Landscape-scale Conservation

Grappling with the Green Matrix
James N. Levitt, Janeiro 1, 2004

In 1921, a loquacious, part-time public servant named Benton MacKaye proposed, in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, the creation of an “Appalachian Trail,” an effort that he saw as “a project in regional planning” (MacKaye 1921). His vision evolved over several decades until, under the leadership of a lawyer named Myron Avery, the nonprofit Appalachian Trail Conference helped to bring into being a continuous system of locally, state and federally owned lands, managed cooperatively by a collection of volunteers, nonprofit organization employees and National Park Service personnel (Bristow 1998). The A.T., as the trail is often called, today stretches from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, and the idea of extending the trail into Canada has been discussed repeatedly.

The initiative first proposed by MacKaye more than 80 years ago has proved to be a landmark in conservation innovation, characterized by: novelty in its design and implementation; lasting significance to landscape planners around the world; measurable effectiveness in trail upkeep and monitoring, achieved through collaborative efforts along the trail’s 2,100-mile length; transferability to other projects, such as the Pacific Crest Trail; and an ability to endure as a symbol of what can be accomplished, across ownerships and political boundaries, to achieve conservation-oriented purposes—primarily recreational purposes in the case of the A.T.

Despite the example provided by the Appalachian Trail and similar initiatives, regional planning generally fell out of favor during the last half of the twentieth century. While greenways, trail systems, water resource management districts and habitat conservation areas have appeared on the North American landscape from time to time, broadly defined efforts to form cross-sectoral, cross-boundary districts for the achievement of conservation objectives are not standard practice today in the United States and Canada.

However, prodded in part by the insight of biodiversity scientists that large, unfragmented corridors will be necessary for the long-term survival of some species living in the wild, enthusiasm among land conservation professionals for “landscape-scale” initiatives has reemerged in recent years. Accordingly, those concerned with such widely varying purposes as biodiversity conservation, the future of working farms and forests, the protection of water resources, the provision of outdoor recreational opportunities, and economic development linked to both natural and cultural amenities have shown a renewed interest in conservation initiatives of relatively large scale and comprehensive scope. At gatherings of conservation volunteers and professionals, such as the annual Land Trust Alliance Rally, multiple, well-attended sessions are devoted to the consideration of landscape-scale initiatives and planning techniques.

With this fresh interest in regional land and biodiversity conservation efforts in mind, the Lincoln Institute, with the support of the U.S. National Park Service Conservation Study Institute (NPS CSI), the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy (GGNPC) and the Quebec-Labrador Foundation (QLF), invited more than two dozen senior executives of public, nonprofit, academic and private sector organizations to the Presidio of San Francisco for a two-day conference in June 2003. The purposes of the meeting were to: advance our emerging understanding of what, in concept, landscape-scale initiatives are, and why they may be necessary; better understand how such concepts are (or are not) being realized in the field; and identify which innovations and advances appear necessary to more fully realize such large and comprehensive initiatives.

The Necessity of Landscape-scale Initiatives

The broad concept of a landscape-scale conservation initiative, as framed by the conference steering committee, includes three basic ideas: (1) such initiatives should encompass some regional system of interconnected properties; (2) such efforts are in some way organized to achieve one or several specific conservation objectivescooperate or collaborate in some concrete fashion to achieve those objectives. Several individuals at the conference thoughtfully articulated the necessity for landscape-scale initiatives. Chip Collins explained that conservationists who were once focused on success in “conserving individual tracts of land” now see many of the efforts launched over the past 50 years as “piecemeal and incomplete, often failing to comprehensively address the inputs that affect ecosystems and their component parts.”

Ted Smith, in explaining why the Kendall Foundation has made philanthropic investments in landscape-scale initiatives, noted: “Ample evidence convinces us that land fragmentation is a threat to most species…. We are seeking to promote reconnections along, [for example], a large stretch of the Rockies at a scale that reflects the needs of keystone species…. Because fragmented land ownership works against nature, we are funding conservation strategies that embrace approaches to integrating the management of public and private lands. Not surprisingly, private lands often hold the greatest biological wealth and represent key corridors for wildlife movement.”

