Sometimes my passions for music and the environment come together in strange and wonderful ways. The recent Stones tour of Australia played in Sydney in November. This happened to be the same day that the sixth World Parks Congress opened, with both events in Olympic Park, home of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

The World Parks Congress only happens once a decade, bringing together thousands of park managers with policymakers and politicians, scientists, landowners, indigenous peoples and many others for a bewildering smorgasbord of workshops, demonstrations, multimedia installations, and general craziness, sprawling across multiple buildings and courtyards across from the arena where the Stones played. The Sydney Congress attracted more than 6,000 people from 170 countries. If you're interested in protected parks and care about sustainably managing the natural heritage of our planet, it's the place to be.

A bit of history helps here. The first modern national park, Yellowstone, was established in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant. The National Park Service was established in 1916, and there are now more than 84 million acres in the U.S. system, including 59 formal national parks as well as other protected areas. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns titled his wonderful 2009 series "The National Parks: America's Best Idea."  More than 273 million people visited these special places in 2013. President John Kennedy perhaps said it best when he spoke at the first World Parks Congress held in Seattle in 1962:

"National parks and reserves are an integral aspect of intelligent use of natural resources. It is the course of wisdom to set aside an ample portion of our natural resources as national parks and reserves, thus ensuring that future generations may know the majesty of the Earth as we know it today."

In 1972, the second World Parks Congress convened at Yellowstone to celebrate the iconic park's centennial. In 1982 — the year I joined the Rolling Stones — the gathering truly went global, meeting in Bali, Indonesia. In 1992, it was held in Caracas, Venezuela, and in 2003, in Durban, South Africa. Over those decades, "America's best idea" has been embraced all over the planet. In 1982, about 5 percent of the planet's land area was designated as a protected area. By 2014, that number has risen to around 17 percent. This is a huge success, although this rapid growth has not been without problems, of course. It also explains why so many people from 170 countries would make the trek to Sydney, and why I wanted to be a part of it.

Chuck Leavell speaks with conservation leader Dr. Eric Dinerstein

Leavell (right) speaks with conservation leader Eric Dinerstein, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute and an expert on tigers.

Chip Barber of the World Resources Institute (WRI) accompanied me at the Congress. We first met last summer in Rome (also on the Stones tour), when WRI invited me to become a member of a new Global Restoration Council, an initiative to focus attention on the urgent challenge the planet faces in restoring its 2 billion hectares of degraded forest lands to economic and ecological productivity. I accepted the challenge and attended an organizational strategy session for the Council in New York, on the margins of the United Nations climate summit in September. Chip had guided Rose Lane and me through the pomp and craziness of the summit in New York, and he once again did a great job of helping me make sense of things at the World Parks Congress gathering. (Our New York experience was captured in an article in New Yorker magazine.)

We began on the afternoon of the Stones show, when Chip brought U.S. National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis and other members of the U.S. delegation backstage for a chat on U.S. views and expectations for the Congress. The United States took the gathering seriously, John noted, sending Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell as head of its delegation, as well as John from the National Park Service and officials from the State Department and other relevant agencies. John noted how parks are sometimes taken for granted, making it more important that we continually promote their importance for both "conservation and inspiration." We also discussed the connection between promoting parks and promoting healthier lifestyles, and John mentioned that some doctors were even prescribing walks in parks and greenspaces to help counter obesity.

We talked about how to reconnect kids with nature at a time when young people are increasingly experiencing the world through their phones and tablets. The park service has an ambitious plan to get every fourth-grader in America into a park. I talked about our more modest program at Charlane Plantation to get school kids out on our trails, learning something about the wonder and importance of forests. John also mentioned his idea to hold a series of live concerts (with webcasts) in national parks during the National Park Service centennial in 2016. (Hmm, I've always wanted to play Carlsbad Caverns!) It was a great discussion, and if the U.S. delegation thought it was strange to be having a long chat about conservation amidst the hurly-burly of setting up for a Stones show, they were pretty cool about it.

The next morning Chip picked me up at 9:30 a.m. (so much for the "rock stars sleep 'til noon" myth!), and we headed back over to Olympic Park and into the Congress. The main hall, known as The Dome, was filled with booths and displays, including "hyperwalls" operated by Google and NASA, and numerous pavilions that served as venues for presentations. Nearby buildings contained meeting halls, and many people sat outside at picnic tables in the beautiful spring Sydney weather. (Check out this cool time-lapse simulation of the Congress for a sense of what it was like.)

