Human-ecosystem interactions: Perspectives from the LTER symposium
This post was contributed by Piper Corp, ESA Science Policy Analyst
Human-ecosystem interactions are complex and ever changing, influenced by factors ranging from region to religion, family history to homeowner’s associations. And in many cases, global change is having, and will continue to have, a pronounced impact on these already dynamic relationships—not only on which ecosystem services people value, but also how they obtain, use, and protect them.
On March 4, scientists from Alaska to Puerto Rico gathered to consider these changes at the 9th annual LTER (Long-Term Ecological Research) symposium, “Ecosystem Services in a Changing World: Perspectives from Long-Term Ecological Research.” Researchers from 8 of the National Science Foundation’s 26 LTER sites discussed the relationship between society and ecology in the regions where they do their research.
“Ecosystem services,” as Barbara Bond of the Andrews Forest LTER pointed out, is a relatively new term for an old concept. Ecosystems provide people with a wealth of resources—not just tradable goods like food and biofuels, but also public goods like clean air and cultural benefits derived from our relationship with nature. Understanding how human activity changes and is changed by ecosystems and the myriad services they provide often requires scientists to step outside of their comfort zone and include a human dimension in their research, whether by conducting informal interviews or quantitatively analyzing social phenomena.
Ecologists frequently consider how to preserve the resilience of ecosystems—how to make sure that they will continue to produce important services as they face stresses like climate change and water shortages. But we can’t have it all. At some point, said Kelli Larson (Central Arizona – Phoenix LTER), we’ll have to make some tough tradeoffs, depending on which services we value the most. Larson’s work looks at residential landscaping in the Southwest, where traditional lawns use more water but homes with pebble-covered yards use more energy to keep cool and more chemicals to control pests artificially. Sustainable living, it seems, begins not with a to-do list but rather with a question: what do we most want to sustain? (And, importantly, what do we need to sustain?)
At the heart of the symposium, then, was a new kind of social-ecological question: how do different communities interact with and value different ecosystem services, and how can ecological research inform the management of these services? The speakers approached the matter in a variety of ways: some calculated dollar values to analyze tradeoffs; others surveyed community members about their priorities and developed indices to quantitatively compare them. Still others, like Terry Chapin (Alaska’s Bonanza Creek LTER) are collaborating with local communities, engaging the people who depend on the ecosystem in research design and implementation.
As many of the scientists pointed out, LTER sites are integrated with the community and interdisciplinary by nature, making them ideal for these new kinds of approaches. And since social phenomena drive ecological change—and vice versa, of course—including social dynamics in ecological research is an important area to explore and pursue. But as scientists take up this pursuit, they will face a broad range of new questions and challenges associated with merging the very different methodologies of social and natural sciences. Standards for experimental controls, data collection and analysis, and scientific rigor are well-suited for their respective fields, and society interprets the resulting findings accordingly. But when we fold both approaches into a single analysis, how will non-scientists interpret the results? When we condense the countless possibilities of human volition into a set of likely scenarios—an important technique in proactive management—what can we do to achieve a level of certainty on par with that of traditional data collection techniques like measuring water quality, gene flow, or phenological change? And if we can’t, what is the best way to present the results? Ecological scientists have had to consider many of these questions before when using qualitative methods to evaluate behavioral and community ecology, for example. We invite your thoughts on how these challenges have been met in the past, and on how they might be addressed in future.