Conference to Develop Ecologically-Based Conservation Strategies For a Future of Global Change

on February 16, 2012 10:51 AM EST

Conference to develop ecologically-based conservation strategies for a future of global change
Ecosystems are shifting under pressure from human activities, invasive species, and a changing climate, presenting us with hard philosophical and practical choices on conservation strategy. Should we preserve parkland as time capsules of past and current wilderness, or embrace changing species ranges and demographics to encourage new diversity as new ecosystems form? Eighty scientists, policy makers and resource managers will meet this month to challenge assumptions and explore potential solutions at the Ecological Society of America's second (http://www.esa.org/emergingissues/conference.php) conference on Emerging Issues, Developing Ecologically-Based Conservation Targets under Global Change. (Photo: Flickr,com/Paolo Vasta)

Ecosystems are shifting under pressure from human activities, invasive species, and a changing climate, presenting us with hard philosophical and practical choices on conservation strategy. Should we preserve parkland as time capsules of past and current wilderness, or embrace changing species ranges and demographics to encourage new diversity as new ecosystems form? Eighty scientists, policy makers and resource managers will meet this month to challenge assumptions and explore potential solutions at the Ecological Society of America's second (http://www.esa.org/emergingissues/conference.php) conference on Emerging Issues, Developing Ecologically-Based Conservation Targets under Global Change.

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How do we protect species when their ranges are changing? Ecological research predicts that climatic change will reshape the competitive landscape for wildlife and drive species to seek out new territory, shaking up existing community structures and relationships.

"Climate change throws a wrench into traditional conservation planning efforts. We really need to step back and ask what we should be trying to conserve. What should our goals be? How do we achieve them?" asked conference organizer Dov Sax, professor of biology at Brown University. It's a question he wants to put before the conservation community, and society at large.

Conservation has operated under a fortress mentality, says Sax. We wall off wilderness areas from human habitation. Buffer them from construction, agriculture and urbanization. Eject invading species if we can, creating havens for native species in their natural groupings, often based on historical descriptions of the landscape. But "natural," "pristine," and "historical," are all, to some extent, value judgments.

"In the Americas, 1492 is the benchmark that a lot of people are using, as if transformative changes weren't happening before Columbus sailed," said co-organizer Bernd Blossey, professor of natural resources at Cornell University. The people who lived here prior to the flood of Old World immigrants and the explosion of modern technology also wrought powerful systematic change on their surroundings.

Geological, climatic, and ecological change has marched visibly onward within the last thousand years. Species have moved, forests have become savannas, and savannas have become prairies in a history of dynamic change that the fortress mentality does not encompass. Current conservation ideals are unprepared for the changes ahead, according to Sax and Blossey.

"What do you replace the fortress mentality with? Is it a way-station mentality? Part of this is a science question and part is a values question," said Sax.

Blossey and Sax want to build a new conservation paradigm, shucking stasis for an assumption of dynamism. They are bringing together players from different corners of the conservation community to imagine what a new paradigm might look like, with the hope that a dynamic conference will catalyze new ways of thinking about conservation and future management. They are aware that the community has real fears about unforeseen consequences of radical change and unmoored stewardship standards. But they aren't counseling a hands-off approach.

"I'm not advocating letting species blink in and out without our intercession," said Blossey. But he thinks species should be free, or assisted, to move to and multiply where they can thrive-even some species that might now be labeled invasive. "The question we want to answer is how can we achieve keeping all the parts, as Aldo Leopold said, while not keeping all the parts in the places where they are now?"

Provided by Ecological Society of America

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