Unnatural Preservation

In the age of global warming, public-land managers face a stark choice: They can let national parks and other wildlands lose their most cherished wildlife. Or they can become gardeners and zookeepers.

  • JOHN KASTNER

  • JOHN KASTNER

  • JOHN KASTNER

  • JOHN KASTNER

 

Page 4

The vast bureaucracies that manage public land already have to answer to myriad bickering constituencies. Some of global warming's greatest impacts will appear without warning, as ocean temperatures and currents, extended growing seasons, extinction of microorganisms, or any combination of these factors cause cascading effects - such as the ones that are apparently killing the Farallon Islands auklet chicks. Saving species in such a quickly changing environment may not allow for policy meetings, comment periods, revised management plans and alternate implementation strategies. It might just mean deciding at a moment's notice to mash up buckets of krill stew and spoon-feed auklet chicks - now and forevermore.

 

Although there are reams of conclusive science on the "whether" of global warming - it is definitely occurring - there's very little precise information on when, and where, and what will happen next. Before park officials begin loading ferns onto flatbeds or launch the mother of all tree-thinning operations in the Colorado Rockies, they need scientific backing to be sure what they're doing has some hope of preserving life on earth.

Such science is scarce.

Despite the vast swath of death wrought across the West by drought, heat and bark beetles, science still doesn't know exactly what it takes for nature to kill a tree. At Muir Woods, to note an extreme example of this area of human ignorance, there's no record whatsoever of a mature redwood dying a "natural," non-human-induced death.

And though there's been vast observational research on the effects of global warming, there's not much experiment-derived knowledge about what a warmer planet will do to particular habitats. "I think one of the big challenges of planning, is the amount of uncertainty. We don't even know if it's going to get warmer and drier or warmer and wetter, and if you don't even know that, it starts to get really hard," says Stephenson, the USGS forest ecologist. "Often people have talked about desired future conditions. Now, you talk about switching to undesired future conditions. We know we don't want to completely lose our forest; perhaps we don't care if we don't have species abundance. And that does really bring you to a really general approach to try to increase resilience to ecosystems."

But it's hard to talk about making an ecosystem resilient if one doesn't know what it takes to kill it in the first place. Science is just now getting down to the brass tacks of cooking and parching trees to death on purpose - in a recently christened 500-ton welded stainless-steel-and-glass habitat-cooking oven.

The oven used to be known as Biosphere II, an artificial enclosed ecosystem originally intended for space research. The University of Arizona recently agreed to lease this giant terrarium near Phoenix from its owner, a land developer. The university will rededicate Biosphere II for research on how organisms react to climate change.

Finally, scientists can write an accurate recipe for baked dead tree.

"Wow, that (must) sound like a really dopey experiment," says University of Arizona natural resources professor Dave Breshears, who's on the faculty of the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth. "But we don't really have the right kind of quantitative information. We've got a drought, and we've got bark beetle infestations, and have higher densities than before and warmer temperatures. And it's hard to unravel the effects of those."

 

There are scientists who hold the reasoned belief that, given the lack of useful information, any decision to abandon the traditional approach to natural preservation is bound to be rash. Eric Higgs, director of the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, fears land managers may wreak havoc if they begin meddling with, rather than preserving, wild habitat.

"How is it we find respectful ways of intervening, of removing invasive species, or planting or translocating species? How do we do that in our deeply respectful way?" Higgs wonders. "We want future generations to say, "They didn't get it all right, but they got some of it right.' Leopold certainly made many mistakes, but he was an individual who kind of had it right. I'd like to think that contemporary restorationists would blaze that kind of trail."

With that in mind, National Park Service trailblazers all over America are holding meetings, conferences and symposia to incorporate climate change into a scheduled revision of overall park policy. The Park Service has created a Task Force on Climate Change to figure out what, if anything, to do about threatened park resources.

Officials with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area along California's North Central Coast, for example, are preparing to study the question with a series of global warming-themed staff meetings scheduled throughout next fall.

The agency is still sidestepping some of what's at stake, however. When asked what it was doing to preserve wildlands in the face of global warming, the Park Service's climate change coordinator boasted of a program called Climate Friendly Parks, which seeks to reduce parks' carbon footprint by doing things like installing low-flow toilets. Addressing the threat to ecosystems by reducing parks' resource consumption is like treating a cancer patient by telling her to cut back on food additives. Scientists are well aware of this apparent lack of direction in the agency's response to climate change.

"There's kind of a chaotic feeling right now. Everyone understands the situation is really problematic. We need to start. We can't wait to act until things start dying," Graber notes. "But we don't know what to do." Leigh Welling, the Park Service climate change coordinator, puts it a different way.

"It's a scary thought," says Welling, "Managers are looking at their job and saying, 'Oh jeez, how do I do my job?'"


Some naturalists have a one-word answer to that question: Differently.

One of the predictions of global warming is that there will be changes in the wind patterns and ocean currents that move nutrients to places where creatures can reach them. "In May of 2005, and roughly the same time of year in 2006, we had highly unusual wind patterns and ocean currents that were atypical," said Ellie Cohen, executive director of PRBO Conservation Science, the organization that monitors birds on the Farrallon Islands.

If those new patterns become the norm, some of the bird species that now blanket the Farallons could perish. Others, however, might thrive. Will preserving a semblance of the status quo turn conservationists into something closer to gardeners or zookeepers?

"It may be that at some point ecologists and conservationists decide the level of intervention may have to be higher than anything we've ever considered before," says Cohen. "Are we willing to go on the Farallon Islands to feed Cassin's auklet chicks until they're big enough to survive?"

And if not, what outcomes are we willing to accept?


M. Martin Smith and Fiona Gow are journalists living in San Francisco.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...