The Battle for the Soul of Conservation Science

Dave Skinner ran across this article in Issues of Science and Technology and thought it was worthy of discussion.. I wholly agree.. thanks Dave!

Back in the day as I was getting my Ph.D., there wasn’t “conservation science” and “regular science”, there was just “science.” I believe that through generations of humans and pre-humans, folks have a good general instinct for figuring out who is telling the truth. I think it was Carolyn Daly who said “why do scientists always tell us (rural communities) what we can’t do, and never what we can do?”

Kareiva is neither pessimistic nor sunny about the state of the world. To him, it just is what it is. He doesn’t downplay threats to biodiversity, but he is tired of the unceasing gloom-and-doom narrative that environmentalism has advanced for the past quarter century.

He also believes that the eco-apocalyptic mindset has infected the field of conservation biology with an unhealthy bias. Sometimes, he says, science paints a different picture than that which conservation biologists want the public to see. “I have been an editor of major journals for thirty years, handling papers on migratory bird declines, salmon, marine fisheries, extinction crises, and so on,” he told me. “An article that confirms doom is never critiqued. Any article that reports things are not so bad gets hammered. It is very discouraging to me.”

He recalls one particular episode regarding a paper published twenty years ago in the journal Ecology. Its finding contradicted widely held assumptions that neotropical warblers were declining. “It was reviewed unprofessionally and viciously because folks worried it would undermine efforts to reduce tropical deforestation. I have seen this over and over again.” The conservation community, he says, “is plagued with an astonishing confirmation bias that does not allow questioning of anything.”

The field’s premier journal, Conservation Biology, was rocked in 2012 by similar charges of politicized interference when its editor was fired after she had tried “removing advocacy statements from research papers,” as an article in Science reported.

It was around this time that Kareiva and some of his colleagues began calling for new approaches to conservation. In an essay published in BioScience, he and Michelle Marvier, an ecologist at Santa Clara University, wrote: “Forward-looking conservation protects natural habitats where people live and extract resources and works with corporations to find mixes of economic and conservation activities that blend development with a concern for nature.”

Leading figures in the ecological community were aghast. The essay explicitly challenged Soulé’s founding precepts for conservation biology, which established the field as a distinctly nature-centric enterprise. It was not intended to accommodate human needs or corporate interests. In a rebuttal published in Conservation Biology, Soulé characterized Kareiva and Marvier’s view as “a radical departure from conservation.” We humans, he wrote, “already control more than our fair share of earth’s resources . . . . [T]he new conservation, if implemented, would hasten ecological collapse globally, eradicating thousands of kinds of plants and animals.”

Kareiva is a lightning rod for criticism because of his high profile position at The Nature Conservancy, which is the largest and richest environmental organization in the world. He is also outspoken. In one public talk, he marveled at nature’s ability to rebound from industrial disasters, such as oil spills. He wasn’t condoning such actions; he just thinks that in some cases his peers conveniently overlook an ecosystem’s resilience because it contradicts the fragile nature narrative that has shaped environmental discourse and politics. Additionally, Kareiva has come to believe it is better to work with industry than against it—so as to influence its practices. (This is what TNC has done of late, in partnering with Dow Chemical and other companies on environmental restoration projects). “Conservation is not going to succeed until we make business our friend,” he has said.

The more Kareiva talks like this, the angrier he makes some of his esteemed peers. They have already been on the warpath. In 2013, Soulé, along with Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson and others, sent a letter to TNC President Mark Tercek, complaining about Kareiva. They slammed his views as “wrongheaded, counterproductive, and ethically dubious.”

(Sharon’s side note.. if I wanted an ethicist I would not ask a bio Ph.D. To me academics have to pick a lane.. if their expertise is in a particular field, I think they should either stick to that field or qualify their observations with “I’m not an expert on this, but..”.. and it makes me LOL when academics claim that they are up for open discussion, advancing thinking and ideas.. until someone actually disagrees with them..)

The onslaught has not let up. Last year, an article in the journal Biological Conservation by Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm likened Kareiva to a prostitute doing the bidding of industry.

The recent commentary in Nature, with its 200-plus signatories from the ecological community, sought to cool passions and tamp down the debate’s derogatory tone. The authors pleaded for “a unified and diverse conservation ethic,” one that accepts all philosophies justifying nature protection, including those based on moral, aesthetic, and economic considerations. They asked for ecologists to look back to the historic roots of conservation for guidance.

The roots of biodiversity protection

In the early 1900s, when President Theodore Roosevelt was establishing national parks and wildlife refuges, ecology had not yet become a formalized science. People viewed the natural world from a largely aesthetic or utilitarian perspective.

John Muir, the Sierra Club founder who famously went camping with Roosevelt in California’s Yosemite National Park, worshipped nature. It was his church. “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” he wrote in his journals. Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman, venerated nature, too. But he also viewed it as a valuable “natural resource”—trees for timber, rivers for fishing, wildlife for hunting.

These two worldviews—valuing nature for itself and for human purposes—have long framed dual approaches to conservation.

