WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Amid the budget-cutting and calls for even more dramatic reductions in government spending, land conservation remains a bipartisan priority – but the future won’t be business as usual, according to participants in the 10th annual Conservation Leadership Dialogue at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. March 1.
The event, “The Future of Large Landscape Conservation in America,” organized by Jim Levitt, fellow at the Lincoln Institute, took place on the 100th anniversary -- to the day -- of the passage of the 1911 Weeks Act, which allowed the US Forest Service to purchase and consolidate lands in the eastern half of the Lower 48, and is responsible for some of the more important instances of ecological restoration in the United States. “John Weeks, in pioneering the creation of National Forests in the eastern United States, set an important precedent for conservation in the 20th century,” said Levitt, who is also director of the Program on Conservation Innovation at the Harvard Forest at Harvard University. “It is up to us to set the pace for conservation in the 21st century through cooperation on large landscape conservation initiatives across the public, private, non-profit and academic and research sectors.”
While the likes of Teddy Roosevelt crafted the system of protected open space, today the conservation community faces new challenges – a need to organize wilderness across increasingly larger areas, across multiple jurisdictions and boundaries, and involving many more stakeholders. The landscape-scale or large landscape conservation approach, prompted in part by the rapidly changing conditions in ecosystems due to climate change, is seen as a new way to achieve regional and community-based collaboration that builds on the national parks, forests, and wilderness areas established over the last 100 years. A report published last year, Large Landscape Conservation, highlighted 10 of these grassroots initiatives, such as the Crown of the Continent, and coincided with President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative, which encourages alternative methods for land conservation.
Charles Chester, board co-chair of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, reported that nearly 80 attendees included prominent conservation practitioners representing the U.S. Congress, the Obama administration, various federal government land management agencies, non-profit organizations, universities and research institutions, foundations, and others. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) opened the day with remarks on large landscape conservation in Maine, landscape conservation in a national context, and the status of land conservation initiatives within the current budget battles. She emphasized the need to support community-led land conservation initiatives. US Representative Peter Welch (D-Vermont) said he was committed to protecting land conservation initiatives from short-sighted budget cuts in what he called the “analytic-free zone” of the House of Representatives. Representative Rush Holt (D-New Jersey) suggested the conservation community should rally around and build on the America's Great Outdoors initiative.
Two offcials of the Obama administration, Harris Sherman of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Will Shafroth of the Department of the Interior, said America’s Great Outdoors had great promise for consolidating, rationalizing, and increasing land conservation despite the current fiscal crisis. Several panels focusing on the non-profit sector, the foundation community, private landowners, land developers, and research and academic institutions covered the current state of conservation funding, and the ways that America’s Great Outdoors could catalyze large landscape conservation around the country.
Armando Carbonell, chairman of the Department of Planning and Urban Form at the Lincoln Institute, who oversees the conservation dialogue, noted that “the Library of Congress proved an appropriate setting for an event that witnessed bipartisan support from members of the Senate, House, and administration.” He said he was hopeful the gathering, “with some of the country's leading conservation practitioners and thinkers from the worlds of academia, philanthropy, and nongovernmental organizations, will help guide the path ahead.”