Day 4,158: A Ray of Hope in the Himalayas

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Let’s get started:  Sam Cushman on Landscape Conservation Design


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The Institute Sam Cushmanfor Landscape Conservation Design (i4LCD) promotes practitioners with diverse experiences in landscape conservation design. We share their stories and highlight their project work. If you would like your project to be considered for a Case Study Spotlight, contact us at:, include “Case Study Spotlight” in the Subject line, and give a short summary of your past or ongoing LCD project.

This month’s Case Study Spotlight: A Ray of Hope in the Himalayas is written by Sam Cushman. Sam is a Research Landscape Ecologist and the Director of the Center for Landscape Science at the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station. The Forest Service’s mission is “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” The mission of the Rocky Mountain Research Station is “to develop and deliver scientific knowledge and innovative technology to improve the health and use of the Nation’s forests and rangelands – both public and private.” Sam has worked for the Forest Service since 2003. He earned his M.S. degree in Terrestrial Ecology from Western Washington University and a Ph.D. in Landscape Ecology from the University of Massachusetts.




Day 4,158: A Ray of Hope in the Himalayas

by Sam Cushman

BhutanBhutan is a special place. A tiny jewel nestled in the folds of the Himalayas, Bhutan spans an incredibly rich ecological gradient from subtropical forest to the glaciers of some the highest mountains on Earth. It is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. It is also blessed with a cultural commitment as a Buddhist kingdom to conservation and sustainability. 

When Guru Rinpoche brought Buddhism to Bhutan he arrived flying on the back of a tiger, and wildlife retains a deep cultural significance impossible to understand from a western humanistic and utilitarian perspective. On my recent visit to Bhutan, the secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests explained to me that the central and official goal of the nation is to maximize gross national happiness, a concept in which the wellbeing of its people is placed above other considerations. Importantly, he said, the environment is a main pillar supporting happiness. That there is a mutual dependence and kinship between humans, wildlife and landscapes.

Following this principle Bhutan has implemented remarkable efforts to conserve forests and biodiversity, with 51% land area designated as protected areas and the world’s only national network of biological corridors established to connect them. In many ways Bhutan is an example and inspiration to the world, showing how conservation and development may be balanced through a nationwide conservation design.

Despite its great achievements in conservation, Bhutan, like all of the developing world, faces considerable challenges. As wealth increases from revenue obtained from hydropower and tourism, Bhutanese increasingly desire a higher standard of living. This results in increasing demands on resources, in particular timber, and land use. Simultaneously, there is an increase in rural to urban migration which has resulted in large numbers of young workers in Bhutan’s principal cities. Economic development has not kept pace with these rapid social changes, and the youth unemployment rate has increase from 9.5 to 13.5% in the past eight years. Increasing drug abuse and other social challenges has put considerable pressure on the government to increase economic opportunity for its urban population.

The country is now engaged in an effort to re-balance economic and conservation goals. This re-balancing involves several main components that are currently under debate and development. First, there is a goal to increase the extent of the protected area network to 60% of the countries land area, accompanied by a goal to increase the Tiger population by approximately 20% to ~120 individuals. At the same time, there is an effort to realign the biological corridor network to follow ecologically meaningful boundaries and increase administrative feasibility. Finally, there is an effort to identify key biodiversity areas outside of protected areas and to establish a new, six-level, national land use system to address competing land use decisions. The goal is to enable increased resource use and development while ensuring protection of protected areas and the long-term sustainability of ecosystems and biodiversity.

This is an ambitious and challenging effort, and the U.S. Forest Service’s Center for Landscape Science was very honored to be able to learn about it and begin the process of exploring how we might contribute. Led by the University of Oxford Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, our group has been developing broad scale and trans-boundary biodiversity assessments and conservation scenario optimizations across Southeast Asia for the past five years. Our approach involves coupling vast empirical datasets about species distributions and movement behavior with landscape modeling to identity and rank the importance of core areas and corridors, and evaluate the cumulative effects of alternative development and conservation scenarios.

While the discussion remains at an early stage it is likely we will formally work with the government of Bhutan to provide analysis and modeling tools and training to help the nation to achieve its desired balance of ecological sustainability and economic development. It was a tremendous honor and privilege to spend the better part of a week traveling with government biologists through a number of landscapes and protected areas in Bhutan and learn about the tremendously rich cultural and natural heritage of their nation. Given the rapacious destruction of natural ecosystems across the developing world, Bhutan stands out as a ray of hope that it remains possible to jointly maintain the wellbeing of humans and other animals in a society based on respect tolerance and sustainability.


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Topic: Innovation in Landscape Conservation 


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Sam Cushman
Director, Center for Landscape Science - U.S. Forest Service
Sam is a Research Landscape Ecologist, and Director of the Center for Landscape Science at the U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. He earned his MS in Terrestrial Ecology from Western Washington University, and a PhD in Landscape Ecology from the University of Massachusetts.
Sam Cushman
Sam Cushman
Sam is a Research Landscape Ecologist, and Director of the Center for Landscape Science at the U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. He earned his MS in Terrestrial Ecology from Western Washington University, and a PhD in Landscape Ecology from the University of Massachusetts.

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