Perspectives on the National Academy of Sciences Review of the LCCs

by Greg Wathen, Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozarks LCC Coordinator

Last week, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS or Academy) released its long-awaited report on LCCs, A Review of the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.  Okay, maybe it wasn’t so long-awaited, since the Academy actually turned out the report in a pretty timely fashion, but for those of us who have been involved in LCCs for the last five years, it was definitely an eagerly awaited report. 

We were genuinely interested in learning what the NAS Committee thought about the LCC Network and our progress, and whether they believed that the work we’re doing is making a valuable contribution to conservation in our nation.  Overall, I thought that we received a positive report from the Committee, especially in that it re-affirmed the importance of a “landscape approach to conservation” in North America, and concluded that LCCs are uniquely suited to provide that landscape context for the nation.  The report also pointed out some areas for improvement, especially identifying better coordination with Joint Ventures, Fish Habitat Partnerships, and Climate Science Centers, and developing better metrics for evaluating progress towards our LCC Network goals and objectives.

The Committee’s report came about as a result of a Congressional mandate in 2014, as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, which included the following language:  “From within the funds provided for LCC activities, the [Fish and Wildlife] Service is directed to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate: (1) the purpose, goals, and scientific merit of the program within the context of other similar programs; and (2) whether there have been measurable improvements in the health of fish, wildlife, and their habitats as a result of the program.”  In response to this directive, the USFWS worked with the Academy to develop a scope of work that would address not only the Congressional directive, but also provide the Service with a comprehensive review of the LCC Network.

Here are some of my major takeaways from the report:

  • “The committee concludes that the nation needs to take a landscape approach to conservation and that the Department of the Interior is justified in addressing this need with the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.”
  • “The committee concludes that the LCC Network is unique in that no other federal program is designed to address landscape conservation needs at a national scale, for all natural and cultural resources, in a way that bridges research and management efforts.” 

These two findings of the Committee re-affirm the need for landscape-scale conservation, and conclude that LCCs are uniquely suited to that task.  In other words, LCCs are a good idea and the timing is right to take on these challenges.  The changes that we’re experiencing and will experience in the 21st century -- population growth, increasing urbanization, and a warming climate -- make it clear that collaborative landscape-scale conservation is needed more now than ever.  Hearkening back to 2010 when DOI Secretarial Order No. 3289 was executed, LCCs were established under the following premise: “because of the unprecedented scope of affected landscapes, Interior bureaus and agencies must work together, and with other federal, state, tribal and local governments, and private landowner partners, to develop landscape-level strategies for understanding and responding to climate change impacts.” 

  • “Recommendation: The Department of the Interior should review the landscape and habitat conservation efforts, especially the Joint Ventures and the LCCs, to identify opportunities for improved coordination between these efforts. Special consideration should be given to the limited capacity of state agency partners to participate in multiple efforts simultaneously.”

In the GCPO LCC, our relationships with Joint Ventures and other regional partnerships like the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership (SARP) and Gulf of Mexico Alliance (GOMA) are absolutely critical to our ultimate success in delivering the best science that we can to our partners.  I like to believe that we have a pretty good relationship with these partnerships, and we’ve worked hard over the years to include them in our conservation planning, but I also understand that it takes continuous nurturing and communications to maintain the good working relationships that we have developed.  I also believe that we can always improve the coordination and effectiveness of our collaborations, so we’ll continue to emphasize that in the future as we move forward.

  • “Recommendation: The LCC and CSC programs should be more clearly delineated. They should explicitly state how their research efforts differ and how they complement each other, identify and build on existing examples of coordination across the network, and make adjustments as appropriate. At the regional scale, LCC coordinators and CSC federal directors should coordinate their activities, including calls for proposals, as much as possible to avoid duplication of effort.”

LCCs and the USGS Climate Science Centers (CSC) were created under the same DOI Secretarial Order No. 3289, with the expectation that they “will synthesize and integrate climate change impact data and develop tools that the Department's managers and partners can use when managing the Department's land, water, fish and wildlife, and cultural heritage resources.”  In the GCPO LCC, we have worked with three of the eight regional CSCs, the Southeast, South Central, and Northeast, and we have a good working relationship with all three CSCs.  But I do agree with the Committee, that we do need to do a better job of more effectively delineating our respective roles in responding to global changes.  The Climate Science Centers bring important scientific capacity to the issue of climate change and other global change issues, and they are also an important nexus to the academic research communities in the universities as well as various USGS centers.  It’s critical that we in the LCC community make use of this capacity and research expertise, and bring to the table our research needs to this important part of the science-management continuum.

  • “Recommendation: The LCC Network should improve its evaluation process to better capture the contributions made by all partner agencies or groups toward common objectives. In particular, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the individual LCCs and the LCC Network, the evaluation process should measure how resources invested in any portion of the LCC Network further the goals of the LCC Network and their partners."
  • “Recommendation: Establishment of metrics at the individual and network-wide scales should become a high priority.”

Finally, the issue of monitoring and evaluating success of the LCCs was addressed by the NAS Committee.  It’s an important issue, and the Committee recognized the many accomplishments that LCCs have already made in our short five-year history. In evaluating the progress of the LCC Network, the Committee found that LCCs have made considerable progress in their short histories, particularly in developing partnerships, establishing collaborative governance structures, and identifying shared conservation goals.  That said, the jury is still out on the ultimate effectiveness and success of the LCC enterprise – namely, are we making a difference in the sustainability of our nation’s natural and cultural resources?  Given the youth of the LCC program, the Committee recognizes that it’s too early to issue a verdict on that question.  But I do believe that, working with our partners and other landscape-scale partnerships, we are laying the foundational building blocks to be successful, to achieve our vision of “Landscapes capable of sustaining natural and cultural resources for current and future generations.”  That’s a lofty goal, but visions are meant to be bold and lofty, and something we should all be striving for.

The NAS document, A Review of the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, is a long (183 pages) and thorough document, with a lot to chew on, and plenty of recommendations for improvement by the LCC Network.  As we move into the Christmas and New Year holiday season, I encourage you to find some time to read through it.  I believe that will improve your understanding of LCCs and what we’re trying to accomplish, and will help you determine what your role is in landscape-scale conservation.

Greg Wathen
Coordinator, Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks LCC
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency