May 02, 2008 Features & Images » Feature Story

Unnatural preservation, Part II 

Should we be managing nature in preparation for an environmental future that no one can fully predict?

click to enlarge "We want future generations to say, 'They didn't get it all right, but the got some of it right.'" - Eric Higgs
  • "We want future generations to say, 'They didn't get it all right, but the got some of it right.'" - Eric Higgs

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"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.

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