This post contributed by Celia Smith, ESA Education Programs Coordinator
A high standard was set by the first symposium of the Ecological Society of America’s (ESA) weeklong 2012 Emerging Issues Conference, which kicked off Monday at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in Shepherdstown, WV. The first of four sessions, Symposium I: “Protected Areas: Fostering museums, way stations and endpoints” was held in NCTC’s main auditorium, which brimmed with top representatives from a diversity of fields in ecological research, land management and government. On Monday morning, four invited experts spoke passionately about a variety of approaches to conservation targets under global change, the overarching theme of the conference and the topic that each of the nearly 100 attendees will tackle during intensive working groups on Wednesday and Thursday.
Despite the highly varied professional backgrounds and presentation topics of the speakers, it was illuminating to observe the common threads that wove through each talk and evoked connections among different ways of looking at specific conservation problems related to anthropogenic climate change. Concepts that frequently found their way into the dialogue between speaker and audience included uncertainty and connectivity, both in a spatial and temporal sense. The first two speakers dealt with the connectivity of past and present, and how rapid change inevitably forces us to compare historical ecological events and circumstances with current challenges and management options.
Richard Hobbs of the University of Western Australia began the conversation with his talk, “Intervention, protection and restoration: Are we guardians or gardeners?” He suggested that we have entered a new “Anthropocene” era in which humans are largely responsible for decisions affecting the environment.
“There are many different futures out there,” Hobbs said. “We don’t have much of a clue as to what the future holds… we have an uncertain past and an increasingly uncertain future.” Hobbs argued that this is not a reason to lose hope; we must simply shift our search for solutions toward a style of management that draws both from standard conservation strategies, such as restoration and invasive species control, and new approaches reflecting the Anthropocene “new world order” that are locally focused, contingent, and anthropocentric. This “gardenification” approach would not altogether abandon the conservation strategies of the past, but adapt them to current and future changes. Hobbs stressed that this will require embracing novel ecosystems and seeing ourselves as part of the natural world rather than separate from it.
The theme of historical connectivity to present and future decision-making was also addressed by Stephen Jackson in “Is history ‘just history?’ Uses of the ecological past for global-change risk assessment.”
“History suggests some hope,” said Jackson. “We’ve got a tremendous amount of biodiversity, and it’s all been through the wringer—it’s been through a series of wringers…it gives us cause for hope because it indicates that there is natural resilience out there.”
Jackson cited phenotypic adjustments, habitat shifts, migration, and evolutionary adaptation as examples of some of the natural phenomena that have contributed to ecological resilience in the past, and argued that we must leverage these natural capabilities as we design conservation strategies in response to global change. Jackson echoed Hobbs’ point that there are countless possible outcomes or ‘futures’ that can arise from rapid ecological change and the efforts made to cope with it: “We must prepare for inevitable surprises and think about how to convert surprises into opportunities as they come,” he said.
Shifting away from the more theoretical side of conservation strategy, the latter two speakers of Symposium I used the concept of connectivity in the more literal context of networks designed to guide species movement through and toward protected areas, and how this form of connectivity can be used to respond to global change.
Nick Haddad of North Carolina State University presented on “Landscape corridors for a changing world.” He described the results of his research in which networks of landscape corridors, created by burning dense stands of forest, have created “superhighways” for plants, small mammals, and insects that promote species interaction and dispersal in the face of habitat fragmentation. In some cases the effects can be dramatic; one study showed that such corridors were able to increase the number of plant species in a given area by 20 percent in five years (Damschen et al. 2006). Because we can’t know the exact movements and natural histories of all species, Haddad argued in favor of research that would help identify key “umbrella” species around which to design corridors that could simultaneously benefit other species as well.
Spatial connectivity was also addressed by Steve Gaines of the University of California, Santa Barbara, who touched on many of the same issues with an added twist: designing ‘corridors’ underwater. His talk, “Marine Reserve Networks: Are they pre-adapted for a changing climate?” focused on the challenge of creating protected areas for fish and other marine life, the conservation of which appears to conflict with the fishing industry. Solutions to marine conservation are also practically daunting, and if modeled after terrestrial ecosystem corridors, would require vast swaths of ocean.
Gaines’ research presented a potential solution in which strategic networks of marine protected areas are designed based on the dispersal ranges of fish in their larval stages rather than as adults; he argued that this design could be used in response to the marine productivity decline and population shifts that come with climate change, and that it could also benefit the fishing industry as healthier adult fish populations overflow into non-protected waters.
As the day’s talks demonstrate, the idea of connectivity is broad and can mean different things in different contexts. That is exactly what scientists, policymakers, and land managers face in the challenge to set conservation targets under global change: strategies applied in one time and place may be disrupted by both natural, cyclical change and anthropogenic global change. In introducing the symposium, Bernd Blossey of Cornell University quoted ESA president Steward Pickett from a 1990 New York Times article when Pickett remarked that the idea of natural balance or stability “makes nice poetry but it’s not such great science.” By the end of the week, conference attendees will have heard some of the greatest emerging science on global change; it is hoped that this will strengthen the development of conservation strategies that not only adapt to, but embrace change, instability and uncertainty.
Photo: National Conservation Training Center, Shepherdstown, WV, Ryan Hagerty/USFWS