The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Sustainability Spotlight: Highlights from the 10th Annual RCP Gathering

trees

On Wednesday, November 13, I attended the 10th annual Regional Conservation Partnership (RCP) Gathering at UMass Amherst as part of a class that I am taking, NRC 597LP: Land Protection Tools & Techniques, with Professor Paul Catanzaro. The gathering, or conference, brings together hundreds of stakeholders in the field of land protection to discuss and exchange perspectives on topics ranging from climate resiliency to urban green space to community economic development in the context of conservation. Many attendees work for land trusts and conservation organizations, though farmers, outdoor educators, academics, and individuals of other sectors all have a place at the table. 

Lynn Scarlett, former deputy secretary and chief operating officer of the U.S. Department of the Interior and current Chief External Affairs Officer at The Nature Conservancy, started off the gathering as the keynote speaker. Lynn emphasized that the theme of this year’s conference, “Natural Climate Solutions for All,” reflects the importance of adopting this mindset in the conservation world. These solutions require working with nature rather than against it, while employing a systems-based way of thinking and global collaboration of governance. 

While achieving this is far more easily said than done, it is important to keep these ideas in mind to prevent divides from forming between the scientific community and the greater public. Lynn ended her talk by quoting poet Wallace Stevens, who once said, “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.” In other words, what we see depends on our perspective; if our only viewpoint going through life is the one we’ve always had, we will only be familiar with what feels true to us despite the many truths that exist. 

With this sentiment in mind, I spent the remainder of the day attending three different sessions focused on climate change resiliency, a “conservation vision” for the Western Massachusetts region, and food systems and forests in the context of land use. Conference attendees had the opportunity to choose from one of eight different talks during the three sessions of the day for a total of twenty-four different talks. Each session focused on a unique topic presented by a panel of speakers whose work focuses on a subset of that topic. 

During the first presentation on “Synergies between Joint Mitigation-Adaptation Practices in the Land Conservation Sector,” Maria Janowiak, the deputy director at the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science (NIACS), emphasized the fact that adaptation and mitigation strategies are neither opposing nor mutually-exclusive. When thinking about forests as a means of carbon sequestration, for example, forested landscapes can both build resilience against forest fires, temperature increases, and other climate-related stressors (an adaptation goal) while accelerating carbon uptake from the atmosphere (a mitigation goal), illustrating the co-benefits of this type of “natural climate solution.” 

One of the highlights of this talk was a section led by Steven Hagenbuch, a conservation biologist for the Audubon Society of Vermont. Steven explained how, in the field of land protection and conservation, “birds are bringing people together to think about not only habitat, but carbon and climate as well.” According to “Survival by Degrees,” a publication produced by the Audubon Society, 389 species of birds are “on the brink of survival” due to the threat of increasing global temperatures that are causing shifts in habitat ranges. If we can keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or less, however, roughly 150 of these species will no longer be at risk of extinction. 

scarlet tanager
A scarlet tanager found in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. Source: U.S. National Park Service

In the final session of the day, titled “Food, Farms, and Forests: The New England Food Vision and Climate Solutions,” two members of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, Massachusetts Chapter (NOFA/Mass) presented case studies on food and agriculture-related solutions to the challenges posed by climate change. Caro Roszell, the education director at NOFA/Mass, presented on the role of soil in sequestering carbon—and, more importantly, the socioeconomic and ecological threats posed by regional soil carbon losses that result from irresponsible land management. Silvopasture, which is “the intentional combination of trees, forage plants,and livestock together as an integrated, intensively-managed system,” is one ancient practice that is resurfacing as a solution for growing food while addressing soil carbon loss. 

Anna Gilbert-Muhammad, the NOFA/Mass food access and webinar coordinator, spoke next about the Tapley Community Garden, located in her home community of Mason Square, Springfield, and how this space is allowing residents to re-connect with food by growing what they eat. This district of Springfield, whose residents are predominantly Black and Latinx, suffers from what Anna described as “food apartheid.” “I call it that instead of a ‘food desert’ because people are being actively denied food,” she explained. The Tapley Community Garden addresses this issue by providing 2,500 pounds of fresh, culturally-relevant produce every year to local residents. The program also integrates “ancient knowledge” into the growing process, fostering soil carbon sequestration and increased soil health while empowering and feeding residents. 

Brian Donahue, associate professor of American environmental studies at Brandeis University and an environmental historian at Harvard Forest, served as the discussion moderator and spoke about the use of local and regional timber for construction of buildings such as the John Oliver Design Building here at UMass. Despite sixty-two percent of the state of Massachusetts is forested, the wood used for this structure came from Néhinaw (Cree) territory in northern Québec. This illustrates that there is a need for incentivizing local, sustainable timber harvesting for construction, as it can be both a "renewable" and locally-sourced material while having the capacity to effectively sequester carbon, especially when incorporated into a structure that will stand for decades or longer. 

Overall, the conference was filled to the brim with wonderful people and promising visions for change. I had the chance to talk with a handful of attendees at lunch, including writer and musician Ben Cosgrove, as well as Megan Camp and Alec Webb of Shelburne Farms, a nonprofit agricultural education center in Shelburne, Vermont. For anyone looking to connect with professionals in the field while learning about the multifaceted world of land protection and conservation, consider attending next year’s RCP Gathering. In the words of Stewart Udall, many of us in the field of sustainability are “troubled optimists,” but the world is a more hopeful place when you have some familiar faces.