By M. Martin Smith and Fiona Gow
High Country News
Two hundred and fifty miles southeast of San Francisco, new studies resulting from decades of research show that giant sequoia saplings are thriving less robustly in the warming central Sierra Nevada. So do officials in Sequoia National Park build sequoia sapling greenhouses? Do they install sprinkler systems around the great sequoia monarchs? Or do they prepare a new habitat farther north, removing other species to make space for sequoia saplings? Should such moves even be contemplated, given the still-fledgling nature of predictive climatology?
And what of the rest of the trees in the West — the ones doomed to die from drought, fire and beetle infestation?
Scientists studying forest diebacks say one response to the dying might be to thin forests, so that individual trees are hardier and more beetle-resistant. It remains to be seen how well this would go over with an environmental movement accustomed to opposing logging. Other controversial ideas include intensive breeding and genetic engineering to create insect-resistant tree species, combined with the aggressive use of herbicides and pesticides.
Wildlife managers have long believed that local plant species should be kept genetically pure. But climate change may ultimately call for a sophisticated type of wildlife gardening, in which heat-loving southern plant species are brought north and encouraged to crossbreed with cold-loving cousins.
Already, a massive die-off of pinon pine trees in the Southwest is being called a "global warming type event." Again, selective logging might be one answer, scientists say: If fewer trees share scarce water, they just might survive in the new climate.
But for plant species that simply can't survive in their old habitat, some scientists are floating the idea of a forced march north.
Animals whose habitat dwindles as the climate changes might just scurry elsewhere, explains Nathan Stephenson, a research ecologist at the Western Ecological Science Center at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. But trees cannot get up and walk away. "The National Park Service has to decide: Are we going to assist species migration?" says Stephenson.
Helping plants and animals migrate north isn't just a matter of leasing fleets of flatbed nursery trucks. Many species under threat aren't easy to dig up and put in a pot. Soil microorganisms, fungi, butterflies, and other small creatures critical to the functioning of ecosystems may also find their traditional homes unlivable. Assisting species migration would mean setting aside broad swaths of wild land to provide an uninterrupted pathway north for entire habitats.
"I've had a number of conversations with land managers, identifying all the land in California that could conceivably be used as refugia, and what would be the appropriate species to go where. The magnitude of the problem is mind-boggling," says David Graber, chief scientist for the Pacific West region of the U.S. National Park Service. "There is a vocal minority of people in the conservation community who believe that things should unfold on their own. The theory being, we don't know what we're doing, and we're bound to screw things up.
"What we're talking about is an order of intrusion greater than anything we've done in the past."
Already the nonprofit Nature Conservancy is considering buying land and ecological easements to create north-south habitat-migration superhighways. "We need to take into account this vulnerability to large vegetation shifts," says Patrick Gonzalez, a forest ecologist who works with The Nature Conservancy under the title "climate change scientist." "One way in which we're using that data is in the establishing and maintaining of corridors that link areas in the network."
Doing this on any sort of meaningful scale, however, would require making the preservation of American grasses, trees and rodents an expensive national priority. And it would mean treating habitat-choking urban sprawl as even more of an environmental calamity than is currently recognized.
Putting America on this sort of ecological wartime footing — to prepare for an environmental future that nobody can fully predict — will likely prove a hard sell in Washington. Almost as difficult will be convincing the environmental community to abandon a hard-won national consensus about what it means to preserve the natural world.
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.
Science is scarce
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.' (A. Starker Leopold, the ecologist who shaped the preservation policy for U.S. Parks) 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
This story first appeared in the Feb. 4 issue of High