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Innovate to Meet the Challenge of Conservation | Jim Levitt

In the late 1970s, Jim Levitt was a National Park Service program assistant for Alaska lands. “I was a very small part of a very large effort led by President Jimmy Carter, Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus and their allies in Congress to create, in Alaska, some 100 million acres of new parks, wildlife refuges and forests. The effort, to my amazement,” says Levitt, “was ultimately successful, resulting in the largest conservation victory in American history. It took all hands –from the public, non-profit, private, tribal, academic, literary and even the arts community — to get it done. But we did it, and that vast, wild landscape endures to this day as an American treasure.”

Today as the director of Program on Conservation Innovation at the Harvard Forest, Harvard University, and as a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, when Levitt looks toward the best ways to replicate equally or more ambitious initiatives, he takes inspiration from the long history of American conservation innovation, beginning in the 1630s with the creation and defense of the Boston Common, the first publicly-created open space in the English-speaking world. American conservation innovators went on to set up the world’s first state and national parks during and after the American Civil War, established the world’s first land trusts in Massachusetts during the gilded age of the 1890s, and persistently expanded the Appalachian Trail throughout the twentieth century. Each of these extraordinary efforts required outstanding talent that harnessed the technology and social innovations of the day.

So are we really up to the enormous challenges of our own times? Can we respond effectively to climate change, to widespread landscape fragmentation, and to the reality of a global population explosion in the twenty-first century? “Perhaps so,” Levitt responds, “but only if we once again are able to call upon our outstanding leaders, technical tools, creative conservation finance techniques, and the proliferation of global social networks. When I see the emergence of large landscape initiatives on every continent in the past decade, I find particular hope and promise for the future.”