Landscapes of the Future: Enhancing Collaborative Action

Lynn Scarlett

In late February, former Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior Lynn Scarlett offered thoughts at the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy’s Southeast Landscape of the Future Summit. What follows is an adaptation of her remarks. 

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As we contemplate lands, waters, and ocean in the southeast, the United States, and the world around us, we see a troubling tableau. Climate change and a wide range of human activities are impacting habitats, wildlife, and people at unprecedented rates—affecting lives, livelihoods, people, places, wildlife, and ecosystems. These challenges transcend individual jurisdictions and properties—consider drought, flooding, catastrophic wildland fire, sea level rise, hypoxia in the Gulf, and more. 

The scope and interconnectedness of these challenges heighten the imperative of collaborative, landscape conservation, transdisciplinary science, and a systems lens. Consider that, for enhancing Gulf Coast resilience, we need actions across multiple states, many coastal cities, many agencies, many communities, and many interconnected issues. For example, sustaining and restoring coastal wetlands, enhancing the health of longleaf pine ecosystems, tackling hypoxia—all require collaboration and shared goals, often across agencies and jurisdictions and properties and issues management. These endeavors require clear metrics; science relevant to scale; local and Indigenous knowledge; adaptive management; partnerships; and federal, state, local, Tribal, public and private-sector actions.

Within this context, landscape conservation, restoration, and resilience initiatives are broadening in scope, scale, and extent. These efforts reside at the confluence of science, technology, communities, management, economies, laws, and policy. We need all hands on deck and the wisdom of diverse peoples across diverse places.

The good news is that so many building blocks are in place, and partnerships are broadening. Consider the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy’s (SECAS) Conservation Blueprint and Blueprint Explorer. For over a decade, the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy has catalyzed collaboration, science and conservation action across 15 states with over 140 organizations to tackle interconnected challenges at relevant scales. Other regions, at varying scales, are similarly advancing partnerships to support landscape conservation.

But we are on a continuing journey amid evolving questions:

  • How do different landscape scales influence success — from the local to the regional level? 
  • Beyond geographic and ecological factors, what else do landscapes include?
  • What does collaboration mean within landscape context?
  • What issues can most benefit from collaboration? 
  • What kinds of leadership, funding, and governing systems and processes are needed to sustain collaborative conservation at landscape scales? 


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There is a passage in the book, Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, in which the heroine Alice stands at a fork in the road. Alice looks up to see the grinning Cheshire Cat. She asks the Cat, “Tell me, please, which way ought I to go from here.” The Cat replies that it: “Depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

For scientists, communities, and resource managers grappling with a changing climate and other landscape-scale challenges, perhaps the response to the Cheshire Cat might be that we are striving for healthy and resilient lands and waters, thriving communities, and dynamic economies. The challenge is, of course:  How? Where? Who? 

In contemplating landscapes of the future, I offer a few thoughts on questions of scale, relevant landscape factors, and collaboration form, governance, and leadership.

Scale: Consider first the question of scale—how big is big enough? And how do different landscape scales influence success—from the local to the regional level? 

Challenges unfold at multiple spatial and temporal scales and that means multiple scales of action are essential. The Interior Department (DOI) landscape-scale management policies offer useful framing. DOI describes a landscape “as an area encompassing an interacting mosaic of ecosystems and human systems characterized by a set of common management conditions.”  They add a caveat: “The landscape is not defined by the size of the area, but rather by the interacting elements that are relevant and meaningful in a management context.” They describe a landscape-level approach as “a structured analytical method that informs conservation and resource management decisions at multiple spatial scales.”

I think these descriptions are generally on target. Fundamentally, policy makers and conservation practitioners face the challenge of how to achieve a decision scale big enough to meaningfully address the problem, but small enough to align the solution to the particulars of place.

But this framing invites the question: How might one determine the scale of particular engagements and actions?  There is no single answer: It all depends. It depends on the nature of the problem—addressing hypoxia in the Gulf involves a different scale and players than, say, enhancing coastal resilience along particularly vulnerable stretches of coast.


Relevant Landscape Factors: Thinking about scale and success also invite questions about feasibility and people’s perceptions of community and their sense of place. Beyond geographic and ecological factors, landscapes include people networks, cultures, and economic dynamics. These considerations affect who needs to be at the decision table, the feasibility of various actions, the building of trust, and prospects of successful outcomes. These considerations underscore the importance of social sciences and tools of social network analysis.

The Blackfoot Challenge in Montana describes its approach to conservation as “partner-centric” rather than “biology-centric,” underscoring the organizers’ perspective that trust-building and coordination are precursors to effective action. The Blackfoot Challenge describes partner-centric conservation as emerging through social processes and collaboration in ways that bring together local knowledge, technical expertise, biological knowledge, and socioeconomic values. They affirm the notion that understanding people networks and people dynamics is an important part of any landscape. 

This affirmation has implications for science and knowledge building—and the significance of social sciences. Social sciences are not only a matter of generating and deploying social science research on economic conditions, ecosystem services, social networks within intervention contexts, and more. Social science knowledge is also important to understanding collaborative processes and understanding what processes and practices build trust, credibility, use of knowledge, and motivations to act. 


Collaborative Form, Governance, and Leadership: These insights on landscape factors are relevant to thinking about the leadership, funding, and governing systems and processes needed to sustain collaborative conservation at landscape scales. We need institutions and decision processes that facilitate coordination across jurisdictional boundaries. We also need both horizontal and vertical interaction among multiple governing units, organizations, and the private sector.

