2030 D: Collaboration

Overview.  Most conservation is practiced as a collaborative venture with diverse stakeholders, including local communities, with the goal of broadening support through more flexible and less dogmatic approaches.  The key is planning across an entire landscape or watershed to maximize multiple goals through integrated solutions.

Context/Drivers.  Business and government take a more comprehensive and serious approach to sustainability, merging it with conservation, as they face increasing resource shortages and the need to use less energy.  More see how ecosystems and nature support human activity and that their sustainability is tied to ours.  More companies adopt triple bottom line (economic, social and environmental) goals and participate in community conservation and other community planning. Everything today is interconnected, a wicked problem. Problems can rarely be solved in isolation.

Strategies. Networked, collaborative, inclusive and integrated approaches look at whole landscapes with patchwork ownership patterns. Large funders back regional/watershed projects in order to have greater impact, but require stakeholders to come together around an integrated plan with all groups working to overlay multiple priorities. Collaborative approaches over larger scale resolve conflict more predictably than litigation, which can take an unbounded amount of time and money. For people to take action on diffuse issues like climate change and biodiversity they must see their action as aligned with, and contributing to, a broader collective action.

Compromise and flexibility is critical to progress in this inclusive, networked governance approach. Different conservation projects in an area often find they have conflicts to work out.  The most desirable solution from a conservation point of view is no longer on the table.  At least 80% of what is wanted is still possible, but only if you don’t spend your resources and political capital on the 20% you’re not going to get.

Conserving natural places and wildlife is something that almost everyone can get behind if approached in a collective effort where individual companies or land owners don’t feel singled out. Places like Massachusetts and the Willamette Valley show that high population density can be compatible with healthy ecosystems.

Landscape- and watershed-scale conservation, the paradigm in Europe for some time, is growing fast in the US. It incorporates all systems, across the spectrum of degrees of alteration (historic, hybrid, novel), providing more options for how and when to intervene and a greater chance of meeting management goals.  Efforts to align climate change action and conservation goals are more effective when done at landscape scale.  Ecosystems don’t know property lines.  Neither do fires or pests.  Land owners see that they have to be part of the conservation plan for their own protection. There is no one right scale, it depends on the parties involved that are willing to work together more than anything else.

Acquisition of great places with high biodiversity value is still active elsewhere, but is declining as a strategy in the US.  We have a lot of protected land and we can’t buy enough land to maintain the biodiversity and species we care about. Efforts to make the entire landscape more permeable have replaced the creation of narrow and isolated corridors.

The emphasis moves away from restoring something that is broken or damaged to building together a common vision for the future and then aligning behavior to achieve it. As has become the norm in the developing world, conservation goals are established in win-win partnerships with stakeholders, not imposed from above.  As a result, each landscape is different, with its unique history, cultural context, and mix of lands and stakeholder values. Maintaining open space and overall biodiversity are dominant goals, with less fighting over individual regionally endangered species, and less of an anti-development bias. A frequent objective is supporting human health and wellbeing through nature.  The shift is from protecting the land per se to protecting people’s relationship with the land.

Major Players.  For most conservation organizations, the mission has broadened. They think in terms of a triple bottom line, just as they are asking businesses to do.  They consider the social and economic impacts of their work, as well as the environmental ones. All are cutting their carbon footprint and contribute to climate action.

Many of the formerly litigious conservation groups have adopted more collaborative approaches. In general, rewarding good behaviors is preferred over penalizing bad ones. Overall the NGOs are less competitive than in the past. Traditional donors including Land Trusts support and participate in landscape-scale efforts. Coordination among large and small organizations is strong, with larger ones working through smaller, focused groups who know the situation on the ground socially as well as ecologically.  Boundary organizations and conveners play increasingly crucial roles.

Sophisticated outreach using social media has increased public support. Focus on the goals and values underlying conservation has engaged many segments of the population from hunters to high school students. Public health departments and healthcare providers are more involved under the banner of promoting wellness. Artists, authors, poets, film makers and museums create a new bond with nature. Outreach and inclusion of native people has given voice to their nations’ desire to protect their land from extraction by outsiders.   

Through engagement of underserved communities and communities of color, we have cast off the old beliefs that concern for the environment was only for the economically well off. The organizations themselves are much more diverse, economically, racially, culturally, in staff and board membership, as are university programs, keeping them relevant and allowing them to retain political support as the demographics in the country change.

Science.  Technology and big data sets provide integrated views across entire watersheds or landscapes. Modeling and data visualization advances have been critical to helping people see the reality of what is coming because of land use and climate changes. Decision support tools are integrated with GIS systems and models of climate and ecosystem function. The traditional natural sciences are not the leader in these networked efforts, but have a seat at the table. Conservation success requires changing people’s behaviors, requiring much stronger involvement of the social sciences (political science, sociology, psychology, behavioral economics, etc.), which provide insights into how to balance human and natural values and how to affect change. 

Regulation/Policy.  The old regulatory frameworks stopped bad things but weren’t able to get good things to happen. New approaches are more proactive, inclusive and flexible. The Federal Government has increased its use of flexible mitigation compensation approaches, that look across an entire landscape rather than requiring mitigation near a specific project. Conservation design principles, where major portions of land for a project are left undeveloped and natural, have been incorporated into more local and regional zoning regulations.  It has been critical to engage and create a new awareness with local and county officials in a pervasive way.  

Go to Endstate E: Anthropocene