The Value of Public-Private Partnership to Protect Land

By Mike Stevens, Washington State director

What does it take to fund the protection and restoration the lands and waters that our state and world rely upon for food, health, prosperity, recreation and culture? At a time when public funding and policy related to the environment are in the spotlight, how should we engage in advocacy?

 Mike Stevens

Mike Stevens

For at least 30 years, The Nature Conservancy and the rest of the land-trust movement (now consisting of more than 1,400 land trusts nationally, with 28 in Washington state alone) have depended on public-private partnerships to generate both the science and the funding that have driven the private land conservation movement in the United States. For several decades, for example, the Conservancy has worked to develop the Natural Heritage Programs that deployed scientists to identify rare species and natural communities. This scientific work often formed the basis for our protection activities.

Our experience led us to realize, by the late 1980s, that we needed to work at an ecosystem scale and that we could never protect a meaningful amount of land with just private money. At a minimum, the cost of long-term stewardship and restoration would soon overwhelm our budgets. Both at the state and federal level, The Nature Conservancy, along with the rest of the land-trust movement, began to work hard to increase public funding for conservation and land management. In general, this was deeply bipartisan work that united people around the common values of community and nature and reflected an understanding of the profound mutual dependence of people and nature.

In Washington, one result of this effort is the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, which in 25 years has generated more than $1 billion for 1,200 projects benefitting communities around the state. At the federal level, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has protected many of the country’s most iconic landscapes. In Washington, Ebey’s Landing, the Olympic Rainforest, the Central Cascades and the Skagit River are just three of the landscapes where private-public partnerships have been vital. One of the most remarkable conservation stories in the United States is that fact that communities in all parts of the country have approved billions of dollars in the past 20 years in the form of levies, new taxes and other public-funding mechanisms to drive investments in conservation and recreation.

 Port Susan Bay and Skagit Valley. Photo © The Nature Conservancy.

Port Susan Bay and Skagit Valley. Photo © The Nature Conservancy.

Today, at both the state and federal level, we face very challenging fiscal and political conditions that are putting conservation funding at risk. Elected and executive-branch officials have called into question the scientific basis for much of our work and the importance of conservation to the prosperity and welfare of our country. In Olympia, both traditional conservation programs and innovative win-win solutions like Floodplains by Design are at risk. At the federal level, we risk losing programs and support that are key to our science and core protection and collaboration functions.

Because of the urgency of the environmental challenges that we face, and the risks to our capacity to tackle these challenges, we are compelled to increase our efforts to advocate for successful models of collaboration and for funding that powers that collaboration. That means being your voice in Olympia and our nation’s capital. It means speaking out and building support for irreplaceable resources that support communities, fuel businesses and provide countless other benefits for people and nature. We learned long ago that it’s not enough for us to quietly work to save special places. Now, more than ever, we must work strategically and forcefully to protect the progress we’ve made and ensure a thriving future.  

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