Untangling the pretzel logic of conservation?
Conservation goals at the start of the 21st century reflect a combination of contrasting ideas. 'Ideal nature' is something that is historically intact, but at the same time, futuristically flexible. Ideal nature is independent from humans, but also, because of the pervasiveness of human impacts, only able to reach expression, or maintain itself, through human management. It's very pretzel-like in its logic.
In a recent reflection on this conundrum, researchers Nicole Heller and Richard Hobbs attempted to make sense of these inherent tensions in an effort to understand what are appropriate goals for conservation in a time of rapid global change. Their exploration led to the development of an approach that they have called 'natural practice'.
Common management goals to maintain ecosystems in a desired state – goals such as integrity, wilderness and resilience – rely on native, historic communities as indicators. All goals share a conceptual coupling of place and historical species composition as an indicator of naturalness (eg, native, historical = normal, healthy, independent from humans). This is the case regardless of whether the goals are looking forward and focused on sustainability and change (such as resilience), or looking back and focused on the persistence and restoration (such as integrity) (see Figure 1). The coupling creates 'essentialisms' about how ecosystems should be (eg, what species should be there) in order to be considered 'natural.' Yet, ecosystems are changing and indeed must change as they evolve in response to global change.
The researchers argue that, from a strategic perspective, our dependence on historic states as benchmarks of naturalness is limiting options of managers to accommodate the dynamic, and often novel, response of ecosystems to global change. The critical question that we must ask then to succeed in biodiversity conservation in a time of rapid change is: How can we visualize intact, healthy nature that does not resemble known natural histories?
We need to ask at what point does the effort to conserve or restore all the parts and relationships, as described by human agents at particular points in time, undermine the resilience or self-expression of the whole? That is, does an approach aiming to maintain current assemblages in a particular place actually work against the adaptive behaviour of individual species and the formation of assemblages that are resilient to ongoing change?
Goals that focus on specific endpoints, reference states, and benchmarks create expectations about how and when ecosystems should change. Management thus requires human agents to intentionally control the degree and rate of change.
To get out of this situation, the researchers propose that that we move beyond endpoint goals and move toward establishing process goals. In particular, they advocate the development of process goals related to human behaviour in management, as a process to establish a framework for interventions, such as invasive species management, fire management, and restoration.