PDF | Free | 4 pages
Download PDF

Land and Biodiversity Conservation

A Leadership Dialogue
James N. Levitt, Julho 1, 2002

The Lincoln Institute, with the Land Trust Alliance and the National Park Service Conservation Study Institute, is working with two dozen senior conservation practitioners from public, private, nonprofit and academic organizations across the nation to consider the grand challenges facing the North American land and biodiversity conservation community in the twenty-first century. The conservationists, who shared ideas electronically for several months prior to their March 2002 meeting in Cambridge, explored emerging and needed conservation innovations that may prove commensurate with the challenges. Organized by James Levitt of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Armando Carbonell of the Lincoln Institute and Fara Courtney, an environmental consultant based in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the group exchanged ideas through presentations, case studies and working groups. E.O. Wilson, the distinguished author and biodiversity scholar at Harvard University, addressed the session and participated in the discussions. This article presents several highlights of that leadership dialogue on conservation in the twenty-first century (C21).

“We have entered the twenty-first century, the century of the environment. The question of the century is, how can we best shift to a culture of permanence, both for ourselves and for the biosphere that sustains us?” E.O. Wilson

The Historical Context

Ask almost any American concerned with natural resources, “How and when did we start practicing conservation in this country?” In most cases, the response involves the role of the federal government at the turn of the twentieth century under President Teddy Roosevelt. While Roosevelt and his close associate Gifford Pinchot do stand as giants in the history of conservation in this nation, the record shows that Americans have a remarkable tradition of conservation that stretches back at least to the early days of the Republic.

Individuals and organizations in the private, nonprofit, public and academic sectors have throughout our history brought landmark conservation innovations to life, and they continue to do so. They have focused their attention on sites that span the urban-rural continuum, from city parks to remote wildernesses. In the context of repeated waves of immigration and population growth, a chain of stunning technological advances and a pattern of long-term economic growth, American conservation innovators have acted creatively and often with considerable passion to protect and manage natural and scenic wonders, working landscapes, native wildlife and recreational open space for their own benefit, for the benefit of the public at large, and for the benefit of future generations.

Consider the history of the land trust movement. Thomas Jefferson set an early precedent for private and nongovernmental protection of natural beauty in America. In 1773, three years before he penned the Declaration of American Independence, Jefferson purchased a parcel of land known as Natural Bridge near the Blue Ridge Mountains. He treasured the parcel throughout his adult life, inviting writers, painters and dignitaries to visit the site and record its wonders. By 1815 he wrote to William Caruthers to say that he held Natural Bridge “to some degree as a public trust, and would on no consideration permit the bridge to be injured, defaced or blocked from public view.”

Some 60 years after Jefferson’s death, Charles Eliot, son of the president of Harvard University and a protégé of Frederick Law Olmsted, took another historic step toward the nongovernmental protection of open space. He proposed the formation of a private association to hold parcels of land for the enjoyment of the citizens of Massachusetts, particularly the less affluent residents of Boston who needed an escape from the “poisonous” atmosphere of the crowded city so closely associated with the technological progress and demographic turmoil of the Gilded Age. With a charter from the Commonwealth granted in 1891, that organization, now known as The Trustees of Reservations, became the first statewide nongovernmental land trust.

Eliot’s innovation has proved to be truly outstanding, a landmark conservation innovation that meets all the criteria for outstanding innovations in the public interest set out by the Innovations in American Government program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The notion behind the Trustees has proved to be novel in conception, measurably effective, significant in addressing an important issue of public concern, and transferable to a large number of organizations around the world. Furthermore, and critically important in the field of conservation, Eliot’s innovation has demonstrated its ability to endure and remain vibrant after more than a century. The Trustees’ current director of land conservation, Wesley Ward, emphasizes that nongovernmental conservation organizations will continue to be called upon in the twenty-first century to “provide leadership by identifying challenges, advocating effective responses and providing relevant models of conservation and stewardship.”

The Lincoln Institute played an important role in the resurgent growth of the land trust movement in the early 1980s, when it focused its resources as an academic institution on how an exchange of information among several dozen land trusts in the U.S. might strengthen conservation standards and practices throughout the entire land conservation community. Jean Hocker, at that time organizing the Jackson Hole Land Trust, remembers well the early discussions convened at Lincoln House by Boston-area lawyer Kingsbury Browne. She explains that emerging from those deliberations was the idea that “we ought to form a new organization called the Land Trust Exchange that could help us all do our jobs better.” Hocker moved to Washington, DC, in 1987 to run the group, which became known as the Land Trust Alliance (LTA). Under her leadership, the organization led the land trust movement into a period of rapid growth and enduring achievement. In 2002, there are more than 1,200 local and regional land trusts in the U.S. that have helped to protect more than six million acres of open space. Furthermore, the LTA’s annual Rally is a now a high point of the year for more than a thousand land conservation volunteers and professionals spread across the continent and beyond who convene to share their best ideas.