The concept of networks within networks is relevant—or what some have referred to as “network governance.” That is, as actions unfold at different scales, with smaller scales often nested within larger scales, how might one interconnect these efforts?

In the west, the Crown of the Continent offers an example of multiple initiatives and organizations focused on various priorities and actions within a large region. Each pursues its priorities and partnerships, but the Crown of the Continent provides a context for identifying linkages and sharing knowledge. SECAS offers a similar context for linking actions at ever-broader scales, sharing information platforms, and coordinating efforts. 

Such cross-jurisdictional, multi-agency, public-private, multi-tiered interaction is not new. But network governance and coordinated action present challenges. Policy makers face practical challenges associated with limits on their authorities to expend funds outside jurisdictional boundaries or across issues. Yet such expenditures may be important. Consider beach replenishment along coasts, in which sediment deposition may be required outside a city’s boundaries to secure the desired protections.

Policy makers also face a challenge of how to share goal-setting across governing units. Very few U.S. examples present models of multi-purpose, multi-issue, cross-jurisdictional government and governance. There are some—for example, the Great Lakes Initiative is instructive. SECAS has advanced a multi-variables mapping effort to support energy planning, water security, and forest health. Such mapping lays the foundations for understanding what is, and what is needed.

But action still requires institutions, rules, funding, and partnership processes to take actions and sustain them over time. Studies on knowledge use show the importance of decision contexts and mechanisms that link researchers to users.

The Nature Conservancy’s Sheila Reddy and colleagues, trying to understand what motivates receptivity to “natural capital” or “green infrastructure” solutions, found that, yes, the science is important. But lack of interaction between researchers and intended users can present a significant problem that limits relevance and perceived credibility of research intended to inform decisions and actions.

Consider coastal resilience in the context of extreme storms. At one level, the science to understand the role of oyster reefs or sea marsh restoration in wave attenuation is important. But, at the intersection of decision making, people need to understand the relationship of natural infrastructure to built infrastructure—how do they interrelate? What is most cost-effective? And, important to getting traction for natural infrastructure is an understanding of attitudes, what people perceive, what they want, how to enhance learning, and how to engage people in understanding options.

In the wake of Katrina, for example, during my tenure at the Interior Department, we saw an upsurge in science illuminating the role of nature—e.g., sea marshes—in reducing storm surge and other storm impacts. The storm presented a big opportunity to “do things differently.” But communities often want an immediate “rebuild” of traditional built structures. This invites the question of how to engage affected communities to enhance their embrace of nature’s solutions.  

Collaboration is critical for identifying and selecting conservation and on-the-ground management options at the intersection of people, places, communities, and economies. It is less well suited to setting standards or generating basic science on, say, causation of coral reef bleaching or the status and trends of species—and so on. 


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Beyond these considerations of scale, relevant landscape factors, and collaborative form, governance, and leadership, I return to the decision context and the relevance of systems thinking. Interconnectedness of issues and places raises challenges of agency silos in which responsibilities for issues are divided. Interconnectedness also reinforces the importance of scale. It also raises challenges for metrics: How might managers develop cross-issue indicators to measure outcomes on an integrated basis?

Many metrics are focused on particulars rather than an integrated whole. Quantum physicist David Bohm once observed: “To fragment is to divide things up that are at a more fundamental level actually connected.” Perhaps we need a combination of system process indicators and particular metrics on species, vegetation composition, and more.

How do we get the particulars of local places and actions that matter in understanding the big picture? Concepts of networks are helpful—forms of collaboration will vary by the scale and context. There is not one form of collaboration nor one scale of interaction and action. Rather, a key consideration is how to link and coordinate across scales and collaborative endeavors.

Ultimately, risk reduction and sustainability will result from a confluence of science, collaboration, and forms of governance that facilitate cross-agency and public-private coordination. Science, collaboration, and network governance are important for effectiveness, accountability, and legitimacy of decisions and actions. These features, for policy makers, often make decisions provisional, and they diffuse responsibilities. This sort of diffuse, provisional decision-making is difficult to reconcile with traditional notions of accountability. Nor are many current decision processes well aligned with flexibility and adaptive management important in the landscape conservation context of complexity and uncertainties. 

With this backdrop, I conclude by exploring a bigger question. Science is critical to understanding causes and effects, filling knowledge gaps, projecting future outcomes, modeling alternative options, and assessing restoration results. Science insights may help decision makers and managers shape and evaluate options through iterative conversations. 

But the effective intersection of science and management also requires decision processes that allow for nimble, sometimes quick action, while still ensuring accountability. And the people-place dynamics underscore the imperative of inclusivity in collaboration. Governance structures and processes need a context that gives expression to multiple values and points of view. Those processes require, too, some shared agreement on decision processes and rules—whether formal or informal. How much consensus is enough?  When can an idea become a decision? 

And governance structures and processes also must establish the conditions for ongoing learning. Learning needs to include ways to identify information gaps, uncertainties, and methods for generating relevant knowledge. But learning also needs to encompass the incorporation of local and experiential knowledge into deliberations and the knowledge base. Finally, collaborative efforts face their own internal and intersecting governance challenges—challenges of how to keep efforts glued together and moving forward. 

Returning to the query of the Cheshire Cat—where is it that we want to go? We aspire to a landscape of the future that weaves together healthy and resilient lands and waters, thriving communities, and dynamic economies. As I consider which way we ought to go to get there, I am hopeful because the path is increasingly coming into focus—a path marked by durable, effective collaborative vehicles that bring together diverse values and points of view to make decisions.”

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Landscapes of the Future: Enhancing Collaborative Action