Current Landscape Ecology Reports

, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp 1–11 | Cite as

Evidence and Opportunities for Integrating Landscape Ecology into Natural Resource Planning across Multiple-Use Landscapes

  • E. Jamie Trammell
  • Sarah K. Carter
  • Travis Haby
  • Jason J. Taylor
Landscape Design and Planning For Ecological Outcomes (G Siriwardena, Section Editor)
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Topical Collection on Landscape Design and Planning for Ecological Outcomes


Enhancing natural resource management has been a focus of landscape ecology since its inception, but numerous authors argue that landscape ecology has not yet been effective in achieving the underlying goal of planning and designing sustainable landscapes. We developed nine questions reflecting the application of fundamental research topics in landscape ecology to the landscape planning process and reviewed two recent landscape-scale plans in western North America for evidence of these concepts in plan decisions. Both plans considered multiple resources, uses, and values, including energy development, recreation, conservation, and protection of cultural and historic resources. We found that land use change and multiscale perspectives of resource uses and values were very often apparent in planning decisions. Pattern-process relationships, connectivity and fragmentation, ecosystem services, landscape history, and climate change were reflected less frequently. Landscape sustainability was considered only once in the 295 decisions reviewed, and outputs of landscape models were not referenced. We suggest six actionable opportunities for further integrating landscape ecology concepts into landscape planning efforts: 1) use landscape sustainability as an overarching goal, 2) adopt a broad ecosystem services framework, 3) explore the role of landscape history more comprehensively, 4) regularly consider and accommodate potential effects of climate change, 5) use landscape models to support plan decisions, and 6) promote a greater presence of landscape ecologists within agencies that manage large land bases and encourage active involvement in agency planning efforts. Together these actions may improve the defensibility, durability, and sustainability of landscape plan decisions.


Applied landscape ecology Natural resource management Multiple-use lands Landscape sustainability Proactive planning 


Enhancing natural resource management has been a focus of landscape ecology since its inception [1, 2]. Application of fundamental elements of landscape ecology (e.g., patch-matrix-corridor models, connectivity, core areas, species-area relationships [2]) can provide meaningful support for resource management decisions at multiple scales and for multiple purposes, including planning, project design, budget allocations, baseline and effectiveness monitoring, and adaptive management. Recent papers have suggested, however, that the research-management gap is still quite prevalent [3, 4]. In particular, conservation and natural resource plans, a critical first step in the management process, often do not consider relevant research [4], and research often does not directly address relevant questions of planners and managers [3].

Land use planning is an obvious application of landscape ecology and calls for increased integration are numerous and longstanding [5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12]. Similarly numerous are arguments that this integration has not been achieved, or has been ineffective in achieving the underlying goal of planning and designing sustainable landscapes [3, 4, 7, 9, 10, 13]. One area where this is particularly noted is in the planning and management of multiple-use landscapes [14]. While landscape ecology has contributed substantially to the science and application of conservation planning [15, 16], multiple uses are often either treated sequentially or unequally [10, 17].

Multiple-use landscapes constitute much of the western U.S. and Alaska, as policy directs all major U.S. land management agencies to balance multiple goals and objectives on public lands (e.g., US Bureau of Land Management’s Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 [43 USC §1701]; U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 [16 USC §528]). Resource uses and values on these lands are diverse and include protection of natural, cultural, and historical resources; wildlife conservation; recreation; domestic livestock grazing; timber harvest; mineral exploration; and energy production from oil, gas, wind, solar, and geothermal resources.

Landscape ecology is well suited to inform management of multiple use landscapes. Some land uses are expressed differently at multiple (spatial and temporal) scales, and substantial work has been done to quantify, for example, the cumulative effects of human modification across scales [18, 19, 20, 21, 22]. Similarly, recent work has advanced our ability to quantify landscape connectivity across different land uses [23] and assess trade-offs in ecosystem services associated with different land use scenarios [24].

We review here the extent to which fundamental landscape ecology concepts are reflected in two recently completed plans for multiple use landscapes in the western United States. We highlight planning decisions that clearly reflect core landscape ecology concepts and identify actionable opportunities for further integrating landscape ecology into landscape planning efforts.


We framed our review using the ten landscape ecology research topics outlined by Wu [2]. From each of these topics we developed a focused question to guide our review of how landscape ecology is being applied to planning for multiple and diverse resource uses across large landscapes (Table 1). We excluded “accuracy assessment and uncertainty analysis” from our review because it is not a topic we would expect to see reflected in the final land use plan decisions that were the focus of our review.
Table 1

Core landscape ecology research topics (modified from Wu [2]) and associated questions that reflect the application of each topic to landscape planning decisions

Landscape ecology research topics

Questions relevant to landscape plan decisions

Pattern-process-scale relationships of landscapes

Are relationships between resource or resource use patterns or processes addressed in the plan decision?

