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Redefining America's conservation ethic in a time of climate change

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/13/11 @ 11:00am

Dr. Peter White, director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, delved deep into the American 'conservation ethic'-how it sprang into being during a critical period in our history of 'settling' the land at the Eighth Annual Conservation Symposium at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History last week. White also explored the current challenge of conservation in an era of climate change.

Conservation grew as an answer to the unchecked denuding of America's forests-thousands of acres of old growth forests in the Great Lakes region were 100% cleared by the early 20th century. The forests of the Smoky Mountains, and the great Northwest rainforest were the next target of loggers. Men like Aldo Leopold, Gifford Pinchot and John Muir spoke for the forests, for keeping places wild. They also understood that conservation gained more traction in the halls of Washington when it struck a balance between pure wildness and human need.

"What are some of the great ideas of conservation past, and how do we bring them into the present?" White asked. "We're up on trial for the biodiversity and climate on this planet. What are the value systems, the ethic behind conservation in an era of climate change?"

It starts by understanding that forests and seas are in flux and that natural succession includes death as much as life. "It's not either all nature or all human," White said.

Still, a tension unresolved grew between two of Leopold's four pillars of conservation: One stakes a claim for 'completeness' to natural areas, the other calls for an ethic that placed Americans within a community of the land (not as conqueror of the soil and the air). Despite the conservationists' success in setting aside private land as national parks for the first time, the results were not always pretty.

The problem was, Americans in the 20th century were quickly changing the whole. "Naturalness and wildness have become problematic. Leopold said, 'a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.' But how do we define and measure integrity for an ecosystem? Ecosystems are dynamic on many scales."

White illustrated his point with his years of research on the ecosystem of the Smokies, in particular, a nasty invasive pest: the pine beetle.

"When you see the pine beetle kills in the Smokies, it is a whole stand of dead trees. It looks like birth and death are disconnected, and that the whole park is going toward death. But if you step back, you see that stand is part of the death, but also the renewal."

The dead pines burned in a forest fire, and because their mass was so large, the heat was extreme enough to release the pine's pods which led to new forests of pine trees. Without the cleansing fire, hardwoods tend to crowd out the pine. So, is the 'invasive' beetle a positive part of succession? White wonders. Are managed fires by the Park Service not 'natural'?

"It leaves me with challenges. How do we define system-level renewal, integrity and stability? Can we resurrect stability? How many people have a 'right' to the land?"

Since Leopold, new insights such as 'Patch Dynamics' have come on the scene, building on Leopold's revelation that a system which has wildness and man in it takes on a 'salt and pepper' land use pattern.

It's a relativist vision that states nothing is right or wrong. It is also vehemently opposed by a group of conservationists, whose position is laid out in "The End of Nature", the book by Bill McKibben who concludes that there are no wild places left in America.

"McKibben says there are no nature dominated places, but I disagree. We have large, intact, complete areas with large predators, hydrology and disturbance regimes. Having nature in the presence of people like we have here in Cleveland allows us to understand the importance of the natural…We need to find the limit to human populations.

"We face the narrow neck of the hourglass, but we'll figure this out in a few hundred years. As Leopold concluded, 'That the situation is hopeless should not prevent us from doing our best.'"

During the audience Q&A, White was asked, about conservation on a long long scale. "Great deals of money are spent in this region on biodiversity. If everything is a moving target – are we trying to save a certain community at a certain point of time? How do we manage that? White answered with the example of intervention to save the dying Joshua Tree (in the Southwest National Park). "Do we artificially sustain a forest where it cannot exist? Most would say no – nature wouldn't. On the one hand, we say we cannot stop the river, but then we have to move to larger scale and say, 'I want to see the Joshua tree survive, and if that means moving them…if we think about passing on nature as a baton, the current condition of nature has an inertia. So the big tipping point is when do you maintain the best baton and when do you maintain things. Our immediate challenge is not to solve the climate of 2100 but to get through the climate of 2011. It will put us at odds with how do we move-I hope we develop a sufficient understanding of when we act."

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