Conservation Fund's Myers and Benedict call for more strategic conservation methods

As conservationists and legislators try to strike a balance between land use and landscape protection, the idea of green infrastructure has emerged as a way to allow for growth and development and maintain natural ecosystems. During today's OnPoint the Conservation Fund's Mark Benedict, senior associate for strategic conservation, and Erik Myers, vice president of sustainable programs, discuss the Fund's book, "Green Infrastructure: Linking Landscapes and Communities." They address some financial challenges facing the program, stressing the importance of the private sector in promoting economic sustainability. Myers and Benedict also talk about the need to convince citizens and government that this new method of conservation will be a more viable solution for the long term.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today are Erik Myers, vice president of Sustainable Programs at the Conservation Fund, and Mark Benedict, senior associate for Strategic Conservation, also at the Conservation Fund. Mark is also co-author of the book "Green Infrastructure: Linking Landscapes and Communities." Thanks for joining me.

Erik Meyers: You're welcome.

Mark Benedict: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: Mark, let's first start off by defining the term green infrastructures, because as you say in the book, your term is a bit broader than others.

Mark Benedict: Yeah, we define green infrastructure as a strategically planned and managed network of natural lands, working lands and other open spaces; a network that is designed and managed to conserve vital ecosystem functions and also to provide a whole host of benefits to people and their community. So it's really for people and for nature.

Monica Trauzzi: Erik, how does green infrastructure differ from traditional land conservation efforts?

Erik Meyers: That's a terrific question, Monica. The fund was founded 20 plus years ago now, in 1985, and it was set up to conserve some of America's best landscapes, it lands resources, its water resources, its heritage resources. And we had been doing this on a project by project basis. We continue to do that. But we soon came to realize that there was a better approach, that these landscapes needed to be linked with each other for the maximum benefit for nature and for the human communities that depend on them. So our focus really has become this green infrastructure approach, like the gray infrastructure on the built environment side, linking the green areas, the hubs of dense, biodiverse communities, unfragmented forests and similar systems with each other for the maximum benefit for both the nature side and the human side.

Monica Trauzzi: Mark, in the book you say that we need to be concerned about haphazard conservation. Explain what you mean by that. What issues do you have with today's conservation efforts?

Mark Benedict: Well, I think we have made tremendous progress in our conservation work over the last 30 years. However, we still have an uphill battle because our major issue is the accelerated consumption and loss of open lands. As we have more lands, more biodiverse habitats lost, and that the same time, as we have less funding and less staffing to support that and to undertake conservation actions, we need to be a whole lot more strategic in how we do our conservation. So what we talk about is, you know, the idea of haphazard conservation, or conservation that is reactive and solely site-specific, solely permit based, we need to be concerned about that because we need to be much more strategic. We need to look at the whole system, a whole county, or a whole region or a whole state upfront and at first to try to decide those lands that are the most important. If you take a haphazard approach you might put all of your energy into one site, have that protected, have it managed, only to find out the next week here's another site that was actually more important. And then what happens if you don't have the time or the money? So the idea of strategic conservation, rather than reactive conservation is looking upfront at what's important, having a whole diverse amount of people be involved in that, to build consensus on that, and then to focus your efforts and your limited time and money where you can do the best good.

Monica Trauzzi: And you both work at conservation nonprofits, the Conservation Fund. How would you assess the efforts so far?

Erik Meyers: It's a growing effort nationally. We see communities across the country that are embracing a green infrastructure approach, even areas that you wouldn't think of as green. Tucson, Arizona is a great example where they adopted a green infrastructure approach in the Sonoran Desert. There are other communities. Milwaukee, Wisconsin is another great example. We see it growing. We see it growing at the level of land trusts and local communities. We're working with a number of local governments and doing green infrastructure plans on a county level basis. We're working with planning districts, doing green infrastructure plans and assessments across a multicounty of planning district bases. We're working with whole regions of the country and entire states as well. So we do see it building and it's a movement that is definitely catching on.

Monica Trauzzi: Talk a bit more about where this is actually happening. Who's implementing these principles already?

Erik Meyers: Well, we put out, about the same time as the book came out, we took a look across the country of the top green opportunities that were occurring. And we came up with a number of landscape settings where green infrastructure principles and strategies were being employed. And again, it's good to note that there's not a single set blueprint. What we're talking about are common strategies and common principles. That's what we're talking about with the green infrastructure approach. And from the East Texas Piney woods area to the northern coastal forest lands in Mendocino and Sedona Counties to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and a four county area around there, New River Valley in Virginia, Portland, Oregon, Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas. I mean this is a movement that has legs. It's moving across the country. And we see greater interests all the time in the national training courses that we do.

Monica Trauzzi: Mark, in the book you say the green infrastructure upfront. But you also say, and I quote, "There has never been and never will be enough public funding to fully implement a green infrastructure plan." So how do you pay for this program?