Landscape connectivity and fragmentation

Is connectivity or fragmentation considered in the plan decision?

Scales and scaling

Are resources, resource uses, or potential effects of resource uses considered at multiple spatial or temporal scales in the plan decision?

Spatial analysis and landscape modeling

Are spatial analyses or landscape models referenced in the plan decision?

Land use and land cover change

Are potential land use changes and associated direct, indirect, or cumulative effects referenced in the plan decision?

Landscape history and legacy effects

Is landscape history referenced in the plan decision?

Landscape and climate change interactions

Is climate change referenced in the plan decision?

Ecosystem services in changing landscapes

Are ecosystem services referenced in the plan decision?

Landscape sustainability

Is landscape sustainability referenced in the plan decision?

We reviewed decisions from two case-study landscape plans to identify how frequently plan decisions reflect consideration of each of the nine landscape ecology planning questions. We chose the two plans in consultation with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) because they were developed for large, multiple-use landscapes in the western US and are considered by the agency to be flagship efforts reflecting application of a landscape approach to resource and land use planning [25]. The BLM manages the largest area of public lands in the United States, and manages those lands to sustain their health, diversity, and productivity for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations [26]. Both plans also represent efforts to manage diverse resource values and uses in relatively intact landscapes when there is a legal requirement, or substantial pressure, to develop energy resources.

Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) was an interagency effort to balance multiple resource uses and values across more than 9000 km2 in the California desert [27, 28, 29]. The DRECP planning area is relatively intact compared to many other areas of the western contiguous U.S., with much of the planning area having 2% or less of the land surface developed [30]. Major resource uses and values of concern in the planning area were endangered species conservation, cultural heritage protection, recreation, and renewable energy production. The effort was initiated in response to increasing interest in developing solar and wind energy facilities in the region, with a goal of streamlining the permitting process for such facilities. We examined two types of plan decisions: final land use allocations and 231 Conservation and Management Actions (CMAs) that were applicable across the planning area (n = 214) or to multiple designations within it (n = 17). CMAs are measures to avoid, minimize and mitigate negative effects of development. CMAs include allowable and non-allowable actions related to how development infrastructure on BLM lands is sited, designed, constructed, operated, and decommissioned [28].

National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska Integrated Activity Plan

The Integrated Activity Plan (IAP) for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) sought to identify how to simultaneously provide for energy development, species conservation, and subsistence uses and values across a large (~89,000 km2) area of northern Alaska. The NPR-A is part of a large and intact ecosystem with less than 2% of the landscape having any physical human disturbance [31]. The Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act requires the Secretary of the Interior to provide ample oil and gas leasing opportunities in the NPR-A [32]. The plan was initiated in response to newly available information on the amount of oil and gas resources in the region, as well as a need to plan for the entirety of the NPR-A (previous plans considered only parts of the reserve). We examined final land use allocations and all 64 Best Management Practices (BMPs) identified in the NPR-A IAP. BMPs are required mitigation measures for all authorized activities in the NPR-A planning area [33].

Review of Landscape Planning Decisions

We evaluated the two main types of decisions contained in BLM land use plans. The first was required management actions or stipulations (i.e., CMAs for the DRECP and BMPs for the NPR-A IAP). We evaluated only the language of the CMA or BMP itself for clear evidence that the landscape ecology topic was considered. We did not consider introductory language about the objective of each NPR-A IAP BMP because this language is not decisional and does not have an equivalent counterpart in the DRECP. We also did not consider the language of laws/policies referenced in BMPs or CMAs, and thus our assessment reflects a conservative assessment of consideration of these landscape ecology concepts in the plan decisions.

