Armored in a rain slicker and floppy hat against guano-bombing waterfowl, Russ Bradley pokes about for signs of life on a craggy island paradise just off the California shore. One might expect the search to be easy, given the hundreds of thousands of common murres, ashy storm petrels, Brandt's cormorants, Leach's storm petrels, Western gulls, double-crested cormorants, glaucous-winged gulls, black oystercatchers, pigeon guillemots, rhinocerous auklets, tufted puffins, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and Cassin's auklets that summer on the Farallon Islands, 27 miles off San Francisco in the Pacific Ocean.
During the past three years, however, Bradley has been checking on the breeding sites of the black, burrow-nesting Cassin's auklet, and he's been finding abandoned eggs; dead, black, cue-ball-sized chicks; and skinny, faltering fledglings. "Most of the chicks have died," says Bradley, a research biologist with PRBO Conservation Science, a nonprofit, founded as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, that has spent the last 40 years counting and observing the hundreds of thousands of birds that nest yearly on the Farallons. "This was as complete a failure response as we'd ever seen before. And we'd been following this species for 35 years."
The apparent culprit: Ocean currents, redirected by rising sea temperature, have swept out of range the millions of tiny krill that the adult birds scoop into their beaks, chew into purple smelly goo and then spit up for their young. In other words, this unprecedented starvation wave may be a result of global warming.
Bradley is one of the experts who knows most about the auklet die-off. Just the same, he's adamant in his belief that he should not attempt to save any of the dying chicks. To do so, he says, would be considered unnatural and unscientific. "You definitely grimace when you see the guy next door who hasn't done so well and has died at a very young age," Bradley says. "We try to maintain ourselves as scientists. But we really feel for the birds."
In the world of natural preservation, it's not just scientists who take Bradley's don't-mess-with-Mother-Nature stance. Since the 1960s, the idea that natural preservation consists mostly of letting nature take its course - absent manmade environmental disturbance - has been doctrine among public parks bureaucrats, biologists, environmentalists, rangers and other members of the vast landscape of individuals and organizations involved in preserving America's natural environment. When naturalists have intervened to save species, as in the 40-year struggle to save the bald eagle, their efforts have been driven by the goal of returning life to its wild state, so that a damaged ecosystem can tilt back into balance. For the most part, naturalists have not sought to save nature purely from itself. With global warming, however, this hands-off approach is rapidly becoming quaint and out-of-date.
As the planet grows hotter, and the consensus mounts that the temperature is not turning back down, there may be a lot less meaning in the idea of preserving "naturalness" than has been the case. After all, in the not-too-distant future, the state of nature will in many cases be something nobody's ever seen.
So far, however, public-land managers have responded by doing almost nothing, according to a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the agency that evaluates federal programs. By and large, the GAO says, officials who manage U.S. public lands have simply ignored a 2001 Department of Interior directive ordering them to identify and protect resources that might be threatened by climate change.
This is no minor failure. An emerging scientific consensus says that unless the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, state fish and game departments and private environmental organizations re-direct their missions to deal with climate change, they'll oversee the advance of nationwide environmental catastrophe. The character of public wildlands will be drastically - and permanently - altered.
So professional preservationists, and the environmental movement as a whole, are left with unnatural choices: They can intervene aggressively to maintain habitat threatened by planetary warming - installing sprinkler systems around California's giant sequoias, to name one suggestion floated by scientists. In the process they would become something akin to farmers and pet fanciers.
They can intervene aggressively to provide huge migration paths northward for heat-threatened plants and animals. Because this would require them to help dramatically change existing ecosystems, it would turn the current conservation ethic on its head.
Or they can decide to continue to use the traditional hands-off approach - and thereby allow millennia-old ecosystems to die off and be replaced in ways that would never have happened naturally, if not for global warming.
In January 2001, just as Bill Clinton handed the White House keys to George W. Bush, the Department of the Interior issued a broad order to the National Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the other agencies that manage one-third of the nation's surface land as well as numerous marine sanctuaries. The order was at once simple and fiendishly complex: The agencies should "consider and analyze potential climate change effects in their management plans and activities."
It was a reasonable directive. Trees on millions of acres of forests in Glacier National Park have fallen to a beetle infestation apparently linked to climate change. At the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, coral reef bleaching - a phenomenon that, if prolonged, would undermine the area's marine ecosystem - may be connected to warmer sea temperatures. On the 2.6 million acres of U.S. land managed by the BLM in northwestern Arizona, a recently intensified cycle of drought, wildfire and flooding has caused desert scrub and cactus to be replaced by grasslands.