On a bright October day, three dozen people crest a knoll in the Wycliffe Conservation Complex, a corridor of conservation lands just north of Cranbrook, BC. To the barn swallows overhead, the people—a meandering line of puffy jackets in earthy hues—look as much a part of the landscape as the creeks and groves that surround them. But high-quality binoculars, waterproof notebooks and spontaneous swooning over a rare grassland plant are not all this group has in common. They are connected by something much bigger: a deep-rooted partnership with over 20 years of experience bringing people together to collaborate on shared conservation priorities—Kootenay Conservation Program (KCP).

Showcasing collaborative conservation is one of the many services KCP offers its 85 partners. On today’s tour, the group largely reflects KCP’s wider partnership: a mix of government agencies, First Nations, conservation organizations, land trusts, stewardship groups, agricultural producers and educational institutions, all working towards a shared conservation vision. As they hike by healthy stands of ponderosa pines, conversations drift from best practices for wildlife-friendly fencing to techniques for modifying trees to create bat roosts.

“For many of us, these field tours are not just another day in the office, they’re our best days out of the office,” says Juliet Craig, KCP Program Director. “Our partners are often in the field doing on-the-ground work. But this is our fieldwork—learning how to effectively work together, sharing technical knowledge on stewardship action, scaling-up resources for our members or identifying ecological priorities across the region.”

Partnerships like KCP have recently been gaining recognition for their potential to collectively shift the dial on landscape-level conservation objectives. In a 2023 report by the Centre for Land Conservation (CLC)—Canada’s national institute for land conservation research and policy development—author Sarah Winterton notes that among the many benefits regional partnerships offer, “they create the opportunity to solve complex issues that people, organizations, and government cannot solve independently.” She also flags that regional partnership models add extra value to the southern regions of Canada “where a high percentage of land is owned privately.”

In the Kootenay region where KCP operates, eight percent of the land base is privately-owned. While this may not sound like a whopping number, its significance grows considering a good portion of the region is mountainous. This type of topography intensifies human use and settlement at valley bottoms, many of which hold large lakes that create pinch points for wildlife movement. “Our attention has always been on valley bottom ecosystems,” says Craig, gesturing towards rolling buttes of grassy-gold Wycliffe prairie, habitat for a number of different rare and endangered species.  “Many low elevation ecosystems don’t have the same level of provincial protections as some of our mountainous regions and may be more threatened by development and industrial activities,” she adds.

Although KCP’s mandate is to coordinate conservation efforts that focus on private land, it recognizes a holistic landscape approach is the best way to address the very real threats of biodiversity loss and climate change that are occurring at a larger landscape scale. With this approach, a landscape is viewed as a whole system made up of interlocking layers, each of which can either help or hinder ecological well-being. By understanding landscapes in this wide-angle way, groups are able to zoom out from geographical and organizational constraints—such as jurisdiction, mandate, or capacity—to learn where their actions are most needed, and see how their work is amplified when part of a bigger picture.

Wthout a shared vision the big picture often means different things to different organizations, governments, sectors, regions and even countries—many of whom have historically operated in isolation from one another. Because of this, many groups are now calling for more robust, cohesive networks to support collaborative action, across all sectors. A 2021 paper entitled Build Back a Better National Landscape Conservation Framework—commissioned by the Center for Large Landscape Conservation and the Alaska Conservation Foundation—urges governments to implement policies and boost financial support for a more durable national landscape conservation framework.

“We know that healthy, connected landscapes are essential—for clean water, healthy ecosystems, cultural heritage, vibrant communities and economies, climate resilience, flood and fire control, outdoor recreation, and local sense of place,” the authors write, “and yet our approaches to these critical issues are too often piecemeal, scattered, isolated, and incomplete.”

For similar reasons, the 2022 Convention on Biological Diversity adopted a global biodiversity framework, which included the target to protect 30% of the Earth’s lands, oceans, coastal areas and inland waters by 2030. Known as 30×30, this ambitious initiative kicked-off a global effort to increase the total area of conserved and restored natural ecosystems and address widespread impacts of biodiversity loss and climate change. However, achieving a target of this scale relies on coordination from all angles and, as Winterton points out, “will take innovative approaches to whole-landscape conservation, ones that are durable, efficient and that effectively engage Indigenous Peoples and communities.”

Over the last two decades, KCP has more than doubled its partnership and coordinated with land trusts to conserve 82,679 hectares of private land. Its most recent initiative—Kootenay Connect—has identified a dozen key ecological corridors across the Kootenay region critical for linking habitat, biodiversity hotspots, protected areas, and climate refugia, and since supported over 50 stewardship and restoration projects in these priority places. Marcy Mahr, the Kootenay Connect Manager, describes the program as “globally-inspired, nationally-recognized and happening right in our communities’ backyards”—a nod to the impact regional projects can have when they tap into a collaborative landscape-level vision.

Initiatives like Kootenay Connect, paired with a two-decades-long investment in engagement strategies, tools, and resources, have positioned KCP as a leader in regional conservation partnerships both nationally and internationally. It’s no surprise then, the CLC report chose to feature KCP as one of four regional models across Canada that use the partnership framework to address both biodiversity and climate concerns.

“The scope and scale of issues facing us, both now and into the future, can feel daunting,” says Craig, now at the tail end of the field tour. “But being out on this land, walking together, it’s a reminder of why we’re here, and how collaboration is not just an add-on, it’s an essential part of the solution.”

The group pauses for a quick snack and group photo. Inside the camera frame, the partners stand shoulder to shoulder and smile, a mountainside of evergreens and vibrant yellow larches at their backs. Outside the frame, the land continues—north, south, east, west—a system of working ranches, wildlife corridors, towns, wetlands, highways, open grassland forests, industrial sites and lakes. Making sure this system, in its entirety, continues to sustain biodiversity and naturally-functioning ecosystems is part of the KCP vision. Shared by all partners, it’s a vision that sustains them too.

Field Tour at Wycliffe Conservation Complex on Day 2 of KCP’s Annual Fall Gathering, October 2023.