In our evaluation of each decision in the plan, we examined the specific language of the CMA or BMP for key terms and phrases reflecting consideration of the nine landscape ecology topics as interpreted in our questions. For the pattern-process question, we looked for language reflecting consideration of relationships between two or more resource or resource use patterns or processes. For example, a BMP requiring restriction of waste production or storage because of its potential to attract bears reflects consideration of the pattern of availability of new food sources across the landscape and how that may impact the distribution and behavior of bears. Decisions considering connectivity or fragmentation referred to avoiding impacts to movement patterns of people (e.g., traditional travel routes of subsistence hunters), wildlife (e.g., migratory corridors), or other resources (e.g., sand transport corridors) or to clustering or co-locating new infrastructure. We evaluated consideration of multiple scales both generally and separately for spatial and temporal scales. In general, decisions met this consideration if they addressed direct effects of a resource use at the site and time of the action, as well as effects at a broader scale (beyond the immediate site and/or the time period of the activity, such as through required setbacks from a water body or rare species nest location). A required action must have referenced either spatial models or analyses (e.g., species distribution models, spatial air quality models) or landscape models to be evaluated positively for that question. Decisions were considered to have addressed land use change if they referenced actions that would or could change use of the landscape. We scored two aspects of this topic: 1) land use change and its direct effects, and 2) indirect or cumulative effects of land use change. We define these terms according to the National Environmental Policy Act (42 U.S.C. §4321, paraphrased): direct effects are those caused by the action and occurring at the same time and place, while indirect effects are caused by the action and are later in time or farther removed in distance, but are still reasonably foreseeable, and cumulative effects are the impact on the environment that results from the incremental impact of the action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions regardless of what agency or person undertakes such other actions. Required actions were considered to reference landscape history when they referred to traditional ecological knowledge, past uses or the historic state of the landscape, or historic, fossil, or archeological resources present on the landscape. Required actions that directly referred to changes in the climate, weather extremes, factors directly related to climate change (i.e., greenhouse gases, carbon sequestration), impacts of climate change (e.g., changes in wildlife behavior explicitly stated to be associated with climate change), or management approaches to climate change (e.g., climate refugia) were considered to reference climate change. Decisions referencing ecosystem services specifically referred to a service being provided by the ecosystem to people (e.g., clean water, subsistence harvest of wildlife). According to Wu [34], landscape sustainability is “the capacity of a landscape to consistently provide long-term, landscape-specific ecosystem services essential for maintaining and improving human wellbeing in a regional context and despite environmental and sociocultural changes.” Required actions were considered to reference landscape sustainability when they explicitly referred to tradeoffs between resource uses and ecosystem services; often BMPs and CMAs referred to the point at which certain activities might be curtailed or stopped when impacts to ecosystem services such as subsistence harvest became unacceptable.

The second type of decision we evaluated were the final land use allocations reached through the land use planning process. These allocations are arguably the most important tangible outcome of BLM land use planning processes, as they dictate the amount of land within each plan area that will be managed for each different resource objective (e.g., conservation, recreation, energy development).


Overall we found frequent consideration of foundational landscape ecology concepts in the plan decisions we examined. Nearly all decisions referenced land use change (83–100%, Table 2), as would be expected in a land use planning application, and many decisions considered multiple landscape ecology concepts (75% of NPR-A IAP BMPs and 55% of DRECP CMAs). Below we provide illustrative examples of decisions in each plan that reflected clear consideration of these landscape ecology topics. Final land use allocations for the plans are presented in the land use change section.
  1. 1.

    Are relationships between resource or resource use patterns or processes addressed in the plan decision?

Table 2

Number of Best Management Practices in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska Integrated Activity Plan (n = 64) and Conservation and Management Actions in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (n = 231) that reflect core landscape ecology topics applied to planning for large, multiple-use landscapes

Questions relevant to landscape plan decisions

National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska Integrated Activity Plan

Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan


Are relationships between resource or resource use patterns or processes addressed in the plan decision?

31 (48%)

48 (21%)


Is connectivity or fragmentation considered in the plan decision?

15 (23%)

34 (15%)


Are resources, resource uses, or potential effects of resource uses considered at multiple spatial or temporal scales in the plan decision?

29 (45%)

54 (23%)


Are spatial analyses or landscape models referenced in the plan decision?

2 (3%)

8 (3%)


Are potential land use changes and associated direct, indirect, or cumulative effects referenced in the plan decision?

64 (100%)

192 (83%)


Is landscape history referenced in the plan decision?

4 (6%)

28 (12%)


Is climate change referenced in the plan decision?

4 (6%)

5 (2%)


Are ecosystem services referenced in the plan decision?

19 (30%)

46 (20%)


Is landscape sustainability referenced in the plan decision?

3 (5%)

5 (2%)


Percentage of decisions referencing at least one landscape ecology topic




Pattern-process-scale relationships are central to landscape ecology [11], and 35% of land use plan decisions we reviewed clearly considered relationships and interactions between landscape patterns and anthropogenic and ecological processes (Table 2). For example, BMP E-3 in the NPR-A IAP prohibits causeways, docks, artificial gravel islands and bottom-founded structures in river mouths, river deltas, and active stream channels, and requires that their design ensure free passage of marine and anadromous fish and prevent significant changes to nearshore oceanographic circulation patterns and water quality characteristics. In the DRECP, LUPA-BIO-RIPWET-4 requires that any construction within 0.25 miles of an occurrence of a federally listed fish species demonstrate neutral or beneficial long-term hydrologic effects on the species and the adjoining riparian and wetland habitat.
  1. 2.

