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21st century conservation: A vision of collaboration across landscapes

21st century conservation: A vision of collaboration across landscapes
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Just one week after taking office, the Biden administration proposed an ambitious conservation agenda to stem the loss of biodiversity, enhance environmental equity and justice and curb the drivers of climate change. The agenda envisions engaging state, tribal, local and territorial officials, farmers and forest landowners, fishermen and others to conserve 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030.

This “30x30” vision is bold, timely and innovative — bold for its ambition, timely amid devastating losses of biodiversity and the lands and waters on which all life depends, and innovative in putting people at the center of decision processes. We need large-scale conservation, shaped through collaboration that illuminates cultural perspectives and the economic needs of communities, and is informed by science. Saving nature is a human enterprise. We need the social infrastructure to support creative, community-based problem solving.

Why now? We are at an important juncture in the arc of conservation. Yes, we have inspiring conservation successes. But there is much more to do to sustain biodiversity, create a more just and inclusive conservation movement, address the challenges of climate change, conserve parks and working open spaces, and sustain our vibrant rural and urban communities.  

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Parks and protected areas have been the cornerstone of the modern conservation era, but often they are not large enough, nor sufficiently interconnected to sustain essential ecological processes. We see habitat loss, fragmentation, species extinctions, pollution and climate changes across geographies and jurisdictions. Conserving nature at scale requires working at landscape and seascape scales. These landscapes and seascapes form the milieu where people, places and species interact. 

Landscapes connect urban, rural and wildland areas. They include parks and protected areas while providing well-connected networks of ecological corridors amidst other nature compatible uses, including farms and forests. Large-scale, interconnected conservation requires investing in collaborative partnerships of diverse communities through which to engage their ideas and insights. We must move beyond piecemeal conservation of individual parcels and towards an integrative approach. 

The good news is that we can build upon the pioneering landscape-scale conservation emerging across the nation. We see people along the Ducktrap River in Maine, Las Cienegas in Arizona, Blackfoot River in Montana and many other places, where people are clustered in constellations of action to conserve places and enhance communities. We see large-scale conservation tableaux in the Gulf of Mexico, the Puget Sound, Chesapeake Bay, the Crown of the Continent and others spanning hundreds of miles. Often, they involve multiple jurisdictions employing coordinated and collaborative action. They require cooperation among federal, state, tribal and local agencies working with private landowners, communities and nonprofit organizations.

Before 2017, the Department of the Interior (DOI) invested in such collaborative partnerships through the Landscape Conservation Cooperative program. The National Academy of Sciences, assessing the program, affirmed its relevance to advancing science, partnerships and conservation actions at landscape and seascape scales essential for sustaining biodiversity. The product of one administration, the program withered in the next, and a robust, cohesive, nationwide network is not in effect today.

We need a durable national conservation framework — one that leverages the strengths of many organizations and communities and brings new voices to conservation. It must advance diversity, equity and inclusion by engaging all those who care about, benefit from and are affected by land and water conservation actions. These include urban and rural communities of color, indigenous peoples, owners and operators of working lands, non-governmental organizations, state agencies and federal agencies.  

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Such a framework must support a strong organizational “backbone” to facilitate collaboration and coordination of management actions, support conservation strategies based upon shared science, data and traditional/local knowledge, and attract long-term public and private-sector investments and staff.

The Congress, working with the Biden administration, can come together, as they did with overwhelming bipartisan support of the Great American Outdoors Act, to shape a 21st century of collaborative and landscape-scale conservation commensurate with the challenges of sustaining the lands, waters and diverse life that underpin our health, safety, economies and traditions.

Success requires leadership in the Biden administration to marshal coordinated federal actions that support a landscape conservation framework. Creating a multi-stakeholder, landscape conservation council could maximize communication and collaboration on landscape conservation policy and projects and help catalyze essential public and private funding. 

The Congress needs a national landscape conservation network to translate the 30x30 vision into actions. As we celebrate Earth Month 2021, let’s follow the arc of the nation’s conservation movement to shape and invest in collaborative landscape and seascape conservation that is inclusive, durable and advances conservation for people and nature.

Mamie Parker, Ph.D., is a biologist, conservationist, executive coach and facilitator. She served for 30 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including as a regional director.

Lynn Scarlett is chief external affairs officer at The Nature Conservancy. Previously, she was the deputy secretary and COO of the U.S. Department of the Interior and served as acting secretary of the Interior in 2006.