To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Charles Chester discusses landscape conservation

Brandeis lecturer in Environmental Science and U.S. Chair of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) Charles Chester (ENVS) recently co-authored an article in The Conversation regarding the importance and impact of large-scale land conservation. The article details recent findings about how the Y2Y Initiative has facilitated habitat restoration and migration patterns of local wildlife, and has promoted land conservation efforts across the U.S.. In an interview with The Hoot, Chester elaborated on Y2Y’s efforts and the need for large landscape conservation. 


With the rising pace of human development, few ecosystems remain unaffected by the presence of human-made impediments like highways or cities. To allow ecosystems to thrive, animals must be able to follow their traditional migration patterns and respond to changes spurred by climate change. Since its conception in 1993, the Y2Y Initiative has knitted together smaller regions of natural landscapes ranging between the Yellowstone Park in Wyoming and the Yukon Territories in Canada. To accomplish the coalescence of ecosystems in the region, the Y2Y Initiative installed more natural infrastructure, such as 117 wildlife crossings for grizzly bears and thereby partitioned human-made obstacles from wildlife habitats, making roads safer for humans and animals. Now, Y2Y is considered to be a paradigm example of how large-scale land conservation can be implemented alongside human advancement, according to the article. 


The authors of the article note the importance of assessing the impact of land conservation after the development of new features. Quantifying dynamic ecosystems over sprawling areas of land posed challenges; in an interview with The Hoot, Chester described how it would be difficult to gain insights about causality by using purely numbers. Instead, Chester surveyed about five thousand conservationists in the Y2Y region for his dissertation work to gain a qualitative understanding of the impact on the conservation community. 


Moreover, by undertaking a counterfactual approach, the authors compared conservation trends and wildlife impact before and after the formation of Y2Y. Ultimately, they found that endangered grizzly bears had expanded south into the U.S. region, private land conservation increased and conservation biologists viewed Y2Y as a model for large-scale conservation. 


In the article, the authors write, “In our view, perhaps Y2Y’s most significant accomplishment has been expanding the conservation community’s conception of how to do large-scale conservation effectively and equitably.” Chester asserts the importance to note and act on the displacement of indigenous groups in landscapes and the current inequities in conservation efforts, saying that the protection of indigenous groups “has become more of an issue that the conservation community has embraced as one that has to do with human rights [and] sovereign rights…One thing we know about indigenous communities is that they have a far better track record of protecting biodiversity than settler colonial sovereign nations.”


Furthermore, Chester describes how preserving biodiversity factors into the impact of large-scale wildlife conservation. Diverse ecosystems have generated many chemicals and biological tools that are now ubiquitous in current medicine and biotechnology. Chester cites the importance of the discovery of Thermus aquaticus, an extremophilic bacteria that is found in the mineral-rich hot springs of Yellowstone National Park, in the advancement of Polymerase Chain Reaction or PCR. Other examples of useful findings from nature include compounds from the Yew Tree, which is one of the most popular naturally derived cancer treatment drugs. Chester explained that these examples “are really important from an educational and an advocacy standpoint…and [they] make biodiversity relevant to people who don’t see any use in protecting the rainforest or don’t see why the coral reefs in the tropics have any relevance in their lives whatsoever.” In other words, given the prominent role of diverse ecosystems in generating substances applicable to human wellbeing, the conservation of land is not only imperative for wildlife, but also for humans. 


Moving forward, Chester shared that in addition to the Y2Y Initiative, national parks across the U.S. are aiming to connect to form larger landscapes. As detailed in Chester’s research and academic website, national parks on the east coast such as Acadia National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are now using Y2Y as a model to accomplish landscape conservation. Furthermore, a recent initiative called Algonquin to Adirondacks, or A2A, has been formulated to connect the two conserved regions. 


At Brandeis, Chester shares how Professor of Environmental Studies Brian Donahue (AMST) is involved in a group called Wildlands and Woodlands, which investigates the interconnection of New England landscapes and how to knit them together. 

Chester’s article proposes how international initiatives regarding land conservation could truly incorporate large scale change. During the upcoming fall, international negotiators will meet in China for the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Biodiversity Convention. The goal of the meeting will be to draft a strategic plan for biodiversity preservation over the next decade. The authors state that initiatives like the Y2Y will serve as proof that achieving large landscape conservation is attainable and imperative.

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