    Is connectivity or fragmentation considered in the plan decision?

Connectivity and fragmentation assessments have traditionally dominated the landscape ecology literature and are the foundation for many conservation planning tools (e.g., CircuitScape, [35]). On average, 19% of the land use plan decisions we reviewed clearly considered connectivity or fragmentation (Table 2). NPR-A IAP BMP K-1, for example, requires that road crossings supporting oil and gas activities be consolidated with other similar projects and uses to the maximum extent possible. BMP E-7 considers connectivity in both a human and ecological context: “Pipelines and roads shall be designed to allow the free movement of caribou and the safe, unimpeded passage of the public while participating in subsistence activities.” In the DRECP, CMA LUPA-BIO-IFS-2 requires that any new road considered within a desert tortoise conservation area or linkage not be paved and must be designed and sited to minimize its effect on the linkage or local tortoise populations. DRECP CMA LUPA-LANDS-2 considers connectivity and fragmentation in a conservation context, prioritizing acquisition of lands within and adjacent to conservation designation allocations in the plan.
  1. 3.

    Are resources, resource uses, or potential effects of resource uses considered at multiple spatial or temporal scales in the plan decision?


The role of scale, both spatial and temporal, is a fundamental tenant of understanding landscape patterns and processes (e.g., [36, 37]). Further, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 (42 U.S.C. §4321) requires consideration of potential direct, indirect, and cumulative effects of any proposed development action conducted or funded by a federal agency and/or occurring on federal lands. NEPA definitions of cumulative and indirect effects explicitly reference consideration of broad spatial and temporal scales. We would therefore expect clear reference to this concept in landscape plans conducted by any US federal agency.

Thirty-four percent of the plan decisions we reviewed clearly reflected consideration of resources, resource uses or potential resource impacts at multiple, including broad, spatial or temporal scales (Table 2). Multiscale consideration most often was associated with spatial scales (distances across or altitudes above the landscape). Ninety percent and 45% of multiscale BMPs in the NPR-A IAP reflected considerations of multiple spatial and temporal scales, respectively. Similarly, 87% and 11% of multiscale CMAs in the DRECP reflected considerations of multiple spatial and temporal scales, respectively. A focus of the NPR-A IAP was to look beyond localized effects around individual infrastructure sites to potential broad-scale landscape changes resulting from energy development and associated impacts on wildlife, people, and traditional uses. BMP A-10 illustrates this broad perspective by allowing the BLM to require a minimum of 1 year of baseline ambient air monitoring data prior to disturbance, subsequent air quality monitoring for the life of the project, and associated air quality modeling in some cases, to analyze potential direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of the proposed development on air quality.

A suite of CMAs in the DRECP illustrate agency consideration of resource impacts at multiple and broad spatial scales by capping the total allowable amount of surface disturbance, and directing that the caps be calculated and enforced at different extents ranging from, for example, one development focus area to multiple protected areas to the entire planning area. The CMAs also acknowledge the cumulative nature of ground disturbances by including in the calculation all existing ground disturbance from wildfire, animals, or other disturbances in addition to the estimated ground disturbance from the proposed (future) activity determined at the time of the individual proposal.
  1. 4.

    Are spatial analyses or landscape models referenced in the plan decision?

Landscape modeling is a fundamental tool for experimental and practical landscape ecology applications [38] and can be particularly helpful for developing realistic models of future landscapes [39]. Landscape models are built upon spatial analyses and most often require continuous spatial data across the entire landscape. Spatial data and maps are the foundation of the NPR-A IAP and DRECP, and nearly all other land use plans developed by the BLM. The data in these plans vary in source and quality depending on both the nature of the resource and the availability of data to quantify and map it (e.g., qualitative descriptions of traditional use areas versus quantitatively modeled and mapped oil and gas resource locations and amounts). Decisions in both the NPRA-A IAP and DRECP allow the BLM to require resource modeling to assess potential impacts to ecological resources (e.g., DRECP CMA LUPA-SW-16 requires hydrologic modeling and analysis to identify 100-year floodplain boundaries if such maps are not currently available so that construction within the floodplain can be avoided). However, only 3% of decisions in each plan explicitly referenced quantitative spatial analyses or models, or mechanistic, process-based, or empirical landscape modeling activities or results either as a basis for or requirement of the decision.
  1. 5.

    Are potential land use changes and associated direct, indirect, or cumulative effects referenced in the plan decision?


