Landscape Conservation Initiative 'Mobilizes Science'

'Science keeps everyone at the table,' says NAU ProfessorTom Sisk
Analyzing vegetation plants

LCI staff and students analyze vegetation plots at Kane Ranch. Photo: Cari Kimball.

This article is part of a series that  features new research centers and institutes at Northern Arizona University. These research hubs foster cutting-edge research and/or critical public service work, and they also support and enhance the academic mission of the university.


One of NAU’s newest centers is the Landscape Conservation Initiative (LCI), directed by Tom Sisk, Olajos-Goslow Endowed Chair of Environmental Science and Policy for the Southwest. Sisk has been managing a large, successful research lab and policy program for the past 16 years in the School of Earth Science and Environmental Sustainability; but as the work of his team expanded and the administrative complexities began to sap resources rather than contribute to the work, Sisk felt he needed a more efficient system, one that would not constrain the many partnerships that his lab had developed with landowners, state, federal and tribal resource agencies, and public interest groups.  Forming a center was a pragmatic decision:  It makes it easier to support LCI’s work at NAU so that it outlasts any single individual, grant, or project.  “LCI is an opportunity to unify and anchor our diverse programs in a way that creates its own momentum,” he says. “We needed a stable foundation at NAU that we could build on into the future.”

Although he feels that forming the new center was a positive step, at first Sisk was reluctant to create one: “Centers and institutes [can become] overly concerned with protecting their own turf, obsessed with their own growth and survival. I believe conservation research should be an open resource that bridges from the university to the science and management community; that’s why I was skeptical, initially, about forming a center.”

Goal:  To develop partnerships to solve environmental challenges

To reflect his philosophy, Sisk deliberately chose to call his center an “initiative” rather than an “institute.”  “We are trying to ‘initiate,’” he explains, “not ‘institute’ [in the sense of formalizing] science.”  “Our primary intent is to build a team that is very strong scientifically and that can reach out to people who stand to benefit from our work. We want to develop partnerships that will ‘mobilize science’ to solve complex, broad-scale conservation and environmental challenges on the Colorado Plateau and across the West, through interaction and collaboration.” Stakeholders include decision-makers, policy developers, land and resource managers, and nonprofits.

“We need a science-based, inclusive process that informs decisions,” says Sisk—one that is based on primary research.  “Our approach engages partners outside the university in novel ways and through meaningful dialog to study, learn, and solve emerging problems.”

LCI also leverages this interdisciplinary work to train students and mid-career professionals in practical, yet creative, approaches to landscape conservation and stewardship.

Three areas of focus

The initiative revolves around three interrelated areas:

(1). Research

LCI contributes original science in a wide range of field-intensive research projects in every Southwestern biome—from condor reintroductions to landscape assessments of ranch lands. This research shifts over time but consistently focuses on four themes:

  1. The restoration of ecological integrity in western forests and grassland,
  2. The ecology and conservation of arid riparian ecosystems,
  3. Wildlife conservation under changing climate and land use, and
  4. The effects of landscape fragmentation, habitat loss, and edge effects.

“Every project is grounded in community and real-world impacts,” says Sisk.  “Our motivation is always to make a difference for conservation, and that includes addressing the needs of people and their roles as land stewards.”

(2). Policy

LCI provides collaborative planning tools to solve complex environmental problems.  It convenes groups who are facing difficult challenges and brings science into the planning and policy process. “By meeting partners half way, the Initiative brings the best aspects of research and scholarship to pressing real-world issues,” says Sisk. Sisk and his team are involved in a wide range of issues—from the protection of the Grand Canyon to the impact of Utah’s oil sands.

LCI’s goal is to convey science in a meaningful way so everyone is informed and empowered. According to Sisk, a common, shared understanding empowers everyone. “It’s difficult to be taken seriously (even if you have the best ideas at the table) if you do not understand the science and its implications,” he says. Science provides a common grounding for people with different values; if they have that common ground, they are more willing to communicate, contribute, and work together.

In other words, “science keeps everyone at the table,” says Sisk. “Science becomes an empowering force—rather than a source of simple answers.  It supports informed deliberation, and in a democracy that is the key to a sound decision process.”

The LCI identity is something Sisk hopes all partners will share and value. “It’s not ‘I’ve been invited to an LCI meeting,’ but rather, ‘Our LCI is having a meeting on the NAU campus,’” he notes.

(3). Education

LCI offers educational opportunities that address current issues and incorporate field-based experiences. “This is experiential learning that complements traditional on-campus work,” says Sisk. “It is learning in and from nature.”

Angie Moline, LCI Assistant Director for Educational Programs, has had great success in planning new programs at NAU, such as the Grand Canyon Semester and the Dorrance Summer Conservation Experience. The Grand Canyon Semester brings students from around the world to join Honors Program faculty in the natural and social sciences, arts, and humanities to investigate how humans impact, manage, interact with, and value the natural world.  The Dorrance Summer Conservation Experience gives first-generation students from Arizona’s three state universities an intensive exposure to environmental conservation, Arizona history and culture, and indigenous wisdom. The students become involved in a conservation problem of their choosing that results in a final project, which they present at a public symposium. The LCI also provides field study and technical training opportunities for NAU students and mid-career conservation professionals.

A Targeted Approach Designed for Success

“Although LCI’s scope is broad, it is carefully focused in each program area. This is not an ‘all-things-to-all-people’ initiative,” says Sisk. “It is focused on those areas where we can perform at a very high level.”

--Sylvia Somerville


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