservation that is long overdue is acknowledgment of the stewardship role people play in the landscape. This presents itself in multiple ways, such as recent efforts to include indigenous people, underrepresented communities, and those who work the land – ranchers and farmers in large landscape work.  The Network for Landscape Conservation recognizes this shift in perspective stating that “Wildlands, farmlands, timberlands, tribal lands, places of cultural and historical significance, rural communities, urban areas, and other private and public lands are all part of a fully integrated whole — a landscape”. In addition, the Network’s Catalyst Fund prioritizes grants for partnerships that are “Indigenous-led and Primarily Serving Indigenous Communities”.  Landscape scale work also can provide economic benefits to communities and in these difficult times. There are good examples of holistic conservation with a track record of benefitting communities such as the National Heritage Area program and PA Conservation Landscapes initiative. We need to accept this more inclusive approach and recognize that traditional models where landscape scale work was defined only by its ecological values are behind us.

This is my list of the trends and next steps that the landscape scale movement needs to take to be meet its potential. Our work must go beyond just unraveling the misdirection’s of the last administration. We need to invite new partners and new ideas to the table and plan our work with an eye to the realities of 2021.