While present-day discussions of landscape-scale initiatives may sometimes start with biodiversity concerns, they frequently go well beyond that focus. Nora Mitchell stated: “To protect remaining wild lands and sustain working landscapes, many conservation efforts today operate at the landscape scale. To be successful at this large scale, these efforts must integrate ecological, cultural and recreational values with economic and community development. As a result, the practice of landscape-scale conservation is complex and challenging… It requires working across political and ecosystem boundaries, adopts an interdisciplinary perspective, and involves the collaboration of many organizations.”

It is important to note that landscape-scale efforts may be directed not only toward relatively undeveloped and rural landscapes, but also to urban environments, reflecting, as Reed Holderman pointed out, “the diversity of relationships that exist between people and land.” In urban settings, the purpose may be as much about providing essential ecosystem services (for example, flood control and water purification) or recreational opportunities as they are about protecting wildlife habitat.

In short, landscape-scale conservation initiatives call upon our limited human capacities to understand and manage complex systems, as we are challenged to steward natural and built physical systems over long periods of time. Douglas Wheeler, former California Secretary of Resources, reminded the group that we are also challenged to build enduring “institutional ecosystems” that will sustain focus on achieving key conservation objectives across decades and the tenures of multiple political administrations.

Implementation of Landscape-scale Concepts

Participants had several opportunities to consider the effectiveness of landscape-scale conservation initiatives in practice, through both pre-conference field trips and case studies examined during the meeting. Field trips included visits to rural and urban protected landscapes in the San Francisco metropolitan area that help to comprise the region’s assemblage of “green matrix” sites. Subsequent case study discussions focused on the San Francisco Bay area; the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Initiative stretching from the state of Wyoming to the Yukon Territory; and a recent effort to encourage sustainable agricultural practices into the Cerrado region of Brazil. Given the relatively recent reemergence of interest in landscape-scale regional conservation efforts, their inherent complexity, and the range of possible conservation objectives that they might entail, it was not surprising that many of the initiatives we considered were seen more as “works in progress” than as successfully completed projects.

San Francisco Bay

Within the patchwork of protected landscapes distributed across the San Francisco Bay region, the most prominent property is the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), a regional-scale National Park Service unit first established in 1972. It now stretches from the Santa Cruz Mountains in the south, to prime parkland on both sides of the Golden Gate Bridge, to the Marin Headlands and northward. Billed as “the largest urban parkland in the world,” the GGNRA, at 75,500 acres (more than 30,500 hectares), offers such gems as Crissy Field, a breathtakingly beautiful bayside tidal marsh and educational center located within the Presidio of San Francisco on a former military airstrip.

Brian O’Neill and Greg Moore relayed the story behind the establishment of the 30-year-old GGNRA and the recently completed Crissy Field Center. Their story is a model case history of how, working together with the help of funding from both the federal government and private philanthropic sources, their organizations have brought to life a highly valuable recreational, educational and ecological resource for Bay-area citizens. In addition to enticing visitors, ranging from local school children to great blue herons and peregrine falcons, to make repeated visits to the site, the public, private and nonprofit partners at the Crissy Field site have recently linked food service operations at the park with the noted agricultural resources of the region. Visitors to the Crissy Field Café and Bookstore today can dine on some of the best organic produce grown in the Bay area, helping to build important ties between the area’s spectacular scenic amenities and its working farms.

Lands protected by the federal government within the GGNRA are complemented by extensive protected landholdings in the area that are owned by other governmental units, including: the State of California and various county and local governments; the academic sector, including the University of California and Stanford University; the nonprofit sector, including the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) and the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT); and the private sector, including agricultural lands under conservation easements held by both public and nonprofit entities.

While the region’s array of protected landscapes is indeed impressive in scale and distribution, enduring coordination among the managers of these lands, for the purpose of achieving specific conservation objectives, is often lacking. For example, the manager of a local nonprofit land trust was asked if strong bonds around achieving biodiversity conservation or water quality objectives linked the management of agricultural properties protected by land trusts with the lands protected by federal agencies. His answer was instructive: “Actually, the relationship between local, state and federal conservation organizations is not always smooth. There are some threads that are starting to tie one piece of the quilt to another, but they are only threads today.” He explained that what may look like some sort of coordinated picture on a map really was built “from the grassroots up,” starting with a variety of “piecemeal efforts”; any “regional vision” emerged later.

