Courage, Climate Change, and Large Landscape Conservation

George P. Mitchell, the son of Greek immigrants who was born in Galveston, Texas in 1919, was a man of remarkable courage and persistence. He bootstrapped his way through Texas A&M University, graduating first in his class in petroleum engineering. He then joined the firm that became Mitchell Exploration & Development in the 1940s. In the last third of the twentieth century, Mitchell risked his already substantial fortune on the build-out of the Woodlands, a large planned community in metropolitan Houston, and on experiments with what were then largely uneconomic methods of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). He sought to use fracking to exploit huge untapped reserves of oil and gas in the Barnett Shale in Texas. 

Many of his friends and associates tried to talk him out of the fracking effort, which they thought was a crazy gambit, but Mitchell stuck to it. In retrospect, we can now see that George Mitchell’s entrepreneurial bet on fracking was successful beyond any reasonable expectation, opening up an entirely new stream of energy resources around the globe. The fracking techniques which George Mitchell pioneered have transformed world energy markets, global geopolitics, and the fate of the American economy. From Midland to Moscow, the world is a different place because of George Mitchell’s pluck.

In addition to his remarkable achievements as a businessman, Mr. Mitchell found time to focus his intellectual acumen on public policy, philanthropy and bolstering the ability of the academic institutions to make scientific breakthroughs. He was a key funder of National Science Foundation efforts to advance sustainability science, and an outspoken advocate of stringent regulations on fracking.

To the chagrin of some of his colleagues in the oil and gas industry, Mitchell, and the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundationin which he established and guided during his lifetime, have been clear and unequivocal in calling for strict controls on fracking—from the substantial reduction of related methane gas emissions that powerfully contribute to global climate change, to the careful regulation of how fracking operations use water. George Mitchell had no illusions about the seriousness of climate change and looming water supply shortages, and about the economic and environmental disruptions they could cause on a worldwide basis in the twenty-first century.

I was fortunate to have met Mr. Mitchell, although only on one occasion, in his later years, at the property he and his family had help set aside at Cook’s Branch Conservancy, just north of The Woodlands, Texas. During our chat, he expressed his tremendous pride and optimism in the ability of his family and foundation to carry on the sustainability work he had helped to launch. His eyes sparkled as he looked out across the expanse of wildlife habitats, wetlands, and woods that his family had protected at Cook’s Branch.

It is important that those of us who care about the future of life on earth take note of George Mitchell’s courage, persistence, and willingness to work across the private, public, academic, and civic (philanthropic and non-profit) sectors to make the world a more prosperous and healthy place a—place humming and buzzing with the diversity of life that is our collective heritage.

One way that we can do so, and which we must do so on a global scale, is by expanding on the example set at Cook’s Branch, and on hundreds of millions of acres in the United States and around the globe. In establishing the Cook’s Branch preserve, the Mitchell family leveraged the power of the private and civic sectors to work with public and university partners to protect and steward landscapes that provide clean and abundant water, wildlife habitat, recreational resources and scenic vistas, as well as sustainably produced food, fiber and energy. 

The work of expanding on the base of conservation progress made by past generations has already begun in earnest, on a national and international scale.  In October 2014, a landmark conference—the National Workshop on Large Landscape Conservation (NWLLC)—was held in downtown Washington, D.C. to consider the opportunities and challenges inherent in working across parcel, local, state, and even international boundaries to protect and steward expansive landscapes and vast water resources. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell addressed an overflow crowd of on-the-ground conservation practitioners, non-profit leaders, government officials, corporate executives, and senior scientific researchers to laud the emergence of what she and others characterized as a new era of “epic collaboration.” The crowd left the meeting with renewed energy to push the state of the art forward (see for an overview of the NWLLC).

Also in the fall of 2014, the International Land Conservation Network (ILCN) was launched at the Land Trust Alliance Rally held in the United States, and at the World Parks Congress organized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Sydney, Australia.

Hosted at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the ILCN has already engaged member organizations in 15 nations on six continents, and hopes to substantially increase that participation by the time of the ILCN’s fall 2015 in Europe, now being planned. As reported by Laura Johnson, ILCN Director at the Lincoln Institute, the new organization aims to “connect organizations and people around the world that are accelerating voluntary private and civic sector action that protects and stewards land and water resources.

As has been demonstrated in the US over the past 30 years through the efforts of the Land Trust Alliance, we believe that building capacity within the voluntary private land conservation movement will lead to more durable and effective resource protection, contribute to building stronger communities and benefit humankind, now and for generations to come. We are excited that so many people and organizations have come forward from all around the world to express interest and support in the new network.” The ILCN is now working with organizations as diverse as the World Bank, the European Commission and several global conservation organizations to help spread the word and stimulate private and civic sector land conservation initiatives worldwide.

George Mitchell was insistent in his belief that humankind could create “a balance between economic and ecological well-being.”  He left a legacy of dedication to this goal through the sustainability conferences that he sponsored, the studies that he funded, the recognition that he paid to scholars, scientists and citizen conservationists, the land he stewarded at Cook’s Branch and beyond, and the foundation that he created. It is right and proper that we take inspiration from that legacy, and that we dedicate ourselves to moving forward along similar lines of enterprise.


James N. Levitt serves as Director, Program on Conservation Innovation at the Harvard Forest, Harvard University, and is a Fellow and Principal Investigator in the Department of Planning and Urban Form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

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