The Trustees’ long history of conservation innovation and achievement is paralleled by the histories of many other public, nonprofit, academic and private sectors organizations represented by C21 participants. Nora Mitchell and Michael Soukup of the National Park Service underscore the significance of America’s creation of the world’s first national park at Yellowstone in 1872, an innovation of worldwide significance that was in part the brainchild of two private railroad entrepreneurs, Jay Cooke and Frederick Billings. Laura Johnson, president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, takes justifiable pride in the achievement of her organization’s “Founding Mothers,” two women who established the nation’s oldest continuously operating Audubon society in 1896 and catalyzed the campaign that led to the signing of the first international migratory bird treaty. Robert Cook, director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, explains the pivotal role of that institution in the emergence of American forestry policy as far back as the1870s. And Keith Ross of the New England Forestry Foundation, who spearheaded the precedent-setting effort concluded in 2000 to place a conservation easement on more than 760,000 acres of forest land owned by the Pingree family in Maine, emphasizes that the family’s private forest stewardship practices date back to the 1840s.

Complex Conservation Challenges

Notwithstanding the conservation community’s collective record of achievement, the land and biodiversity conservationists at the C21 meeting foresee grand challenges of extraordinary complexity and difficulty in the coming 50 to 100 years. In the context of expected growth in North American and world populations, changes in demographic patterns and ongoing technological development, as well as systemic changes in climate and other earth systems, they express deep concern regarding myriad potential changes on the landscape. These may include the accelerating loss of open space; intensified landscape fragmentation; further degradation of wildlife habitat; alarming declines in the viability of a wide range of biological species; and potentially significant stresses to earth systems that provide essential ecosystem services. Will Rogers, president of the Trust for Public Land, notes, “from a conservation viewpoint, the pace of growth and development is rapidly running us out of time.”

The concern of many C21 participants regarding the potential impact of growing human populations starts with the straightforward projection of the U.S. Census Bureau that the population of the U.S. will grow from some 280 million Americans in 2000 to about 400 million by 2050. Beyond the numbers, it is critical for conservation planners to understand that the diversity of the American population is forecast to change significantly, with particularly strong growth in the ranks of Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans. Jamie Hoyte, an authority on conservation and diversity at Harvard University, explains, “one of the most significant challenges we face is broadening and diversifying the community of conservation-minded citizens. Those who advocate for conservation must do so in a way that speaks to people of all backgrounds and races, demonstrating an understanding of the needs of a broad range of people.” Robert Perschel of the Wilderness Society expands on the idea, advising that we need to “enter into a new dialogue with the American people … to touch the hearts and spirits and wisdom of our citizenry.”

C21 participants also pointed out that new conservation initiatives are likely to be launched in the context of continuing economic growth and personal affluence. For perspective, note that real U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) grew more than five-fold between 1950 and 2000, and many economists expect to see comparable growth in coming decades. To protect open space and biodiversity in the midst of such great affluence, conservationists will need to leverage the nation’s economic power. According to Chip Collins of The Forestland Group, “North America’s economic growth has helped fuel the loss of biodiversity. At the same time, North America has led the world in the development and implementation of conservation strategies in large measure because of the extraordinary growth and vigor of its economy. One of the great challenges will be to manage this seeming dichotomy by effectively harnessing the private sector and redirecting its immense capital power base toward constructive conservation initiatives. The private sector, in stride with its nonprofit, public and academic counterparts, must be a full and constructive partner.”

As in the past, new and increasingly powerful technologies are likely to continue to proliferate. While offering considerable social and economic benefits, the new technologies may also be closely associated with large-scale environmental disturbances. In the past half-century, for example, the spread of interstate highways has effectively stimulated the American economy but has also been associated with pervasive environmental disruptions such as urban and rural landscape fragmentation, the creation of unhealthy air quality conditions, and the generation of significant volumes of gases associated with global climate change. Similarly, more recently introduced networked technologies, such as the Internet and advanced wireless communications networks, appear to be enabling continued net migration of Americans to formerly remote and highly environmentally sensitive locations across the continent. Technology-related change is not limited to the U.S., of course. Larry Morris of the Quebec-Labrador Foundation explains that new communications and transportation networks are influencing where and how people live worldwide, from Atlantic Canada to the Middle East.

Biodiversity scientists E.O. Wilson of Harvard and Leonard Krishtalka of the University of Kansas point out that while emerging technologies may be associated with environmental disruptions in coming decades, the same technologies are also proving critical to advancing our understanding of the diversity of life on earth. Krishtalka explains that “researchers are now learning how to harness the vast store of authoritative biodiversity information in natural history museums worldwide (about three billion specimens of animals and plants) and integrate it with other earth systems data for predictive modeling of environmental phenomena.” Such a predictive model was recently built by researchers in Kansas, California and Mexico to examine the fate of a wide variety of Mexican species under a range of global warming scenarios. The outcome of this and similar studies should be particularly useful to organizations striving to prioritize land and habitat protection opportunities in ecosystems throughout the western hemisphere that may be facing significant disruption in future.