Bay area conservationists at the conference took in stride the idea that a regional vision regarding the achievement of management objectives was still being worked out. Greg Moore noted that he and his colleagues are in some ways just now refocusing on stewardship challenges, but he offered a hopeful perspective: “Each era of success generates a new generation of ambition.” Audrey Rust pointed out that it can be a struggle just to get public and private funders to focus on stewardship issues, particularly when they are inundated with land protection funding requests. But both Moore and Rust agreed that, over the next several decades, focusing substantial resources on the achievement of stewardship objectives is a job that needs greater attention. Bob McIntosh concurred, noting that similar challenges face conservationists active on the eastern seaboard.

Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y)

Progress toward the realization of a continuous, well-stewarded corridor of protected lands in the Y2Y region is at an even more formative stage. Ted Smith described Y2Y as a “bottom-up” effort that has biodiversity conservation at its center. Among other objectives, Y2Y seeks to establish core areas and connecting corridors that will sustain healthy populations of grizzly and black bears along a long spine of mountains that crosses the U.S.-Canadian border.

The Y2Y Initiative website ( offers a brief overview of the effort. The community of interest that has gathered around the Y2Y idea has grown over the past decade to include more than “340 organizations, institutions, foundations and conservation-minded individuals” that have “recognized the value of working together to restore and maintain the unique natural heritage of the Yellowstone to Yukon region and the quality of life it offers.”

The community has played a key role in achieving numerous visible and important conservation projects. For example, Y2Y member organizations, including the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), helped lead the successful effort to establish in northern British Columbia the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area (M-KMA), a nearly 16 million acre (6.4 million hectare) district; about 25 percent of the M-KMA is designated as parkland, with the remainder included in special management zones where certain resource development activities will be allowed. While the establishment of the M-KMA is a significant success for the conservation community, its ongoing management has proven to be a real challenge. George Smith explained: “In the M-KMA, progress has been made and problems solved; some industry is occurring while the wilderness remains essentially intact. Yet, much of the integrated management system has not been created, causing line-agency power struggles and inefficiencies.”

South of the U.S.-Canadian border, the conservation community is working hard to expand on the gains made over the past two decades to conserve both public and private lands for the public benefit along the Y2Y corridor. The Trust for Public Land, for example, was successful in 2002 and 2003 in helping to protect the Taylor Fork drainage in Montana, filling in some of the checkerboard pattern of land ownership in the Gallatin National Forest. However, with various property rights groups spearheading organized opposition to both public and private land conservation efforts, the realization of landscape-scale initiatives is far from assured in the Rocky Mountain region. Many years of concerted effort lie ahead if the gaps are to be spanned between the disparate protected landscapes appearing on regional maps. Dan Sayre commented that to achieve ambitious goals, the conservation community will have to be extraordinarily persistent in making its case that careful land stewardship is in the interest of local communities, is in our national interest, and is part of a tradition with deep roots in American history.

Innovations to Advance New Initiatives

Recognizing that the concept of landscape-scale conservation is still in some respects nascent, the assembled conservationists offered a number of ideas regarding innovations that may advance its development. Story Clark pointed out that in the area of stewardship U.S.-based conservationists have a great deal to learn from their international colleagues, especially regarding “community-based conservation methodologies.” Jessica Brown agreed, based on her experience in building support for conservation initiatives in Central Europe by focusing on the role of the local community.

Glenn Prickett offered the group a short presentation on how Conservation International (CI) is helping a community-based effort in the Cerrado, a massive savannah that covers more than one-quarter of Brazil’s land area. Since World War II, the Cerrado has been intensively developed for agricultural purposes, including soybean cultivation. The region is important for its own biodiversity attributes, and because it feeds water into Brazil’s Pantanal, home to one of the globe’s most significant freshwater ecosystems. In working to build a 370-mile biodiversity corridor that connects the Cerrado and the Pantanal, CI has forged a relationship with some of the region’s most important soybean processors to develop purchasing guidelines that encourage local soybean growers to use “best practices” in their operations. Such practices include the protection of natural habitat on agricultural lands as well as careful management of riparian zones to make a measurable difference in local stream and habitat quality. By working with the community, and leveraging the reach of key industrial processors in the area, CI hopes to considerably improve the odds that a regional biodiversity corridor will be sustainable. The approach, Prickett pointed out, is transferable to North American initiatives that will depend on wildlife corridors adjacent to, or even woven into, the fabric of local agricultural and industrial properties.