Mark Benedict: OK, well the whole idea -- one of the things we talk about in our course is, number one, just like any gray infrastructure plan, for example building a highway, they need to, upfront, design that system. Again, so they know where the important piece is, how they connect together, how they maximize the function. The same thing, you need to do the same thing to develop these conservation systems. You need to come up with a green infrastructure network, as I mentioned in the definition. A big thing we say in our course is once you come up with that network you need to develop, what we like to term, an implementation quilt, which basically identifies the diverse tools that are out there to make green infrastructure a reality and matches them up with very specific different areas. The way you tie this back into funding, which is an excellent example, is to realize that we aren't talking about creating a whole new funding source to just go out and buy these lands. These lands aren't simply bought. They aren't simply public land. They're lands involving public, private and nonprofit ownership and that there's a whole host of ways to do it. Implementation -- for example, you might identify one area that is so vulnerable, that has such high biodiversity value, you really want to find a way to raise money through bond issue, through donation, to buy it outright. But there's other lands that you could incorporate and manage as part of your green infrastructure, that could be done through a conservation development. Where as you develop the land you're more carefully looking at how the different pieces fit together with the regional effort.

Erik Meyers: Or working landscapes too. I mean we've emphasized the notion of working forests, of farmlands. These are part of the green infrastructure just as much as those intact natural areas. They add and expand our green infrastructure.

Monica Trauzzi: So will you rely on the private sector a lot to pay for this?

Erik Meyers: We need the private sector definitely involved and the fund has always espoused both aspects of its organizing mission. It's on the conservation side for the land and water resources protection. It's also on the economic sustainability of keeping this intact and understanding that human communities need economic growth and need sustainability for the long run. So we do emphasize both.

Mark Benedict: So it's crucial, really, for all of those people to be involved, because these are big efforts that take quite a lot of time and involve a lot of different areas. So it's really, again, not a matter of simply trying to buy it all. You really need to get people to buy into it and to have it be part of their plan, their vision and their goal.

Monica Trauzzi: And you're saying people would have to buy into it. The idea might sound a bit lofty to a lot of people and out of reach. It's basically requiring a complete restructuring of our current system. So how do you respond to your critics?

Erik Meyers: Well, you start and you build with what you have where you have it. You know the fundamental premise here is if you keep doing what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten. So we are trying to change the paradigm of how one approaches conservation. Thinking of it as an upfront exercise of identifying what's critical in ecosystem needs to service both the continued ecosystem and the humans as part of that ecosystem and doing that upfront, in concert with development. We're not saying there shouldn't be any more growth, but it's necessary to understand before you grow, in terms of land use and changing that land use in development, what the green infrastructure needs are.

Monica Trauzzi: So is it lofty or is it something that's feasible?

Erik Meyers: I think it's very practical. We're from West Virginia to Wisconsin. It's a practical strategy that strikes people and they understand that this is going to aid their bottom line economically, as well as protect what's near and dear to them in terms of the landscape.

Mark Benedict: Again, I was going to say, thinking back to the highway plan. That isn't lofty. People realize that you need to think 25, 50 years from now in order to plan that infrastructure that is essential for the community. We're just saying think in the long term what the green infrastructure, the living infrastructure is for your community. And then you can start piece by piece by piece. You can look at the great work they're doing funding urban trees. You know urban forestry is very critical to our cities. That's something, as you take the different pieces apart, you have a broad vision, but you have very practical ways to get to it.

Monica Trauzzi: So what exactly they you need from local and national governments? What kind of role are they going to play in the implementation of green infrastructure?

Erik Meyers: Well we've had terrific partners over the years with the U.S. Forest Service, in particular the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service components in terms of the national level. They're fully behind us. Forest Service is really taking a lead. We've had a number of state governments that have joined up. Maryland is a great example with their green print program, Virginia as well, local governments. We're interested in those that are open to the ideas and understand that as they grow they need to protect that natural infrastructure on which their communities depend, on which really the human lives depend. And we are finding receptivity to that message across a broad number of communities nationally.

Monica Trauzzi: And Mark, how do you get people to change their mindset from the traditional conservation efforts, which are being followed now, to this new way of thinking?

Mark Benedict: Well it's really interesting, that's a great question, and what is really happening is, by action, they're seeing the alternative. I worked in the state of Florida. I need to, of course, mention Florida as another tremendous example. When we were working down there we created a statewide ecological network, as well as a statewide trails network, that together combined for this system. And even the folks that were skeptical or not is involved, as we worked through the process, as we worked and developed the maps, they all started to see that this could help them. And that's a very important component of this whole approach, is to get a diversity of people together that have a diversity of interests. And by pulling together those interests, pulling together maps that relate how their interest translates to on the ground, more and more and more people are seeing that they can do a lot more together. And that doesn't mean that they need to sacrifice their own goals, objectives or mission. They just see that people have similar interests. So, again, I don't think it's a radical trying to convince them. I think it's just trying to bring them along and get them involved.

Monica Trauzzi: OK. Well, we are out of time. Thanks for joining me.

Mark Benedict: Well, thank you very much.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

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