Colby College / Supporting Education And Research Opportunities In Large Landscape Conservation

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Philip Nyhus
Associate Professor of Environmental Studies
5358 Mayflower Hill
Waterville, ME 04901

Initiative Description and Primary Objectives 

Students and faculty at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, have been involved in a diverse range of initiatives related to large landscape conservation locally and internationally. Specific examples of this initiative include: 

  1. Student-faculty collaboration to support international and interdisciplinary efforts to reintroduce the south China tiger into the wild,
  2. Multi-departmental and multi-stakeholder collaboration to promote conservation in the Belgrade Lakes watershed, and 
  3. Supporting student involvement in large landscape conservation projects in locations as diverse as Patagonia in South America and Namibia in southern Africa through off-campus opportunities, research, civic engagement, our curriculum, and internships.  

As one manifestation of our interest we are co-sponsoring with the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy a conference at Colby in early 2013 focusing on the role of students as catalysts for large landscape conservation. 

Key Academic Disciplines 

Environmental Studies, interdisciplinary

Key Partner Organizations and Individuals 
  1. Minnesota Zoo, Colby College, State Forestry Administration (PR China)
  2. Colby College, Maine Congress of Lake Associations (Maine COLA), Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance (BRCA)
  3. Environmental Studies Program, Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement. Round River Conservation Studies, among many other collaborators. 
Initiative History and Champions 
  1.  Field study evaluating whether wild tigers existed in China (Tilson, Muntifering, Nyhus 2001), Memorandum of Understanding with Government of China to evaluate potential for reintroduction of South China tiger. International Tiger Forum in St. Petersburg Russia in 2010 where the Government of China indicated its public support for restoration of south China tigers to the wild. 
  2. National Science Foundation EPSCoR grant to University of Maine, catalyst for bringing together diverse group of scholars and practitioners that had for decades previously worked independently around common goals for 7-lake region. The Environmental Studies Program, the Biology Department, and the Chemistry Department at Colby had long worked with community partners in this area.  This funding provided a catalyst to more effectively and concretely collaborate and develop long-term goals with our community partners.
  3. Multiple faculty have supported these efforts over the years.  Over 70% of our students study abroad and the Environmental Studies Program is one of the fastest growing programs at Colby.  We have added faculty, courses, and opportunities for students to engage in large landscape conservation in multiple areas of the curriculum (courses, internship opportunities, research, study abroad, civic engagement with local, state, and international partners). 
Distinctiveness and Strategic Significance of the Initiative 
  1. This will be the first tiger reintroduction program in the world.   Student-faculty Geographic Information System (GIS) maps and models have played an important role in this process. These activities promote a wilderness vision that generated enthusiasm among international and Chinese collaborators.
  2. This initiative brought together faculty and students from six departments and programs along with multiple local (individual lake association), regional (e.g., Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance), and state-wide (e.g., Maine Congress of Lake Associations) organizations.  This collaboration led to the building of a Maine Lakes Resource Center that will provide educational, research, and outreach capacity to serve the Belgrade Lakes and indeed the entire state.
  3. Large landscape conservation is becoming a theme within the academic curriculum of the Environmental Studies Program at Colby College.   Our students are gaining knowledge and skills that are transforming their interests and future graduate school and employment choices.  With the proposed conference we hope to share best practices with other institutions and bring together ideas from students and colleagues other institutions, particularly from the perspective of students themselves.  The role of students as catalysts for large-landscape conservation action at colleges, universities, and research institutes has not yet been widely addressed in the conservation literature, yet students often are involved in a wide range of activities fundamental to the success of these programs, including basic research, civic engagement, outreach, scholarship, and direct and indirect influences on conservation management and policy.  This small conference will invite students and nationally-recognized leaders in the field of conservation to explore factors influencing the launch and successful implementation of large landscape conservation initiatives.  The conference will be organized around three key questions: (i) What is the role of colleges and universities as catalysts for large landscape conservation?(ii) How can (and have) students helped to initiate, implement, and promote large landscape conservation programs? (iii) What strategies can colleges and universities use to support civic engagement, research, and outreach efforts to promote student training, experience, and involvement in large landscape conservation?
Measurable Effectiveness of the Initiative 
  1. Our small-scale initiatives contributed significantly to discussions within China and internationally that resulted in the Government of China making tiger (and associated habitat) restoration a national priority.  This is leading to significant and tangible commitments of funding and action.
  2. We are generating not just new knowledge, but specific actions that have catalyzed on-the-ground conservation and collaboration. We are documenting these changes using satellite imagery, mobile sensors, and qualitatively through participation in regional conservation.
  3. We assess the type and quality of the experiences gained by our students, including documenting their internship, off-campus study, civic engagement, and post-graduate experiences.  These activities have contributed to major conservation agreements in places like Namibia, institutional commitments (like the College’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2015, leading to building of a $11 million biomass facility using wood sustainability harvested within a 50 mile radius of the campus), and publications and meetings.
Transferability of the Initiative 

For all three of these initiatives, our faculty-student-partner collaborations have shown that even relatively “small” initiatives (relative to number of students/faculty or resources) can have significant and relatively “large” impacts on landscape-scale conservation programs that are local, national, and international in scope.  Liberal arts colleges like Colby in particular can catalyze these efforts as part of their broader educational mission.  Partnerships in particular play an important role because small academic institutions do not have some resources (e.g., research institutes, graduate programs) available to larger universities and research organizations.  Institutions such as Colby can play an important role not just as actors driving conservation, but as training grounds for students to generate skills, interest, and experience that translate into employment and graduate opportunities in large landscape conservation, and facilitators of discussion about the role of colleges and universities as catalysts for change.

The Initiative’s Ability to Endure 

Yes. Our large landscape initiatives are likely to continue, but specific activities (like tiger restoration) will be driven by individual faculty interest.  At small institutions, changes in key faculty and staff can change priorities, but our academic program and collaborations are increasingly supportive of the broad concept of large landscape conservation.  We look forward to being part of the national discussion on how to engage institutions of higher learning in this effort.

Engagement Strategies 

Interdisciplinary:  A key to many of these initiatives is the recognition that environmental challenges in general, and large landscape as a specific example, require collaboration among faculty and students in different disciplines, interdisciplinary programs, and appropriate tools to capture these complexities. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has been one specific tool that has catalyzed these interdisciplinary discussions because everyone can “see” themselves in a map.