Predicting changes in land use and associated impacts to land cover are at the core of landscape ecology, and landscape plans are developed explicitly in anticipation of, and preparation for, land use change. The two major types of landscape plan decisions referenced in these case studies, land use allocations and restrictions on land use activities, guide future changes across the landscape. As a result, we would expect clear reference to and guidance for land use change in nearly all plan decisions. This was the case: on average, 92% of plan decisions referred to land use change (Table 2). Additionally, 63% and 42% of these land use change decisions in the NPR-A IAP and DRECP, respectively, specifically referenced indirect or cumulative effects. BMPs in the NPR-A IAP addressed potential land use changes resulting from, or associated with, waste production, handling, and disposal; air quality; public health and safety; water use; surface and air transportation; oil and gas exploration; construction and operation of oil and gas wells and associated infrastructure and roads; oil field abandonment; subsistence activities and harvest; and protection of endangered species and other biologically sensitive areas. DRECP CMAs provided guidance regarding management of and/or potential effects to biological, air, soil, and water resources; special vegetation features (e.g., Joshua tree woodlands, large yucca clones); individual focus species (e.g., desert tortoise, California condor); trails; paleontological, visual, and cultural resources and tribal interests; wilderness characteristics; recreation and visitor services; mineral resource exploration, livestock grazing, land acquisition, and mitigation compensation.

Specific land use allocations across the planning area are the major land use change decision in these landscape plans. Land use allocations for energy development, conservation, and recreation purposes differed substantially between the two case study plans examined (Table 3), with a notably larger proportion of land in the NPR-A IAP available for energy development compared to the DRECP (52% versus 8% of each planning area, respectively).
  1. 6.

    Is landscape history referenced in the plan decision?

Table 3

Land use allocations on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska Integrated Activity Plan and Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan planning boundaries (22.8 million acres and 10.8 million acres, respectively). Acreages and percentages do not sum to 100% because of rounding error and overlapping designations (e.g., lands available for subsurface oil and gas leasing in the NPR-A can also be managed for conservation purposes)


National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska Integrated Activity Plan

Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan

Allocation (percent of plan area, acres)

Primary use

Allocation (percent of plan area, acres)

Primary use

Energy development

52% (11.8 million acres)

Available for oil and gas leasing

8% (847,000 acresa)

Solar, wind, and geothermal renewable energy developmenta


58% (13.35 million acres)

Wildlife habitat, subsistence harvest

60% (6,527,000 acres)

Conservation of rare species and cultural resources



Recreation is minimal in the planning area

33% (3,595,000 acres)

Special and Extensive Recreation Management Areasb

aIncludes areas where solar, wind, and geothermal renewable energy development are streamlined and incentivized; areas available for solar, wind, and geothermal energy development; and areas available for renewable energy development applications

bAll BLM lands are open to recreation unless explicitly closed, but recreation management areas focus management on recreation

Landscape history plays an essential role in how we view landscapes [40, 41], has been a core of landscape ecology since its inception [1], and is particularly important for planning in multiple use landscapes as some objectives (e.g., wilderness preservation) may be incongruent with historical uses (e.g., mining or off-highway vehicle use). On average, only 9% of the decisions we reviewed referenced landscape history (Table 2). In general, these decisions referred to protecting cultural or historic evidence of past human uses of the landscape or existing traditional or authorized uses. In the NPR-A IAP, for example, BMP E-13 requires lessees to survey cultural and paleontological resources prior to any ground disturbing activity, while BMP H-1 requires that a permittee consult with affected communities to discover local traditional and scientific knowledge to help minimize impacts to subsistence uses prior to submitting an application for development. Similarly, DRECP CMA LUPA-CUL-3 requires identifying places of traditional cultural and religious importance to federally recognized Tribes and maintaining access to these locations for traditional uses.
  1. 7.

    Is climate change referenced in the plan decision?

Understanding feedbacks between landscapes and climate systems is an essential part of landscape ecology, as is understanding how landscapes can be used to mitigate or adapt to a changing climate [39, 42]. Plans designed to last for 10–20 years or more, as was the case with these plans, need to be able to accommodate a changing climate to ensure sound decision making and sustainable outcomes for the duration of the plan. On average, only 4% of land use plan decisions referenced climate change (Table 2). Landscape changes associated with climate change are evident across Alaska [43] and were a major consideration in the planning process [33]. However, specific references to climate change occurred in only a few BMPs in the NPR-A IAP, including A-10, which references monitoring of greenhouse gases, and K-11 that references the timing of caribou arrival on the calving grounds, which may change with changing climate conditions. Plan decisions in the DRECP that explicitly reference climate change include LUPA-BIO-7 which focuses restoration and reclamation efforts to promote recovery of natural habitats and vegetation, climate refugia, and ecosystem services such as carbon storage and LUPA-AIR-3 which requires analysis of air quality conditions, standards, and potential impacts of the proposed activity, including greenhouse gas emissions.
  1. 8.

