The Problem With Landscape

When we use the term “landscape-scale conservation” and give people the wrong idea (or no idea at all), it’s the word “landscape” that is causing the problem.

That’s too bad, because from the communicator’s standpoint, this word seems so useful for conveying the idea of a large, connected area of land. It’s much more friendly than “regional,” for example; much less technical than “biome.” It conveys an idea many people agree with. I can see why conservation communicators used it when they coined the term “landscape-scale.”

Why does it fail? Try this: Say “landscape,” and what words come to mind next? My first thought is of landscape paintings such as this one, by Albert Bierstadt:

"Lake in Yosemite Valley" Haggin Museum, Stockton, Calif.
“Lake in Yosemite Valley”
Haggin Museum, Stockton, Calif.

Indeed, the first definition of “landscape” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary is “a picture representing a natural section of inland scenery.” The second definition is “the branch of painting dealing with such pictures.” No wonder people don’t get the term “landscape-scale conservation.” They are more likely to guess you’re talking about paintings in museums than real and vast areas of natural terrain.

My second association with the word “landscape” is landscape design, or landscaping. It’s small in scale, done for aesthetic reasons, and very human-focused: How can we create a prettier area here? But when you’re doing “landscape-scale conservation,” it’s not about making small plots of land pretty. It’s about preserving and improving the habitat values in large, connected areas like entire forests. Your listener who hears “landscape-scale conservation” and thinks “gardening” is headed in the wrong direction because you used a term that sent him there.

So, we must consign “landscape” to the artists and gardeners, and find other words for communicating the need to take action to conserve large, connected areas for wildlife.

This post is in response to “The Language of Conservation 2013: Updated Recommendations on How to Communicate Effectively to Build Support for Conservation.” This representative national survey of American voters was commissioned by The Nature Conservancy in 2012 and conducted by a bipartisan research team.

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