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An Intern Reflects: Exploring Connectivity through Policy Initiatives

The air was hot and still as we stood shoulder to shoulder at the crowded overlook, watching with rapt fascination the black bear playing joyfully in the meadow below. Quiet whispers of appreciation and wonder trickled through the ranks of camouflage and jeans, khakis and flip flops, Goretex and trekking poles. License plates in the parking lot produced a rainbow of colors and emblems, reflecting the diverse landscapes across which we had all collectively travelled to be here together taking in the scene.

Large black bear with grass in foreground
Photo: William C. Gladish

I was immediately struck by the connectivity of the moment. The perceived separation of humankind and nature created by National Park boundaries and flimsy wooden fences all at once seemed a little more arbitrary. I felt that my family and I, the flocks of tourists, the black bear, the mountains of the Front Range, the clear air, and an array of mixed conifers were all one.

The moment stuck with me through the long and winding highway that transected a deep mountain canyon on the way home. Property rights and boundaries are so central to our civilized culture of land ownership and governance mechanisms, yet when we go out and explore the landscape transected by borders of ownership, we see that those lines exist only in minds and maps.

When it comes to managing these plots of earth, however, the difference is real. The bear that we all wondered at was not aware that the management principles of the National Park Service are more rigorous than the nearby forest under management of the United States Forest Service. To the bear, the land spanning boundaries and mandates and principled uses is all home. It occurred to me then and there that we would have to manage our landscapes as holistic and connected in order to truly make a difference in our natural world.

Putting Roots Down in Connectivity

I grew up in a home built by hunters, recreators, and timber advocates, with Arizona’s Coconino National Forest as my backyard. In the span of a single weekend, I would very frequently trail run across my neighborhood trails, shoot my bow at a burlap sack framed by ponderosa pines, and clear branches from around my father’s chainsaw as he bucked downed lumber to warm our home in the winter. From a young age, the complexity of using our public lands, the interconnectedness of our natural environment, and the vibrant stories behind the people with those complex values was deeply instilled in me.

Photo: U.S. Forest Service Coconino National Forest.

As I progressed through my undergraduate and graduate studies, I found that these complexities were pervasive in framing management decisions regarding our public lands. In that complexity, I found opportunity. While politicians bickered at the top, land managers across the country were on the ground, working through that complexity by working together. I realized there was a great opportunity to enact and foster this change by creating policies that would reflect this collaborative and complex framework for managing our diverse landscapes.

Connecting Landscapes

Wildlands Network acknowledges this complexity by working within jurisdictions to pass collaborative, transboundary wildlife policy. Instead of viewing landscapes as separate and distinct jurisdictions, we view landscapes as broad corridors, spanning regional, state, and national governance jurisdictions. Then, reflecting political realities, we work with stakeholders and governance groups at each level to pass policies that transcend these arbitrary boundaries such that wildlife and their essential habitat are protected at the ecosystem level using holistic scientific principles.

Property rights and boundaries are so central to our civilized culture of land ownership and governance mechanisms, yet… those lines exist only in minds and maps.

This summer, I have been working with WN to develop state-level wildlife corridor legislation for multiple states including Virginia and California. The political requirements of each state paired with the ecological needs on the ground present vast opportunities to pass meaningful and impactful legislation to the benefit of the public and our natural environment.

Moving beyond the scope of a single state, I have also been conducting research into the underpinnings of wildlife management to develop recommendations for state agencies to manage natural resources under a changing socioecological management paradigm. Recent public natural resource governance has been characterized by complex management drivers including scientific uncertainty, competing uses, and intractable political landscapes. The scale of these drivers, matched with limited capacity and obsolete guiding principles presents land managers with substantial challenges in carrying out their stated purpose.

Fish and wildlife management agencies in particular tend to rely too heavily on the North American Model of Wildlife Management, which has motivated agencies to overemphasize management of game species at the detriment to more holistic methods of resource management. Further, a nationwide decrease in the amount of money spent on hunting and fishing—primary sources of agency funding at the state level—has led to a decrease in state wildlife agencies effectively meeting their stated purposes.

Two young black bear cubs on opposite sides of a tree trunk, looking at the camera.
Photo: William C. Gladish

Changing agency guiding principles and funding mechanisms provides a powerful pathway through which agencies can increase their ability to meet key management priorities. I have been using the extensive resources of WN and my own background in natural resource governance to develop a white paper on how agencies can work effectively in this management scenario.

Moving forward, I plan to use my experience with WN to continue to advocate for broad, transjurisdictional wildlife and public lands policy and reform across the country. The urgency of developing these solutions has never been more pressing, and I feel grateful for the opportunity WN has given me this summer. My hope is that at the end of my career, my children and the public will have opportunities to stop at a scenic overlook and marvel a black bear at any point across its native range, standing side by side and sharing the moment with an inclusive and diverse microcosm of natural existence.

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