    Are ecosystem services referenced in the plan decision?

Although ecosystem services are now widely recognized and considered a robust framework for assessing the economic value of some management approaches [44, 45, 46], the role of landscape heterogeneity in providing services has received little attention [47]. The concept of ecosystem services is foundational to the Bureau of Land Management, as lands are managed by the agency in a manner that recognizes the Nation’s need for domestic sources of minerals, food, timber, and fiber from public lands, protects cultural values, provides for recreation, and maintains or restores functioning watersheds, ecological processes, water quality, and habitat for sensitive species (43 USC §170, 43 CFR §4180.1). Thus, law and policy require that BLM lands provide provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting services to current and future generations. However, BLM plans rarely use the term ecosystem services—referring instead to maintaining diverse resource uses and values. Ecosystem services, as a specific term, was only used in one decision (LUPA-BIO-7 in the DRECP). However, 25% of decisions across both plans referenced consideration of ecosystem services in broader terms (Table 3). Provision of subsistence resources is a legal requirement of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 and a major focus of BLM Alaska management efforts, and multiple NPR-A IAP BMPs reflect this focus. For example, F-1 requires submission of an aircraft use plan as part of an oil and gas exploration or development proposal that addresses strategies to minimize impacts to subsistence hunting and activities, including the type of aircraft and number, altitude, and route of flights. In the DRECP, recreation and water use are the most commonly referenced ecosystem services. LUPA-CTTM-2, for example, requires that trails be managed to protect their important recreation activities, experiences, and benefits, and prohibits activities that may significantly adversely impact use and enjoyment within 0.5 miles of trails. LUPA-SW-22 requires avoidance of hydrological alteration that could reduce water quality or quantity for all applicable beneficial uses, including municipal, domestic, or agricultural water supply; recreation; flood peak attenuation; and flood water storage.
  1. 9.

    Is landscape sustainability referenced in the plan decision?


Defining, anticipating, or quantifying landscape sustainability would help ensure that plan decisions are consistent within a broader vision of how the landscape could or should function in the future. However, only 3% of the 295 planning decisions examined (Table 2) referenced the concept of landscape sustainability, as a tradeoff between potential future activities and ecosystem services. In the NPR-A IAP, BMP F-1, for example, requires consultation with the regulatory agencies if subsistence hunters identified unacceptable disturbances from aircraft flights. In the DRECP, CMA LUPA-SW-25 requires additional mitigation measures for water withdrawals, possibly including cessation of pumping, if water levels in specific wells and water bodies fall below established trigger points. Sustained yields associated with renewable energy generation were estimated in the DRECP, and yields were buffered to accommodate expected fluctuations in energy prices and development, but other potential yields and their likelihood of being sustainable (or not) were not referenced in the plan decisions.


Evidence of Key Landscape Ecology Topics in Planning Decisions

We reviewed decisions in two plans developed for large, multiple use landscapes in the western U.S. and found that core landscape ecology concepts are clearly and regularly reflected in decisions in both plans. Resource managers are using foundational concepts in landscape ecology to guide future actions across multiple use landscapes to achieve greater benefits for society. This is an exciting finding for landscape ecology as a discipline, as recent papers have highlighted the challenges that still exist to incorporating landscape ecology into management [6, 7].

Land use change, multiscale perspectives of resources and resource effects, and relationships between resource and resource use patterns and processes are clearly and frequently represented in management decisions. Planning for land use change is the foundation of landscape planning, and a clear area where landscape ecology and planning are well integrated. Large differences in land use allocations between the two plans we examined (e.g., 52% versus 8% of the NPR-A IAP and DRECP planning areas in which energy development is authorized, respectively) illustrate the importance of policies guiding planning efforts. Federal and state policies identifying specific goals for renewable energy production drove the land allocation process for energy development in the DRECP. As a result, the first step in planning for energy development was to identify a specific energy production goal for the planning area and calculate the area of land needed to meet that goal [27]. This translated into more specific land allocations at both the landscape and local scale. Additionally, solar energy is a resource that is more easily quantified across the landscape than other natural resources, which may have facilitated better consideration of multiscale resource protection. In contrast, the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act requires the Secretary of the Interior to provide ample (but unspecified) oil and gas leasing opportunities in the NPR-A [32], likely resulting in the much larger land allocation for energy development. Given the unpredictable and proprietary nature of specific oil and gas resource location information, there may have been less opportunity for multiscale protection in the NPR-A.