In sum, despite remarkable progress, conservationists are in no position or mood to rest. John Berry of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation advises, “if our standard is that of the ancient Greeks, that is, to leave our nation ‘not only not less, but richer and more bountiful than it was transmitted to us,’ than we have not yet earned the laurel crown.”

A New Generation of Conservation Innovators

Inspired by the precedents set by creative American conservationists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, twenty-first century conservation practitioners are highly motivated to identify and implement new initiatives commensurate with the complex challenges of our day. C21 participants expressed interest in a wide variety of areas ripe for game-changing innovation, including the following.

Winning Hearts and Minds

Bill Weeks of The Nature Conservancy emphasizes that “the grandest challenge is to complete the task of getting the overwhelming majority of the public to care and act and vote like they care.” Rand Wentworth of the Land Trust Alliance agrees that conservationists should use the “tremendous power” of mass marketing to help create a national mandate for land conservation. Clare Swanger of the Taos Land Trust adds that the insight of mass marketers, but also of people living on the land, should be employed in such an effort. The outstanding question facing these conservationists is how to leverage modern marketing tools in a truly historic fashion. The aim would be to put together an effort comparable to the highly effective antismoking campaign of the last several decades, so as to build sustained momentum for the long-term protection and stewardship of “land for life.”

Building the Green Matrix

Addressing the multiple problems of open space consumption, loss of working landscapes, habitat fragmentation and biodiversity decline is a job that no single sector can tackle alone. Larry Selzer, president of the Conservation Fund and a proponent of smart conservation that balances economic returns with environmental principles, explains that effective action will require the cooperative efforts of landowners, policy makers and a wide diversity of individuals working across sectors. Furthermore, as Charles H.W. Foster of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government points out, effective conservation efforts are at least as likely to take place at local and regional levels as at federal and international ones. Just how effective “green matrix” landscapes and organizational structures can be effectively assembled and maintained over the long term remains an area for thorough exploration and experimentation. Among other C21 participants, Peter Stein of the Lyme Timber Company, Jay Espy of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and Ian Bowles of the Kennedy School and the Moore Foundation are actively advancing the evolving art of assembling protected landscapes where economic and conservation goals can be pursued simultaneously.

Following Through with Stewardship

Achieving long-term conservation goals, of course, requires that once protection is gained for a given area a well-crafted stewardship plan, and in some cases an environmental restoration plan, must be conceived, agreed to by the relevant parties and then implemented. Getting this done has proved to be neither simple nor easy. Financing and organizing such stewardship efforts is too often overlooked during intense, short-fused campaigns to protect given parcels of land. Bringing a new level of attention and expertise to land and habitat stewardship and restoration efforts will be an ongoing challenge to the conservation community, particularly as its portfolio of protected lands grows in coming decades.

Fortunately, conservationists can point to some forward-looking stewardship efforts now underway. For example, Ralph Grossi, president of the American Farmland Trust, notes that the 2002 Farm Bill will provide significant levels of funding for USDA-sponsored stewardship efforts on agricultural lands. Similarly, Jaime Pinkham, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho, offers eloquent testimony about how tribes can work with local, federal and other authorities to restore keystone species to entire ecosystems, as was accomplished with the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies. Still, there is room for a great deal of progress and innovation in this area.

Synthesizing Conservation Science

Conservation scientists E.O. Wilson, Leonard Krishtalka and Douglas Causey all underscore the argument that very significant progress can be made in the coming century to build large-scale syntheses in conservation biology and ecology. Wilson is particularly emphatic about the need to catalog all living species, a global work-in-progress that is only about 10-percent complete. The All Species Foundation that Wilson helped to form proposes to “complete the censusing of all the plants, animals and micro-organisms in the world in 25 years.” “Is this a pipe dream?,” asks Wilson, rhetorically. “No way,” he answers. “It is megascience backed by the same sort of technology drivers as the Human Genome Project. The important thing is to see the exploration of the biosphere as a crucial task.”

Gaining a comprehensive understanding of the biosphere and the ability to predict ecosystem outcomes under a variety of possible futures is indeed a grand challenge for conservation scientists. Kathy Fallon Lambert of the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation adds, “a complementary challenge is to find clear and concise ways to explain significant field and laboratory research findings to the general public and to key decision makers so that they can carry out policy debates with the best available scientific information.”

From our vantage point at the commencement of this century we cannot accurately predict just what future generations, 50 or 100 years from now, will judge to be our generation’s most significant conservation innovations, comparable to earlier creations of the world’s first statewide land trust or national park. We do know, however, that we face significant and complex conservation challenges, and our ideas for powerful innovation will only yield results if we act on them with great personal and organizational energy and intensity. There is no argument that the best time to begin such efforts is now.

James N. Levitt is director of the Internet and Conservation Project, Taubman Center for State and Local Government, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. His research focuses on the potentially constructive and disruptive impacts of new communications and transportation networks on land use and the practice of conservation, as well as opportunities for landmark conservation innovation in the twenty-first century.