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U.Va., National Fish and Wildlife Partner to Address Conservation Issues

December 12, 2011 — The University of Virginia and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation have established a unique partnership for collaborative, graduate-level training and research aimed at developing conservation professionals to tackle some of the biggest conservation problems facing the nation.

A non-profit organization created by Congress in 1984, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation directs public conservation funding to pressing conservation needs and matches these with private funds to protect and restore America's native wildlife species and habitats. It is among the nation's largest conservation organizations; since 1984 it has made 11,000 awards to more than 3,800 organizations, investing more than $2 billion for conservation. In its new "Keystone" program, the foundation has pioneered a "business plan" approach that clarifies outcomes, obstacles, performance measures and costs; initial data from Keystone projects indicates the great potential of this approach.  

U.Va. and the foundation are collaborating on an applied conservation science program to assess a wide range of strategies for preserving biodiversity in threatened habitats, identify knowledge gaps and institutional barriers for more effective solutions, and design programs that take into consideration accelerating climate and environmental change and population growth. The program will feature courses jointly taught by U.Va. faculty members and foundation staff, summer internships for U.Va. students at foundation project sites, and a new master's degree program.

"This partnership will be transformative for both institutions," said National Fish and Wildlife Foundation board member Paul Tudor Jones, a 1976 U.Va. alumnus and major benefactor of the University. "NFWF will now have a world-class research capability to better help preserve America's natural resources, and the University of Virginia will be aiding real-time conservation measures to save our fish, wildlife and fauna for future generations.

"It is a synergistic marriage that has Mother Nature smiling."

U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said, "Collaboration is essential to solving today's most important social and environmental challenges. At the heart of this new effort is an authentic collaboration between partners who share a passion for excellence – and the outcomes will greatly enhance the preservation of our natural world."

In a series of intensive planning sessions undertaken over the summer and fall, U.Va. faculty members and foundation scientists and project managers identified complementary strengths and interests. For the two institutions, collaboration provides distinctive resources and accelerates innovation, said Thomas C. Skalak, U.Va. vice president for research. He noted that this outward-looking strategy will distinguish U.Va.'s University-wide sustainability initiative.

"This NFWF-U.Va. partnership exemplifies the benefits of cross-sector collaboration," Skalak said. "In responding to real-world problems, we apply and combine our discipline-based skills in new ways, and in that process we find new opportunities for breakthroughs in basic research. These exchanges are fundamental to the vitality of our institution, and collaborations with high-quality external partners, such as this one with NFWF, will be a hallmark of the pan-University sustainability initiative that U.Va. is now developing."

Claude Gascon, chief science officer and executive vice president at NFWF, said, "This collaboration will ensure that NFWF has access to the best scientists to focus on the most pressing and important conservation challenges facing the U.S. today. The matching of U.Va. scientists and NFWF conservationists will link conservation science to action in the field and help save the nation's fish and wildlife treasures for generations to come."

The first jointly taught course on biodiversity conservation science and policy are being offered during U.Va.'s spring 2012 semester. Forty students are enrolled – eight from the School of Law and 16 each from the departments of Environmental Sciences and Biology in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. Students will work in multi-disciplinary teams, using six foundation projects as case studies. These projects represent a wide range of conservation challenges, including marine and coastal to grasslands and forest habitats and species whose continued survival is an indicator of ecosystem sustainability.

Next summer, 10 U.Va. students will be selected for paid internships at National Fish and Wildlife Foundation project sites, where they will have the opportunity to learn firsthand about the environmental, institutional, economic and social factors associated with conservation practice. For the fall semester, five students will receive fellowships to address science and policy questions whose answers can strengthen conservation practice and improve conservation outcomes.

Details for the summer internship and fellowship selection process will be announced in early January. The program has been funded for three years, with the possibility of renewal.

U.Va. faculty members involved in the collaboration include environmental sciences professors Howie Epstein, Karen McGlathery, Hank Shugart and Dave Smith, and environmental law professors Jon Cannon and Leon Szeptycki. They and their students will work with foundation staff members who specialize in marine, bird and fish conservation, as well as biodiversity monitoring, assessment and conservation.

As the program develops, other U.Va. faculty members and foundation staff will be added, particularly in economics, the humanities and social sciences, and social psychology.

"The challenge is to allow students to appreciate the depth of information needed to maintain healthy wild populations of important species of animals and their habitats, and, at the same time, gain a real-world impression of the complicated interface between law, policy, ecology and the environmental understanding needed for the sustainable management of biotic diversity," Shugart said. "The program could potentially develop a new type of scholar – different from the specialists educated in a discipline who were the norm for an earlier generation of students."

"The opportunity for law students to work with scientists is a new and critically important piece of their training," Szeptycki noted. "This partnership will be for our students a whole different way of thinking about environmental protection. Lawyers, especially environmental lawyers, work with scientists and scientific materials on an almost everyday basis, and it is something that is usually left completely out of legal training. Now our faculty and students will be working with NFWF staff to help identify approaches that actually work on the ground."

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