Connectivity and fragmentation and ecosystem services, were clearly acknowledged in plans, but referenced somewhat less frequently in plan decisions. Four emerging topics in landscape ecology, landscape models, landscape history, landscape sustainability, and climate change, were only rarely referenced in the land use decisions we examined. There are numerous practical and logical reasons some concepts were included in one or both plans over others. In general, more landscape ecology concepts were reflected in NPR-A IAP decisions (mean = 2.7 topics/decision) than in the DRECP (mean = 1.8 topics/decision), perhaps due to the size and context in which the IAP was being developed. For example, pattern or process relationships were considered in 48% of BMPs in the NPR-A IAP (compared to 21% of CMAs in the DRECP), likely relating to broad-ranging species of interest (i.e., caribou) and the decisions related to managing for those resources in Alaska. Similarly, ecosystem services would have been considered more in the NPR-A IAP due to the importance of subsistence harvest in the region. Furthermore, data and information is often lacking in the Arctic, perhaps making managers rely more on broad-scale data. Landscape history was considered more often in DRECP decisions (12%) than in the NPR-A (6%), which may be due to the longer physical disturbance history in the Mojave Desert of California.

Actionable Opportunities to Improve the Integration of Landscape Ecology Concepts and Tools in Plans for Multiple-Use Landscapes

We suggest six actionable opportunities for further integrating landscape ecology concepts into landscape planning efforts that may improve the communication, defensibility, durability, adaptability, and sustainability of landscape plan decisions. We have specifically presented recommendations that are actionable by the Bureau of Land Management, a major land manager in the US, because they are both within the existing management authority of the agency and because they are consistent with major laws and policies (e.g., Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, NEPA) that currently govern actions by the agency. Because these fundamental laws are similar in nature across many land management agencies, we believe these recommendations are actionable by other federal, state, and local resource management agencies and organizations as well.
  1. 1)

    Adopt a broad ecosystem services framework for the planning effort

Both plans clearly acknowledged the value of, and need for, maintaining ecosystem services across the landscape. However, the services referenced in each plan were limited, with subsistence harvest being the primary focus in the NPR-A IAP, and recreation and water provision being the primary focus in the DRECP. Using a more comprehensive ecosystem services framework, including more prominent consideration of regulating and supporting services (e.g., water purification [48, 49], sustainable yield of forage for livestock and native species [50, 51]), would broaden the conversation and reinforce the diversity of services that multiple-use public landscapes provide. This recommendation would focus the planning process on the human component of, and interaction with, landscapes, facilitating broader inclusion of stakeholders in the land use planning process that already exists.
  1. 2)

    Use landscape sustainability as an overarching planning goal

The BLM is instructed to manage public lands for multiple uses and sustained yield of the various renewable resources of the public lands. Given this policy foundation, landscape sustainability, the “adaptive process of simultaneously maintaining and improving biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human well-being in a landscape” [34], is a logical overarching planning goal for multiple use landscapes. Defining sustained yield has been an adaptive and challenging process within BLM. Currently, plans often consider resources and resource uses on an individual basis. Implementing this recommendation would encourage planners, managers, and stakeholders to consider the overall collection of products and ecosystem services currently provided by the landscape, and the combined suite of resources and services that they would like the landscape to continue to have and provide into the future. This shifts the focus of the planning effort from a look at individual resources in isolation to a broader conversation about what stakeholders would like the landscape to look like in the future, and what kinds of tradeoffs in ecosystem services managers and stakeholders would be willing to accept or not in this broader context. Implementing this recommendation would help to focus plans on both specific ecosystem service tradeoffs that some authorized uses might entail, as well as a broader, more holistic consideration of the suite of resources and ecosystem services that are most desirable.
  1. 3)

    Explore the role of landscape history more comprehensively

A strong understanding of the current landscape and its resources, a function of landscape history, was evident in both plans. However, landscape history appears to be less understood in the context of contemporary land management [52] and was largely absent from decisions in both plans. Explicit consideration of past land uses and practices improves our understanding of current and future landscape functionality and informs management approaches. Using landscape models to examine relationships between land use allocations in past plans and subsequent changes in land use and land cover prior to initiating a new planning effort would help managers and stakeholders alike better understand how current land use decisions may impact future landscapes [53]. This would increase the transparency of land use decisions, and help meet the requirements of the NEPA charge to consider cumulative effects.
  1. 4)

    Regularly consider and accommodate potential effects of climate change in plan decisions

