Laura Petersen, E&E reporter
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.V. — How can people “protect” the environment for the long term when climate change, development and other shifts make a moving target out of the goal?
That’s a question ecologists grappled with this week at a conference hosted by the Ecological Society of America on conservation in a changing world.
“Trying to preserve the status quo at some point in time is arbitrary and I would say indefensible,” said Bernd Blossey, an ecologist from Cornell University who helped organize the gathering of 75 scientists, policymakers and land managers at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia.
One approach that can work for both conservationists and on-the-ground land managers is to frame such protection as enhancing nature’s capacity for self-renewal, Blossey said. A concept championed by conservation giant Aldo Leopold in the 1940s, it lets managers out of rigidly defining a target composition of species in a given ecosystem and allows them to focus on allowing natural processes to play out by protecting habitats.
One policymaker eloquently put it in more Shakespearian terms — the players may come and go, but the stage remains.
Another approach embraced by many ecologists and policymakers is to plan for multiple future scenarios, rather than just one. Avoiding specific predictions on how a refuge or species will cope with change helps wildlife managers adjust as conditions evolve, and can protect their credibility with the public, as well.
“We also need to prepare for inevitable surprises,” said Stephen Jackson, a paleoecologist from the University of Wyoming. Pointing to the recent mountain pine beetle outbreak that has killed vast forests across the West, Jackson said such catastrophic events can be expected to take place over time, and anticipating them can help managers respond.
Several attendees noted that even with the huge influence that humans have on the environment, including being the cause of rapid species extinction, there is reason for hope because nature has proved itself incredibly resilient over millions of years.
However, species are facing an unprecedentedly fast rate of climate change that could outpace their ability to adapt, which opens a door for more active intervention, some noted.
Ben Minteer, a specialist in environmental ethics and policy at Arizona State University, suggested that a shift is taking place in the conservation paradigm from a traditional focus on preserving species in their native habitats to a more aggressive, interventionist approach.
Assisted migration is a prime example, he said. Some conservationists advocate introducing species in locations where they have not historically existed as a means of boosting their chances for survival as climate conditions change. But while several presenters said this has been done for decades, others in the audience reacted viscerally to the potential for unintended consequences from such tinkering.
Many conservationists also appear to moving beyond the traditional strategy of protecting certain areas while keeping people away from wild places, presenters said. Instead, there is new interest in expanding conservation beyond the borders of national parks and refuges to also address large private lands, farms and even backyards.
As Cornell’s Blossey pointed out, “We can’t squeeze the Earth’s biota into 10 to 20 percent of the Earth’s land surface.”
Time to stop fighting?
One of the biggest challenges to achieving this broader conservation vision is public participation. Blossey said many people have relegated conservation responsibilities to federal land managers and nonprofit groups. Conservationists need to figure out how to engage the public so every individual takes ownership of his or her land ethic, he said.
While major global initiatives and federal agencies have focused on benefits provided by nature such as clean water, pollination and carbon storage, Blossey said he isn’t sure that ecosystem services are the way to get people, especially children, interested in protecting the environment.
“I don’t know; do you get excited about protecting nature because of carbon sequestration?” he said. “I don’t.”
Another major challenge will be prioritizing the use of limited resources.
“We can’t conserve it all; we can’t save all the species,” acknowledged Gabriela Chavarria, science adviser to FWS Director Dan Ashe.
For Patricia Heglund, biological resources manager for the National Wildlife Refuge System’s Midwest Region, there are many questions that will need to be answered as policymakers craft climate adaptation strategies.
“The biggest thing for me is, when do we recognize there is a regime shift and stop fighting invasive species and acknowledge a new system has started?” Heglund said.