Secretary Ken Salazar

Reflecting on the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act

Having dedicated much of my life to conserving our nation’s lands and waters and to reconnecting people—especially young people—to the outdoors, it brought me immense joy to see the Great American Outdoors Act pass the Senate with such substantial bipartisan support. Even in these most uncertain of times in our country, our public lands serve as a steadfast symbol of unity.

The Great American Outdoors Act builds on a foundation created by President Obama and the Department of Interior a decade ago. In 2010, we launched the America’s Great Outdoors initiative, striving to make our federal government a better partner and support community-driven conservation and outdoor recreation efforts. We created more than 100 projects under the banner of America’s Great Outdoors. Nearly a quarter of those projects restored and provided recreational access to rivers and other waterways around the US. Another 23 of them resulted in the construction of new trails and improved recreational sites. We created and enhanced parks in our cities, too, and kickstarted initiatives to educate young people and connect them to nature. I am proud to say each of these efforts was grassroots and locally driven—an unprecedented approach for our federal government.

It was this work, that helped set the stage for legislation like the Great American Outdoors Act to garner such tremendous public support. Last month, more than 800 conservation groups from around the country sent a letter to congressional leadership supporting the passage of the Act. Then, to bolster this call to action, five former Secretaries of Interior wrote to Congress, urging them to pass the bill with no amendments. It worked.

The Great American Outdoors Act makes a commitment to public lands, the likes of which has never been made before in the US: $900 million, annually and in perpetuity, to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This fund provides monies and matching grants to federal, state, and local governments for the acquisition of land and water, and easements on land and water, for the benefit of all Americans. It is intended to support recreation and to protect our natural treasures in the form of public lands. It is critical to ensuring future generations of Americans can enjoy all the opportunities of the outdoors.

The Great American Outdoors Act also sets aside $9.5 billion to tackle the staggering and longstanding maintenance backlog in our national parks—which is presently estimated to be at $20 billion. Maintaining the roads and bridges, visitor centers, historic buildings, trails, and campgrounds for more than 300 million annual visitors is an enormous task, and one that has been increasingly kicked down the road in recent years. By committing these funds now, we can avoid, at least in part, passing this burden on to future generations.

Lastly, this act provides much needed stimulus to an important industry. In recent months, jobs that depend on tourism in our national parks, forests, and wilderness areas have seen the same downturn many other industries have experienced. The funding committed to these places through the Great American Outdoors Act is expected to create tens of thousands of new jobs, aiding in the recovery of the communities who welcome us into their vast and iconic backyards.

As we’ve reckoned with the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re reminded anew of the importance of our public lands and access to the outdoors. I applaud the current Senate for the passage of this important Act, and eagerly await the final hurdles to its enactment as the law of the land.

Network for Landscape Conservation

Black Lives Matter

As a friend and partner of the Network for Landscape Conservation, the Salazar Center shares the sentiments and values outlined in the following statement. We are grateful for the opportunity to help the NLC amplify this message, and to add our own voice to this call for change in the conservation community. 

Dear Network friends,

The Network for Landscape Conservation is committed to embodying and advancing diverse, equitable, and inclusive conservation. This core value is a fundamental pillar of our work and of the collaborative landscape conservation movement overall. We condemn the systemic anti-black racism and injustice that has pervaded our country for 400 years, as most recently reflected in the horrific murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless others. We acknowledge the racist roots of the conservation movement itself, and how it has too often ignored or trampled the voices, needs, and rights of People of Color and Indigenous communities on the landscape with tragic consequences—and made people feel unwelcome and unsafe like Christian Cooper while birding in Central Park. We embrace the urgent need for concerted action and societal change.

We also acknowledge that the Network’s initial steps to live up to our core values pale in comparison to the need for justice, equity, inclusion, and human dignity for all people across our landscapes and our society. We humbly pledge to listen, to learn (and unlearn), and to evolve, building on the emerging foundation of action underway in our work:

  • We have provided in-depth diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice training to many staff and leadership, and will provide training to the entire 30-person leadership by the end of this year. We are also reviewing Network programs, participation, and governance through this vital lens.
  • We will publish later this summer a report on diversity and inclusion in landscape conservation partnerships, in collaboration with the Salazar Center for North American Conservation. We have much to learn from the partnerships who share their experiences and insights in this report.
  • Our Landscape Conservation Catalyst Fund includes specific funding focused on supporting Indigenous-led landscape conservation partnerships, as well as an overall emphasis on partnerships that are meaningfully focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.
  • In our associated Peer Learning Program, Catalyst Fund grantees have identified cross-cultural collaboration as a major focus, and we have begun raw and honest conversations about privilege and power, racism in conservation, decolonizing conservation, and more—learning from those who can speak from a lifetime of personal experience and perspective.

Is this enough? Not by any means. It is only a start, and the Network pledges that our core values will increasingly be reflected in action—with your help. Our shared landscapes can inspire and connect people, and start to heal these societal wounds. Please let us know what you are doing and how we can do better as a Network.

