Wednesday, January 30, 2008

You Don't Miss Your Water...

An interesting article from the NYT on how climate change, both in terms of current impact and projected impact, is creating challenges for conservation biologists. A few key paragraphs:

“We have over a 100-year investment nationally in a large suite of protected areas that may no longer protect the target ecosystems for which they were formed,” said Healy Hamilton, director of the California Academy of Sciences, who attended a workshop on the subject in November in Berkeley, Calif. “New species will move in, and the target species will move out.”

As a result, more and more conservationists believe they must do more than identify biologically important landscapes and raise money to protect them. They must peer into an uncertain future, guess which sites will be important 50 or 100 years from now, and then try to balance these guesses against the pressing needs of the present.

“It’s turning conservation on its head,” said Bill Stanley, who directs the global climate change initiative at the Nature Conservancy. He said the organization has a goal to protect 10 percent of major habitat types — like grasslands, forests and freshwater systems — by 2015.

“We are not sure exactly how to treat this yet,” Mr. Stanley said. “Areas that we preserved as grasslands are going to become forests. Does this mean we are going to have to have more than enough forest and less grassland than we had before? Or does it mean we should fight it — try to keep the forest from coming into those grasslands? Or should we try to find new areas that are least likely to change, that seem to be the least susceptible to change, and prioritize those areas?”

Interesting questions for me:

From an ecological perspective, if climate change is going to create massive and fundamental changes in local ecologies on a short time frame, how do you determine the ecological value of conserving a particular biome?

From an economic perspective, how do you make decisions on where to invest resources in conservation? How can you quantify the negative impact on a particular ecology, or the positive benefit, in the face of such overwhelming uncertainty in outcomes?

For people engaged in the public debate about conservation, be it advocacy or politics, how do you continue to make a compelling case for conservation when the ecological, economic, and for lack of a better word, spiritual arguments for conserving a place become harder to make with confidence, due to the impact of climate change?

What happens to that spiritual grounding of conservation, from Aldo Leopold to John Muir, when the constancy of a physical place is something that may become even more precious to us due to the effects of climate change?

And is there some heretical, futurist romance in being able to watch new ecologies rapidly transform in front of our eyes? Grasslands turning into forests? An underwater Everglades?

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