Managing complexity

  I feel the issues in "Unnatural Preservation" were presented in a very dichotomous way, that is, scientists versus managers, now versus never, all versus nothing (HCN, 2/04/08). Yet there are plenty of examples where we are addressing the gray area by trying different things at different scales, creating multidisciplinary collaborations, and envisioning alternative future landscapes.

The next generation of science leaders has made such efforts a priority. As a graduate student in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California, Berkeley, I am part of a forest ecology seminar on "novel ecosystems." My classmates and I struggle with the same suite of questions as the authors of the article: What is natural? What defines a novel ecosystem? What are we willing to pay or risk in ecosystem management? How can we make and achieve realistic management goals?

I am concerned that "Unnatural Preservation" did not give due attention to the fact that managing natural resources in the face of uncertainty is not black-and-white. We don't have to blindly choose A or B, because, in fact, there are any number of management options on the gradient between Yes and No. Scientists believe in accurately describing the variation in nature that cannot, fundamentally, be boxed or pinpointed. Scientists also recognize the need to conduct more directed experiments in the area of climate change, as suggested in the article.

Time scales also factor into the application of scientific information. Natural resource managers, as the article explained, are expected to act rapidly and decisively; however, scientific results often cannot be translated into prescriptions for guaranteed ecological success in the short term. The difference in how scientists and managers approach what to do with data is not necessarily a bad thing - by scientists giving a window of possible outcomes and implications, managers have room to implement adaptive practices. Precisely because we "don't know what we're doing," as David Graber of the National Park Service confessed, being able to tweak management strategies over time or space may very well help us stay one step ahead of undesirable ecosystem changes.

Amy Whitcomb
Albany, California
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