The United States has made a remarkable commitment to nature conservation on the federal public lands. The country’s existing array of national parks, wilderness areas, national monuments, wildlife refuges, and other protective designations encompasses roughly 150 million acres, or nearly 40 percent of the “lower 48” federal estate. A robust land trust movement has protected another 56 million acres of privately owned lands. Advances in scientific knowledge reveal that these protected enclaves, standing alone, are insufficient to protect native ecosystems and at-risk wildlife from climate change impacts and unrelenting development pressures. Abetted by existing law, conservation policy is now focusing on the larger landscape to preserve biological diversity and to promote ecological resilience as principal management goals. This growing emphasis on landscape-scale conservation is evident in various protected area complexes that have arisen organically across the federal estate in places as diverse as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, California’s Mojave Desert, and Colorado’s San Luis Valley.
To fully capitalize on these ad hoc developments, this article makes the case for a new National Conservation Network Act to legitimize and expand upon these protected areas. It first reviews the origins and evolution of the nation’s protected land systems and related nature conservation strategies, and then identifies the scientific and legal developments underlying landscape-scale conservation strategies. Next, it highlights several emergent protected area complexes evident on the public lands, explaining their diverse origins and important conservation contributions. It concludes by proposing new legislation that would place a statutory umbrella over these protected complexes, mandate effective interagency coordination within them, enlist private lands as voluntary “affiliates” in these conservation efforts, and establish new wildlife corridor and restoration area designations. The proposed law would validate the current movement toward landscape conservation, and thus amplify the federal commitment to nature conservation to meet the challenges looming ahead.
Keiter, Robert B., Toward a National Conservation Network Act: Transforming Landscape Conservation on the Public Lands into Law, Harvard Environmental Law Review, Forthcoming.