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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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.

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