Chip and a number of colleagues were launching a coalition to bring more attention to the need to stop the loss of the world's shrinking primary forests — it's called IntAct  — and I said a few words of encouragement at that well-attended event. WRI also presented its recently released global map of remaining intact forest landscapes and what has happened to them since 2000. I was pleased to meet Senator Christine Milne at this event. Christine represents Tasmania in the Australian Senate and is also leader of the Australian Greens. Her campaign to save the pristine Tarkine forest of Western Tasmania from mining and logging is another stark reminder that the destruction of Earth's precious last primary forests is not just something that's happening in poorer developing countries.

speaking at launch of IntAct coalition to save the planet’s primary forests

Leavell speaks at the launch of IntAct coalition to save the planet's primary forests.

I spent most of the rest of the day wandering around meeting countless conservation heroes, learning about initiatives for protected areas and innovations from around the world — and just trying to take it all in. It's heartening to know that there are so many dedicated people and organizations trying to save our planet's natural heritage. There's only so much I could absorb in one day, but Chip stayed on at the Congress while I moved on with the tour, and he shared his reflections with me later. We thought there were two themes to highlight.

First, the amazing advances in technology that can be applied to conservation and protected areas management were a defining feature of the gathering. NASA's hyperwall, basically a large high-definition flat screen, drew a large audience for the sometimes disturbing but always gripping visualizations of environmental change. Reading that the vegetation cover of Yellowstone — and the animals that depend on it — will be radically disrupted by climate change between now and 2100 is one thing. Seeing it in a graphic flyover simulation is another matter entirely. Google's hyperwall was equally powerful, drawing on the power of Google Earth to display technological marvels like Global Forest Watch, something that could barely have been imagined the last time the Parks Congress, which convened in 2003. Another striking example is the Atlas of Living Australia, which is organizing and making accessible all information about Australia's amazing biodiversity. (The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies put together a list of 20 key tools for conservation that were featured at the Congress, and that's also worth a look.)

The incredible ability we now have to monitor and understand changes in our environment gives us all new power to fight for conservation and a livable environment. But these tools also give us new responsibilities, as we can no longer pretend that we don't know or can't see the impacts of our choices as consumers, citizens, companies and governments.

A second powerful theme at the Congress was the changing role of indigenous peoples in protected areas and conservation in general. A defining feature of the Durban Congress in 2003 was the airing of grievances by many indigenous groups who protested that expansion of traditional, state-run parks often ignored their rights and uses of the lands and had sometimes resulted in forcible expulsions and violent conflicts. They also argued that in fact, many indigenous peoples have conserved and sustainably managed their forests and other natural systems. A decade later these challenges remain, but there has been progress.

Chuck Leavell with Senator Christine Milne (Tasmania), leader of Australian Greens in Parliament

Leavell with Senator Christine Milne (Tasmania), leader of Australian Greens in Parliament and an advocate to save the Tarkine forest of Western Tasmania from mining and logging.

One whole stream of the Congress was devoted to Respecting Indigenous and Traditional Knowledge and Culture, and the imprint of indigenous views and concerns on the meeting was significant. "Community conserved areas" has become an increasingly accepted approach, building on recent findings that show forests where indigenous land rights are respected tend to be much better conserved than surrounding areas, as shown in the dramatic findings of a study recently published by the Rights and Resources Institute and WRI. The point is made even more dramatic by an image from space of the Kayapo territory in the Brazilian Amazon. For another example, you can see the Sundarbans mangroves along the Bay of Bengal in the  photo below:

Sundarbans mangroves

This March 2014 mosaic taken from Landsat 8 shows the Sunderbans, one of the most important habitats on Earth for tigers. (Photo: NASA/JPL)

I left the Congress inspired, but also concerned about how we can carry on this important work in the future. What will the next World Parks Congress, a decade in the future, have to say about whether we kept "The Promise of Sydney," as the final outcome document is called? How do we attract and empower the leaders of the next generation, who must take the work of conservation forward when we are gone? How do we instill a sense of reverence and stewardship for nature in an increasingly urban and virtual world?

When he opened the 2003 World Parks Congress, anti-apartheid revolutionary and former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela said:

"I have been asked in my address today to reflect on challenges for the 21st century as it affects conservation and protected areas. You may very well be a little curious to hear what an old man without a job, office, power or influence, and with his roots far in the past, is going to say about challenges for the future! The future is, after all, in the hands of the youth."

It was heartening that among those taking the main stage at the Congress to reaffirm Mandela's vision was his great grandson, Luvuyo Mandela, who vowed that his generation would indeed rise to the challenge.

We must do everything we can to leave the new generation with a planet that is still worth protecting, and do our best to equip them with the tools they will need to protect it. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act of 1964, he probably summed it up as well as anybody:

"If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it."

MNN co-founder Chuck Leavell co-wrote this story with Dr. Charles "Chip" Barber, who is a senior manager with the Forests Program at the World Resources Institute, and former forest chief at the U.S. Department of State.

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