In a semester-long course of study at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, ICS Principal Scott Campbell led planning and design students in a for-credit, hands-on exploration of private-sector land and water conservation efforts. Students explored the inherent potential land trusts and other private sector conservation groups demonstrate in addressing some of the world’s toughest land use and water management challenges. The independent study course, Large Landscape Conservation and the Future of America’s Rivers, examined efforts spanning several major U.S. watersheds, culminating in a trip to Colorado for an exploration of conservation, land use planning, and water management projects in the Arkansas River Basin.

Local, state, and national land trusts have protected as much land in the United States as is encompassed by America’s national parks (approximately 50 million acres) and protect an additional 2,000,000 acres every year. They create parks and trails for growing cities, preserve expansive tracts of farms and forests, safeguard the nation’s foodsheds, and design and execute land use projects driven by conservation, economic, and aesthetic concerns. Unbound by conventional political boundaries, land trusts are becoming increasingly effective regional planning agents, focusing on large geographical areas. They are natural and cultural resource preservation agents in ways that planning, zoning, and environmental regulators are not; and they have the capacity to support community self-determination in ways that government environmental programs often do not. Their success has tremendous implications regarding carbon sequestration, climate change mitigation, sustaining ecological functioning at scale, and building resilience in human communities.

In Colorado, students visited the BX Ranch, a 25,000-acre property bordering the City of Pueblo that was conserved by a for-profit timber investment management company (TIMO), a B-Corporation looking to expand its sustainable forestry work into America’s grasslands and work with the cattle industry to improve grassland health. They visited Steve Wooten, Vice President of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and owner of Beatty Canyon ranch, and visited with farmers whose communities face economic and environmental decline precipitated by municipal “buy-and-dry” practices (a municipal water appropriations practice where cities buy interests in farm properties, then fallow those farms to divert the water for municipal use). The visit concluded in a series of meetings with land trust leaders, water experts, and planning officials to explore the ways in which conservation groups can influence local and regional planning to recouple land use with water management. Read the syllabus here.