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Why is Funding Large Landscape Work so Darn Hard?

The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument is part of the Bureau of Land Management's National Conservation Lands. Photo BLM.
The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument is part of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Lands. Photo BLM.

The verdict is in. The major land and water conservation challenges facing the nation require action on a scale that is large and multi-jurisdictional. * The benefits of landscape connectivity are resilient habitats, essential ecosystem services and stronger cultural connections. Such large-scale efforts are the only way to address what have been called wicked problems such as the impact of climate change on species conservation and cultural and natural resources. A strong network of partners is needed to tackle these regional issues and offer efficiencies of scale.

The idea is being put into action. A recent National Workshop on Large Landscape Conservation in October of 2014 was a sell out success with over 600 attendees and keynote presenters lining up to speak from every major land managing agency. (Read conference highlights in Expanding Horizons). Federal agencies are rolling out new landscape preservation and mitigation strategies. Nonprofit are seeking candidates for a newly created job category “director of landscape scale management”. Creating new National Heritage Areas is still popular idea with 8 legislative proposals to create new areas introduced in the recent congressional session. Most compelling are the hundred and hundreds of initiatives across the country identified by the Practitioners Network for Large Landscapes.

And yet all of these efforts face the same uphill battle, it is a struggle to gain and sustain funding for large landscape work. Federal programs such as the well regarded Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Landscapes that includes 21 national monuments and 16 National Conservation Areas, more than 220 congressionally designated wilderness areas, 2,400 miles of wild and scenic rivers, and nearly 6,000 miles of National Scenic and Historic Trails face Congressional budget cutting or even abolition. Funding for National Heritage Areas has been slashed in half for what seems like the umpteenth year and appropriations for most state heritage area are in the same boat. The new Practitioners network is turning over every leaf seeking dollars to ramp up their work and established landscape conservation networks report ongoing financial challenges. Foundations and donors like start ups and then ask that the work they started become self-sustaining.

Yes, funding is scarce. Federal government dollars for all discretionary programs are shrinking, and states have their own fiscal problem. Funding for charitable causes has diminished in the recent recession. But large landscape initiatives seem to have have been hit particularly hard. Why is this, is it just the availability of dollars? Here are some other possible reasons:

1) The value added by networks is harder to see and claim the credit: Politicians like to dig into shovel ready projects, organizational leaders and agency heads do not feel ownership for landscape scale projects where they are not large and in charge. There is a tendency to back away from the hard work of maintaining partnerships if it is a shared responsibility.

2) In hard times it is back to basics: “We are not talking about Yellowstone, we can’t afford to pay for people to just go to meetings” as I was once told by a not very friendly OMB examiner intent on stripping the National Park Service of what he viewed as superfluous partnership programs. Congress has argued that money for landscape programs would be better invested in repairing infrastructure or staffing individual sites.

3) Landscape scale work has a conservation agenda: The stated reason may be “back to basics”, but the underlying concern can be that these efforts will limit resource extraction, impose historic preservation controls and generally limit somebody’s access to resources.

4) And then there is climate change…

These ideas are interrelated and not easy to disentangle. However, for the growing number of parties who care about the future of landscape thinking and working, we need to start solving this knotty problem.

* McKinney, Matthew, Lynn Scarlett, and Daniel Kemmis. 2010. Large Landscape Conservation: A Strategic Framework for Policy and Action. Cambridge. Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.