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Gathering provides rallying cry for collaborative conservation, and a showcase for tools that can support a shared vision

The annual Regional Conservation Partnerships (RCP) Gathering brought diverse conservation practitioners together to learn, share, and be inspired. Keynote speaker Chief Jason Weller of the Natural Resources Conservation Service praised attendees for their leadership in collaborative conservation.
Gathering provides rallying cry for collaborative conservation, and a showcase for tools that can support a shared vision

Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Jason Weller delivered the keynote address at the 2016 RCP Gathering.

At the annual Regional Conservation Partnerships (RCP) Gathering in Nashua, N.H., hosted by the Highstead Foundation, participants received kudos for their leadership in collaborative conservation from keynote speaker Chief Jason Weller of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and had the opportunity to learn about regional tools designed to them work strategically in the face of growing challenges.

Among them, two North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative supported landscape efforts: Connect the Connecticut, a landscape conservation design for the Connecticut River watershed, and Regional Conservation Opportunity Areas (RCOAs) Version 1.0, a network of resilient lands and waters across the 13 Northeast states.

During a workshop on "Exploring Shared Ecological Priorities Across New England", North Atlantic LCC Science Delivery Coordinator Steve Fuller provided an introduction to the vision and science behind RCOA Version 1.0, and then opened the floor for questions and discussion about how to make the suite of products accessible and relevant to diverse users.

In the afternoon, Kim Lutz of the Friend of Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge and The Nature Conservancy, and Sarah Wells of the Mount Grace Land Trust, led a roundtable discussion about gaining momentum around a campaign to use Connect the Connecticut as a shared vision and resource to foster strategic, collaborative conservation in the watershed.

In addition to opportunities to learn about tools designed to support collaboration, participants were given motivation to do so in Chief Weller’s inspiring mid-day address. He began by showing images from the Dust Bowl -- the ecological disaster that led to the establishment of his agency as the Soil Conservation Service in 1935 --  and then took attendees on a virtual tour of today’s countryside to demonstrate how far we have come in conservation since that environmental awakening, and how far we still have to go.

The tour started on the other side of the globe with a striking image of people shielding themselves in the midst of a dust storm in Turkey. Weller explained that the Eastern Mediterranean is currently experiencing the worst drought in recorded history. “This is the fertile crescent, the birthplace of human civilization,” he said. “This drought has displaced 1.5 million people.”

His point: Conservation is not just about protecting wildlife and habitat -- it’s about sustaining communities and livelihoods. While population growth is driving ecological changes across the globe, we need to harness the capacity of people to work together to conserve shared resources in a time of accelerating change.  

Given the theme of this year’s gathering - “The Power of Teamwork to Advance Regional Conservation” - his message no doubt rang true to the 200 representatives from federal, state, and local government agencies, non-governmental conservation organizations, academic institutions, utilities, businesses, foundations, agriculture, and forestry in attendance.

In his role, Weller oversees a variety of programs that help preserve natural resources and improve agricultural sustainability through voluntary, private-lands conservation, including the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which he said can be a vehicle for addressing any number of conservation needs.

Highstead’s Senior Conservationist Bill Labich has spearheaded an effort that offers a prime example of this potential. Labich served as co-chair for the Long Island Sound RCPP, which was created to fund projects that focus on protecting private forestlands that are vulnerable to development and fragmentation, and contain critical or significant habitat that sustains biodiversity and drinking water supply areas.

Labich and his partners used regional data that identify the highest quality habitat for six bird species as eligibility criteria for the the program. The datasets were developed as part of the Connect the Connecticut landscape conservation design project, and are incorporated within the RCOAs Terrestrial and Wetland Cores and Connectors dataset.

Over the course of his hour-long address, Weller cited dozens of other examples of success through a variety of different NRCS programs, emphasizing a list of key characteristics shared by all:

  • Shared vision - You can’t have real collaboration without a handshake.

  • Strategic approach - There will never be enough money, so focus on getting the most bang for your buck.

  • Scientific accountability - Invest in leading edge science, and then make sure you are getting what you paid for by tracking its impact.

  • Leveraging - If you are in it together, you can take advantage of each other strengths.

  • Regulatory certainty - Give landowners confidence that cooperation will enable them to keep doing what they are doing.

  • Credibility - You can’t have real collaboration without a handshake, but there needs to be trust in what that handshake means.

Now more than ever, Weller said conservation needs to focus on finding common ground. “I don’t care what side of the aisle you are on, everyone should care about natural resources”

And he called on RCPs to continue to lead by example. “You are involved in a new approach: Working beyond boundaries, looking at the big picture, and chasing needs, but always with respect for the private landowner.”

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