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Preserving and Restoring Nature in a Rapidly Changing World
Alex Steffen, 29 Jan 08

Back in Spring of 2006, I wrote a piece, Environmental Restoration in the Age of Climate Change, in which I argued that we need to begin to apply climate foresight to our environmental preservation and restoration efforts, with an eye towards promoting ecological resilience in systems that are likely to change rapidly in coming decades.

This is a topic that's been coming up again and again recently, and not just in remote and wild places. Gardeners are discovering that their backyards are changing. Just last week, we noted a piece by Anna Fahey, in which she discussed her family's own struggles to think through these issues in planning a conservation easement for their country place.

Now, the New York Times has an excellent piece by Cordelia Dean, The Preservation Predicament:

Conservation organizations that work to preserve biologically rich landscapes are confronting a painful realization: In an era of climate change, many of their efforts may be insufficient or beside the point.

Some scientists say efforts to re-establish or maintain salmon runs in Pacific Northwest streams will be of limited long-term benefit to the fish if warming makes the streams inhospitable. Others worry about efforts to restore the fresh water flow of the Everglades, given that much of it will be under water as sea level rises. Some geologists say it may be advisable to abandon efforts to preserve some fragile coastal barrier islands and focus instead on allowing coastal marshes to migrate inland, as sea level rises.

And everywhere, ecologists and conservation biologists wonder how landscapes already under preservation will change with the climate. ...As a result, more and more conservationists believe they must do more than identify biologically important landscapes and raise money to protect them. They must peer into an uncertain future, guess which sites will be important 50 or 100 years from now, and then try to balance these guesses against the pressing needs of the present.

This last point is critical, because the worst thing we could do at this stage is throw up our hands and say "well, we don't know what's going to happen, so let's not do anything."

Instead, what we need is a concerted, cross-disciplinary effort to look at climate, ecology and biodiversity and have them inform a more vigorous discussion about our goals in regards to ecosystem services, our relationship to place and land-use. We need to teach ourselves how to make informed decisions in a rapidly changing world.

And the first step is to change our thinking.

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Comments

Alex, dude, you're my hero! As a conservation biologist that has done fieldwork on several species that are very sensitive to even small climatic changes I have to say you pegged this issue right on. Climage change and other disturbances are now affecting entire ecosystem regimes, many of which we ourselves depend on, so having a long-term view is going to be critical. Scientists tend to get stuck in what's happened in the past and what's happening right now so the long-view probably won't come from them without some intentional effort. Policymakers can have a longer view but it rarely gets much farther then the longevity of the current administration, particularly in the US. So who will have this long-view? Its a great question and an even better reason to engage today's youth in these discussions as soon as possible.


Posted by: Sean Schmidt on 29 Jan 08

My question is, if there are so many variables and it's difficult to be informed because of that, might not "let's not do anything until we know" be better than things which could make it worse?

35 years ago some pretty smart people thought a reef made of discarded tires was a good idea, and based on known science it was - http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/southflorida/news/artificialreef2003.html - but that went to a weird place.

Ma Nature is unpredictable and she reacts poorly to even well-intentioned mistakes.


Posted by: Hank on 29 Jan 08

Sometimes in nature it is better for us to step aside and allow nature to take over and follow the natural course of events. So in many of these places if we just stop doing harm and get out of the way nature will do the rest for us. Now that means we have to release control and we may not get the planned or desire results we wanted. Of course when developed property sit in the path of change, like beach fronts and below sea level regions like some cities occupy there is going to be a great effort to save these places like Venice. These may be worthy endeavors, but when planning future development and or restoration the future should be taken into consideration. Coastal cities will make wonderful systems for reefs and wet lands. One question is should these events, like the rise in sea levels occur, should we then begin the planning for the removal of hazardous and toxic wastes from these areas, before they become submerged and leach out their poison into the oceans. And should we not ban building in the areas that are sure to be most prone to the rise in sea levels. As for Salmon and stream flows the only sustainable way to save them is to stop the continued development of the west. The system is already beyond the ability to supply the water demands of the current population. When the big water projects were designed the intention was agriculture, now it is to provide water to mega-cities in the desert and high prairies where the supply is too little for the demand.
Of course we could conserve the water for habitat, but where would people golf


Posted by: David E on 30 Jan 08



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