whole systems conservation nature conservancy gulf of mexico
The work in North America uses science to support the Whole Systems approach (see papers in Key Resources) to conservation with a focus on several projects: the Gulf of Mexico, California Current, the Great Lakes, Alaska Yukon, Saint Kitts and Nevis Caribbean, Mojave Desert, the Central Appalachians, the Northern Appalachians, the Colorado River, and Chesapeake Bay.
In its 60-year history, The Nature Conservancy has continually worked to improve its methods and strategies to achieve its mission. We have expanded our conservation footprint from acres to bioreserves to functional landscapes, and we should be proud of our conservation achievements.
However, as the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close, the impacts of global climate change and the growing human footprint are upon us. We are challenged to respond to the large-scale disturbances associated with these impacts while recognizing the increasing importance of trying to maintain the ecological function of landscapes, seascapes, and watersheds.
The Conservancy now has the organizational capacity to address complex problems such as altered river flow or fire regimes across large areas that have long represented barriers to mission success. Taken together, these factors compel us to step up to the conservation challenges we face today. In a growing number of places across North America, we are finding that these challenges are best confronted using a “whole system” approach.

An Overview

What is our purpose? We intend to foster a broader dialogue in the Conservancy about the benefits and tradeoffs of the whole system approach.
Why focus on whole systems? The scope and magnitude of today’s conservation challenges mean that we can no longer afford to limit our conservation practice to collection of sites.
What is a whole system? It has a recognizable unifying ecological feature and includes people. It must be large enough to maintain resilience, sustain key ecological processes and services, and allow for movement of organisms within and through it. It includes conservation areas with high ecological integrity surrounded by a matrix of lands and waters that vary in quality but are important for conservation.
What is whole system conservation? This approach considers the needs of people and an increased emphasis on managing the matrix of lands and waters surrounding portfolio sites. It also requires working at multiple scales, managing for connectivity and a permeable landscape, and tying policy solutions to place.
What’s different? Our conservation strategies need to evolve beyond protecting a network of preserves to include strategies based on maintaining ecosystem function and services. 
What is success? Success will require the design and execution of strategies to ensure that a whole system can self-maintain its key ecological functions and continue to provide ecological services over space and time. It will be measured by our ability both to build support and capacity with people and institutions to carry out this vision, and to demonstrate that the public sees the relationship between the economy, environment, and our overall welfare.