Climate change was a major consideration in both planning efforts. The NPR-A IAP considered, for example, the extent to which “The deflection of caribou and other important subsistence resources from areas of activity would result in increased difficulty harvesting caribou and other subsistence resources and the necessity to make longer and more distant trips in order to have a successful harvest. Decreased opportunities to harvest terrestrial mammals could be especially problematic if climate change inhibits fall travel by delaying freeze up or causes subsistence species to shift their migration routes or schedules.” (EIS, Vol. 6, App. A, p. 19). Overarching guidance in the DRECP for siting of conservation activities also clearly considers climate change: “Provide a mosaic of vegetative types with habitat linkages that is adaptive to changing conditions and includes temperature and precipitation gradients, elevation gradients, and a diversity of geological facets that provide for movement and gene flow and accommodate range shifts and expansions in response to climate change”. However, few (4% on average) plan decisions explicitly referenced climate change. More direct acknowledgement and accommodation of the effects of climate change in plan decisions would increase their durability and the ability of decision makers to adapt plan decisions to changing environmental conditions. While political challenges exist around using the term “climate change”, there is an acknowledged need by resource managers, including those in the BLM, to consider and accommodate changing climate conditions to increase the durability of the plans. Furthermore, upfront consideration will limit the potential for lawsuits to be brought against the BLM for failing to consider future potential impacts (see for example, Wildearth Guardians, Sierra Club v. United States Bureau of Land Management and Wyoming Mining Association; BTU Western Resources, Inc.; State of Wyoming; and National Mining Association, U.S. Court of Appeals Tenth Circuit, No. 15–8109, September 15, 2017).
  1. 5)

    Reference spatial or landscape models in plan decisions

Although spatial data and analyses are foundational to the planning process, landscape models were not referenced in decisions for either plan. Mechanistic landscape models are well suited to explore possible future landscape structures, especially given the potential for no-analog futures [54]. Utilization of such models could help ensure that plan goals and objectives can be met under scenarios of future climate and anthropogenic change not explicitly considered in the plan itself. Scenario-based landscape models that are understandable, scientifically sound, affordable, and can produce timely results would be particularly well suited for developing, sharing, and refining possible alternative futures in the planning process [53, 55, 56]. Language supporting the use of these types of models can be found throughout the BLM Planning Handbook (H-1601-2005), including as they relate to developing alternative desired outcomes to consider in the planning process; for example “Objectives identify specific desired outcomes for resources. Objectives are usually quantifiable and measurable and may have established timeframes for achievement (as appropriate)” (page 12).
  1. 6)

    Promote a greater presence of landscape ecologists in agency planning efforts


Both planning and litigation are costly endeavors, making planning decisions that are robust, relevant, and effective over reasonable time periods a necessity. There is also increasing recognition of the need to manage multiple resources holistically across landscapes to improve the effectiveness and acceptance of planning outcomes [57]. However, in our review, there was little evidence in plan decisions that they had been developed using quantitative landscape ecology tools and techniques. This is not to suggest deficiency. In fact, plan decisions must be brief to prevent plans from becoming even longer (Secretarial Order 3355). However, it does highlight an opportunity for agencies that manage large, multiple use landscapes to rely more heavily on landscape ecologists to provide stronger landscape science and decision support to agency planning efforts. Plan decisions that are clearly based on quantitative and repeatable methods are likely to be more transparent and defensible now, and easier to update in the future. Utilizing repeatable landscape ecology methods to support key planning decisions would also help land management agencies and organizations work in concert across administrative boundaries within landscapes, one of the central tenets of a landscape approach to resource management [14, 57]. Building a stronger foundation of landscape ecology expertise within the agencies responsible for planning for future change across large areas of public lands would also help to ensure that newer research themes and tools in landscape ecology could continue to be incorporated into planning, enabling progress toward the regular and effective use of sustainable landscape science in on-the-ground resource planning applications. Current specialists within these agencies tend to be specialists in one resource or another. Given that landscape ecology as a discipline is still relatively new, especially from an agency perspective, there is tremendous opportunity for resource management agencies like the BLM to 1) hire more landscape ecologists directly to provide strong and consistent in-house support for landscape planning efforts, 2) work to facilitate greater participation from landscape ecologists employed by other agencies, organizations, or universities with an interest in the planning effort and 3) provide landscape ecology training for current agency planners, managers and resource specialists. All three avenues can foster a greater awareness and use of landscape ecological concepts in large-scale land use decision-making.



The authors thank Sara Gagne for the invitation to write this manuscript. The authors also thank Todd Esque for providing additional information on the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, and two reviewers for strengthening our manuscript. S. Carter received funding from the National Operations Center of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management under interagency agreements L16PG00147 and L15PG00136.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Alaska Center for Conservation Science, Geography and Environmental StudiesUniversity of AlaskaAnchorageUSA
  2. 2.US Geological SurveyFort Collins Science CenterFort CollinsUSA
  3. 3.Bureau of Land ManagementNational Operations CenterDenverUSA
  4. 4.National Park ServiceAlaska Regional OfficeAnchorageUSA

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