The conservation movement in America is really good at hitting targets. Show us an imperiled species or piece of land and our community of public agencies, private non-profits, corporate partners, and philanthropists can save just about anything. But how about hitting a moving target?
Conserving our natural systems in a changing climate is like playing tennis in a gale force wind. The target is constantly moving, sometimes at the last moment, and this uncertainty makes you more tentative when your only hope is to stay nimble on your feet and then swing with all your might.
That is why the conservation community must overcome its own scientific questions and the current political swirl around climate change to conserve our forests and other natural systems at an unprecedented scale. Given uncertainty about how climate change will alter our planet, we need a very big margin for error—enough conserved land and water that we can afford to have a few inescapable failures along the way.
I offer this exhortation at a time when we see mixed signals about the future of land conservation. On one hand, the last decade has been a halcyon era for new and redoubled landscape conservation. All across the country and the globe, public-private partnerships are forming and thriving to drive landscape conservation that can provide a “climate-safe” margin for error. This map of landscape partnerships in America shows just how broadly this movement has taken hold.
Science is also rallying to the cause by providing new guidance for a climate-safe approach. For example, scientists at The Nature Conservancy worked with partners to develop a visionary new way to look at land and find the hotspots for sustaining biodiversity in any climate. This concept of “conserving the stage” provides a way to take bold action while acknowledging major remaining uncertainties about future climate, and how that will impact nature.
Philanthropy has injected urgency and capacity to the conservation movement. Just this week, Jack and Laura Dangermond, pioneers in creating the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software relied on by conservationists everywhere, made a stunning conservation gift of $165 million to conserve a vast area of the California coastline covering 38 square miles. This gift was announced as the beginning of a new effort by the Dangermonds to support landscape-scale conservation work—and inspire others of means—in hopes we can conserve nature before it is too late.
Yet, there are troubling signs that run counter to this positive momentum. This begins with uncertain signals from the federal government and some states about how government agencies will approach future conservation, and whether climate change will be integrated as a strategic consideration. I know this from personal experience—after serving for a number of years as a representative to the federally-led Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, the future of these partnerships is in doubt thanks to changing policy.
There is also the uncomfortable competition for conservation resources between urban areas and natural landscapes, particularly with regards to philanthropy. This pendulum has swung strongly towards cities at the moment, and tremendous urban greening benefitting millions of people is occurring as a result. But this has undeniably lessened financial resources for landscape conservation. As we stare into the bared fangs of climate change, we have to rally sufficient public and private funding to green our cities and take care of our natural landscapes simultaneously.
There is one other major shift that is needed for conservation in a changing climate—a commitment to science-based restoration. More than ever, we can no longer assume that just protecting land from development will provide healthy natural landscapes. From drought-ridden forests in California to disappearing marshes in the Chesapeake Bay, climate change is eroding our conservation successes almost as they occur.
That means we need land management and restoration efforts that acknowledge constant change as the new normal. For example, my organization, American Forests, is working with diverse partners on a range-wide effort to restore whitebark pine and other five-needle pines that sustain wildlife across the high mountains of the West. This will be a dynamic process: the range of these forest ecosystems is already shifting with climate change, and restoration must make the trees resilient to growing threats like blister rust, a disease decimating these forests.
To respond, this public-private partnership is launching a new range-wide recovery effort covering a large swath of North America. The partners will find and protect the best cone-producing trees, and breed new disease-resistant trees to plant in restoration focus areas all across the West and into Canada. Some of these restoration areas will succeed and others might fail—but there will be a big enough margin of error to sustain these forests into the future.
It will take great vision and confidence to create a climate-safe network of healthy natural landscapes across America. We must become more comfortable with uncertainty and even occasional failure. We also need the resolve to invest in conservation and restoration with the same urgency as built infrastructure and other national priorities. This can be justified simply on our own self-interest—people need these natural systems to survive. But for the wild inhabitants of our planet that are seeing their habitats rapidly disappearing, this is an existential moment. Time for America to swing big.