Julie Regan, Network Co-Chair; Ernest Cook, Network Co-Chair; and Emily Bateson, Network Director

Photograph of “Raise Up,” a sculpture by Hank Willis Thomas on the grounds of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Credit: Emily Bateson.

Catie Boehmer

What’s COVID got to do with conservation?

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic turned our world upside down, the Salazar Center had built its mission and values around something that many scientists and policymakers are now calling for to safeguard humanity from the next would-be pandemic: protecting and restoring healthy, intact natural systems. While there have been calls to ban so-called “wet” markets and illegal wildlife trade, it’s bigger than that. Over the past several weeks, articles have proliferated about the connections between human health and the natural world, as well as the link between public health issues and climate change. Here’s what we’ve learned.

Humans are increasingly encroaching on and fragmenting our planet’s ecosystems and landscapes—building roads and subdivisions, extracting resources such as timber and groundwater, and converting previously wild lands for agriculture. These activities have myriad effects. Disrupted ecosystems tend to lose their biggest predators first, leaving behind smaller species that reproduce in large numbers and have immune systems more capable of carrying diseases without succumbing to them. At the same time, by turning forests into farmland and erecting homes in the wildland-urban interface, we’re more likely to come into contact with the wildlife that remain in these areas—no wet market required. Almost half of the new diseases that jumped from animals to humans (zoonotic pathogens) after 1940 can be traced to changes in land use, agriculture, or wildlife interactions. And, not only are humans destroying natural habitats, we’re driving climate change, which in turn is reducing the amount of habitat available to any given species, shifting species’ natural ranges, or both, further increasing the chances that these animals will inadvertently cross paths with people. That’s not all. As temperatures warm and biodiversity decreases, ecosystems are knocked further off balance, and animals are mixing in new and unexpected ways, providing even more opportunities for diseases to spread. In short, human impacts not only make it more likely that an ecosystem is susceptible to harboring viruses like COVID-19, they also increase the chances that people will come into contact with the species carrying those diseases.

Changing human behavior on a scale effective enough to prevent another pandemic like COVID-19 is a tall order, but there is also much to build upon and be learned from the current crisis. Lee Hannah, a senior scientist at Conservation International, for example, points out that, “There’s going to be right places for disease control, and they may largely overlap the right places for biodiversity.” And, scientists from Stanford have also suggested that relatively small buffer zones, such as tree farms or reforestation projects, around biodiversity-rich areas could dramatically lessen the likelihood of human-wildlife interaction. What does this mean in practice? If we learn from this crisis and enact some of these measures, efforts to reduce the transmission of zoonotic viruses can do double duty in the fight against climate change: the same healthy biodiverse landscapes that need to be preserved are more resilient to the effects a warming planet, and new or restored buffer zones can also act as a carbon sink.

Image by @statisticallycartoon (courtesy of Instagram)

What is more, the response to the pandemic has made it clear that our society is capable of the rapid and dramatic action required to combat climate change. For example, aggressive steps to reduce planet-warming emissions (investing in solar and wind power, switching to electric cars, requiring more energy-efficient infrastructure) wouldn’t be nearly as disruptive to everyday life as the current stay-at-home orders and would have far-reaching impacts. And, addressing climate change may well necessitate an economic support response not dissimilar from current relief efforts—previously thought infeasible by some—such as providing for those whose jobs are most vulnerable (coal and oil workers, among others) and low-income communities who bear the brunt of pollution and climate-driven disasters like wildfires and floods. City and state policymakers are also demonstrating the power of local and regional leadership in a crisis, and such an approach can pave the way for increased climate change resilience and adaptation planning. The Global Commission on Adaptation estimates that investing just $1.8 trillion in building resilience against climate change over the next decade—by investing in green technology, resilient infrastructure, forest restoration, and renewable energy—could generate $7.1 trillion in total net benefits, and much of this work can get underway with the support of the same local leaders who are currently directing the COVID-19 response.

There is no doubt that responding to climate change will look different from the response to COVID-19 in many ways. Rather than socially isolating, the fight against climate change will require collaboration and coming together like never before. And the impacts of climate change are slower-building and, in many places around the world, will not affect as many individuals and communities as quickly, visibly, or dramatically as this pandemic has, so conservationists may have a harder time motivating and mobilizing the masses. Nonetheless, the current crisis has underscored that our society is indeed capable of responding to climate change quickly and at-scale; it has also highlighted the need to better prepare our communities and to create more equitable systems under a status quo with more frequent disasters.

Beth Conover

A vision for 2020

Our work at the Salazar Center is motivated by a shared understanding that healthy natural systems—big or small, in cities or in the wilderness, protected or otherwise—are vital to the survival of our planet and all the life it supports.

The challenges and threats to these landscapes are increasingly complex, urgent, and global. While our Center is modest in size, we’re mighty in vision, skills, and partners. We are lucky to have great supporters and advocates in our corner, from a robust board and expert CSU advisors to an international network of partner organizations and agencies—and you. And we’ve got some really exciting things in the pipeline.