In addition to working closely with communities and local industry to achieve conservation objectives, participants stressed numerous other opportunities for innovation. Gretchen Daily addressed the need for new financing mechanisms to underwrite large-scale conservation initiatives. She discussed with candor the challenges of accessing potential streams of income associated with the provision of ecosystem services (for example, funding to support forest protection and other “carbon sequestration” efforts that would help to control the levels of gases that are released into the earth’s atmosphere and contribute to global warming).

Participants also discussed the need for increasingly powerful ways to monitor large-scale easements, especially on initiatives that incorporate working forests and farmlands. Peter Stein noted that methodologies for improving both the accuracy and cost-effectiveness of monitoring protocols are under development. At the New England Forestry Foundation, for example, novel applications of remote sensing technology, combined with more traditional aerial photography techniques and on-the-ground inspections, are being leveraged to monitor new landscape-scale easements. Seasoned conservationists including Mike Soukup, Bob Bendick and Philippe Cohen underscored how advanced information technologies, such as those used in detailed, multi-scalar Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping applications, can be particularly useful in thinking through regional conservation strategies.

In conclusion, however, the focus turned from exciting new technologies to the human element. Armando Carbonell summed up the sentiment of the group, noting that a “green matrix is not just land represented by green on a map, but also a set of lasting social relationships.” Like the effort sustained by the diverse group of men and women who brought the Appalachian Trail into existence and have cared for it as a national treasure, it will take the long-term attention of present and future generations to bring today’s expansive conservation concepts into reality.


James N. Levitt is director of the Program on Conservation Innovation at the Harvard Forest, Harvard University, and is a faculty associate at the Lincoln Institute. He organizes the Institute’s annual Conservation Leadership Dialogue, and reported on the March 2002 program in the July 2002 issue of Land Lines.




Bristow, Robert S. 1998. Volunteer-Based Recreation Land Management: Appalachian National Scenic Trail Management Model. Parks and Recreation. National Recreation and Park Association, August 1.

Levitt, James N. 2002. Land and Biodiversity Conservation: A Leadership Dialogue. Land Lines 14(3): 1–4.

MacKaye, Benton. 1921. An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning. Journal of the American Institute of Architects 9 (October): 325–330.

——. 1990. The New Exploration: A Philosophy of Regional Planning. The Appalachian Trail Conference, Harpers Ferry, WV, and the University of Illinois Press, Urbana-Champaign.



Conservation Leadership Dialogue Participants and Correspondents, 2003

Elizabeth Bell, Land Conservation Advisory Services, Seattle, WA
Robert Bendick, The Nature Conservancy, Altamonte Springs, Florida
Robert Berner, Marin Agricultural Land Trust, Point Reyes Station, CA
Jessica Brown, Quebec-Labrador Foundation, Ipswich, MA
Armando Carbonell,* Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Cambridge, MA
Story Clark, conservation advisor, Wilson, WY
Patrick Coady, Coady & Company, Washington, DC
Philippe Cohen, Stanford University/Jasper Ridge, Stanford, CA
Charles E. (“Chip”) Collins, Forestland Group, Inc., Cambridge, MA
Gretchen Daily, Stanford University, Stanford, CA
Julie Early, Island Foundation, Marion, MA
Ralph Grossi, American Farmland Trust, Washington, DC
Jean Hocker,* Land Trust Alliance, emeritus, Arlington, VA
Reed Holderman, Trust for Public Land, San Francisco, CA
James N. Levitt,* Harvard Forest, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Nick MacPhee, Land Conservation Advisory Services, Seattle, WA
Robert McIntosh, National Park Service, Boston, MA
Nora Mitchell,* National Park Service Conservation Study Institute, Woodstock, VT
Greg Moore, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, San Francisco, CA
Brian O’Neill, National Park Service Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco, CA
Glenn Prickett, Conservation International, Washington, DC
Will Rogers, Trust for Public Land, San Francisco, CA
Audrey Rust, Peninsula Open Space Trust, Menlo Park, CA
Dan Sayre, Island Press, Washington, DC
George Smith, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Association, Gibsons, BC
Ted Smith, Kendall Foundation, Boston, MA
Michael Soukup, National Park Service, Washington, DC
Peter Stein, Lyme Timber Company, Lyme, NH
Douglas Wheeler, Hogan & Hartson, LLP, Washington, DC

* Conference Steering Committee