All of this gives me hope and energizes me and my team to contribute meaningfully and thoughtfully to the conservation conversation, and to amplify the most promising and innovative solutions we find to the challenges we face.

We envision a future in which healthy, connected landscapes in North America support biodiversity; play a critical role in climate adaptation and resilience; ensure the production of clean air, water and other economic benefits for everyone; and are conserved and protected with the buy-in and for the benefit of diverse communities.

In 2020, this means continuing to foster new conversations, broader networks, and stronger partnerships. Our second annual Symposium on Conservation Impact (focused in 2020 on urban environments) is just one of the ways we’re fulfilling this goal. A partnership with the City and County of Denver on natural solutions to climate resilience and health equity and convening interests statewide on wildlife and recreational connectivity in Colorado are other opportunities.

In 2020, it also means that we’ll provide substantive support for innovation in landscape connectivity. Our inaugural incentive prize—aka the Connectivity Challenge—will be awarded to a multi-disciplinary team from somewhere in the US, Canada, or Mexico in September. The winning team will receive $100,000 to execute a project that drives landscape-scale connectivity for both habitat and community benefit. Our hope is that the winning project will remove barriers (though not necessarily physical ones), build capacity, catalyze change, or scale impact. With dozens of registrations received, we’re excited to see what members of the conservation community will propose! After this prize is awarded, we hope to launch a second prize opportunity focused on innovation in urban areas.

In 2020, we will also focus on elevating more diverse voices in conservation through creating new and better opportunities for dialogue, community building, and leadership. As part of this endeavor, and in partnership with the Network for Landscape Conservation, we are producing case studies to highlight how diversity, equity, and inclusion principles have enhanced or advanced large landscape conservation efforts in the US. This research will serve as part of a broader toolkit designed to help support other organizations’ efforts to approach conservation more equitably and inclusively.

The Salazar Center in 2020 will succeed if we inspire new collaborations, bring different voices to the call for a healthier and more sustainable North America, and strengthen the links between research, policy, and practice. We hope to have an impact that’s felt across sectors and political, geographical, and cultural borders. It’s a tall order—but an appropriate one at the dawn of a new decade. Thanks for your support.

Dominique Gomez

A note from Pojoaque Pueblo

One of the greatest challenges in conservation is that we are not only fighting against the forces of today—deforestation, development in sensitive areas, greenhouse gas emissions that despite all we know about climate change continue to grow. We are also reckoning with what mankind has done in the past. These distinct challenges—our present course and past actions—are perhaps never more evident than in considering the state of bison in North America.

Growing up attending Colorado public schools, bison were a topic of history class in at least three or four grades. We learned that American buffalo had roamed North America in unbelievably huge, vast populations. We learned that indigenous people hunted buffalo in much of what is now the Western US and Canada, but in a way that never threatened their numbers. We were taught that when the railroad came across the US in the 1800s, hunting buffalo from the railroad car for sport (with no interest in the meat or hide, just leaving the animal where it fell) became popular. What no one at the time believed could happen happened: in a short number of years, millions of animals dwindled to hundreds.

At the annual meeting of the American Bison Society, cohosted by the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Rockies and the Pueblo of Pojoaque (po-AH-kay), this history is just the backdrop for leading researchers, conservationists, activists, and managers who work on bison across the continent. Meeting this year in the beautiful Pueblo of Pojoaque just north of Santa Fe, the group discussed the cultural and ecological restoration of the bison. Being an outsider (my career has focused on environmental issues broadly, but never specifically on bison), the sessions were eye-opening and incredibly educational. After three days of presentations—case studies, research, art, and more—what struck me most was two things.

First, I had never been to a gathering that truly gave equal weight to cultural, spiritual, and artistic dimensions along with ecology and science, both in terms of the importance of bison and how we can be successful in strengthening the outlook of bison in the future. A fellow conference attendee with impeccable scientific credentials told me that in his experience, there are few other communities that do as good a job. He also said it was from attending American Bison Society meetings over the years that he increasingly valued the role of the attendees who shared their poetry, paintings, and prayers at the conference rather than their latest scientific paper. He acknowledged that as important as the science is, it is the other fields that activate change.

Second, again not being a “bison person” myself, I was so surprised that while we discussed the ecological restoration of the bison, the bison itself could do so much for the ecological restoration of our lands. In session after session, presenters pointed to research showing that in lands where even a modest herd of bison is allowed to graze, soils are healthier, plant diversity increases, and the ecology of the entire system is more resilient. More than one presenter called the bison “The Ecologist.”

As our society faces continuing threats from development that fragments our land, competition for natural resources, and the peril climate change poses to everything we know, a few days learning about bison ultimately, for me, offered the hope of a virtuous cycle. If we can reverse some of the forces of the last 150 years and do more to bring back species like the American buffalo, giving them adequate, connected lands to roam and flourish, it is not just the bison that will win. Those lands in turn may become healthier and more resilient and protect other species—including humans—as we face an uncertain future.