By the 1930s, the chasm between the intrinsic and utilitarian perspectives was bridged by the forester Aldo Leopold. He advanced a more holistic perspective of the natural world, and believed that anyone who valued nature, irrespective of motive, should hold an ethic that “reflects an ecological conscience.” This was morally inscribed in his famous “land ethic,” which, for many, became a guiding maxim: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Two parallel developments at this time—one in the emerging science of ecology and the other in the U.S. wilderness preservation movement—combined with Leopold’s philosophy to shape attitudes toward nature and conservation for decades to come. Ecologists believed then that healthy ecosystems were closed, self-regulating, and in equilibrium. Disturbances, in the form of weather, fires, or migrating organisms, were not yet factored in, except when the disturbance was thought to be human-induced, in which case the prevailing belief was that the system was thrown off its normal balance.

This model of stable ecosystems that needed to be guarded against human disturbance (such logic, of course, meant that humans must exist outside nature), gave scientific impetus to the cause of wilderness preservation.

Most ecologists have since discarded the “balance of nature” paradigm. But as the environmental writer Emma Marris noted in her recent book Rambunctious Garden, “The notion of a stable, pristine wilderness as the ideal for every landscape is woven into the culture of ecology and conservation—especially in the United States.”

In a paper he is readying for publication, Kareiva writes that the balance-of-nature paradigm has been “at the core of most science-driven environmental policy for decades.” But the paradigm goes deeper than just the science. American attitudes towards nature have been strongly influenced by iconic authors, from Thoreau and Muir to Leopold and Edward Abby, the grizzled nature writer whose books celebrated the stark beauty and loneliness of Southwestern desert landscapes. Many people looking to commune with nature go in search of transcendent outdoor experiences; they venture into a human-free landscape—the wilderness—to experience what seems to be nature in its truest, purest state.

This mindset took on added ecological value when concerns about endangered species came to the fore in the 1960s and 1970s. Designated wilderness and national parks—be they forests, prairies, or wetlands—helped preserve habitat for imperiled species. The sanctuary model extended itself further when conservation biologists in the 1980s began identifying the significance of ecological processes and a wider community of plants and animals. This new strand of ecology-based conservation had one key tenet: genuine nature, the kind that contains biodiversity, is devoid of people.

These Western-style ideas of ecological conservation were exported by ecologists, environmentalists, and policymakers who pushed for the establishment of national parks and nature preserves in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It was the wilderness model of nature protection gone global. Yet numerous studies have shown that even as more parcels of land have been set aside around the world (equaling 10 to 15 percent of the earth’s land mass) global biodiversity in the protected areas continues to decline. How could that be?

In his 2009 book, Conservation Refugees, the investigative journalist Mark Dowie, who had been covering environmental issues for decades, reported: “About half the land selected for protection by the global conservation establishment over the past century was either occupied or regularly used by indigenous peoples.” Much as the loggers of the Pacific Northwest depended on the forests for their livelihoods, so had these local inhabitants depended on the now-protected lands to forage, hunt, or graze their livestock. The people were part of the ecosystem. Removing them had consequences.

In 2013, the International Journal of Biodiversity published a meta-review of national park case studies from Africa. It found that the creation of protected areas in African countries has resulted in the killing of wildlife “by local people as a way of protesting the approach.” There are other factors that have undermined the effectiveness of national parks in the developing world for protecting biodiversity, such as regional climate change and insufficient funding for oversight. But it is the “fortress conservation” aspect that has turned many people who had been living with nature into enemies of nature. As Dowie noted in his book, “some conservationists have learned from experience that national parks and protected areas surrounded by angry, hungry people…are generally doomed to fail.”

Embracing the Anthropocene

Last spring, Kareiva emailed me an intriguing paper that had just been published in Science. Researchers had sought to quantify the decline of species diversity in 100 localized, ecological communities across the world. Globally, there was no question, as the authors were careful to point out, that biodiversity was being lost. They had thus assumed that the global trend would be mirrored at the local level. “Contrary to our expectations, we did not detect systematic [diversity] loss,” the scientists wrote. What they found, instead, was much evidence of ecological change that altered the composition of species, but not its richness or diversity.

It’s the kind of result that many conservation biologists would probably find maddening. Kareiva, though, was fascinated by the implication. “Think about it,” he said. “If you live to be 50, one out of two species you saw in your back woodlot will have been swapped out for a different species—but the number of species would not have declined.”


  1. I’ve often thought much of the environmental movement and environmental education was based on pessimism. After all, “ya gotta do something” is more alarming gets a more passionate/fervent response then, “hey, things are pretty good.” And, “ya gotta do something” is far more likely to get scientists funded and attract donations to the environmental movement.

    As regards to comments about wilderness and indigenous species, people often forget (or, maybe, choose to forget?) the simple fact that humans have been in N. America for many thousands of years. Further, these people, like all people from the very beginnings of mankind, always have and always will manipulate their environment to better meet their needs. To say the Europeans found a pristine, virgin, wilderness in the New World is rather racist, inferring that the indigenous peoples were as dumb as a post. Since the Europeans found a human managed landscape, that draws into question; just what does virgin, pristine, wilderness, natural, etc. even mean? I’ve come to conclude these words are emotional at best and, at worst, so overused and mis-used as to become meaningless.

    Dr. Patrick Moore, a co-founder and long-time co-leader of Greenpeace, eventually left the movement when he came to understand that things weren’t quite as bad as he’d thought and that the movement had to quit hitting people over the head with a 2×4. Instead, they had to offer solutions, something the movement had not been offering.

    A statistician professor (can’t remember his name other than he was from Denmark) and an environmentalist took his students and set out to prove that the environmental ills of the world could be proven statistically. He failed and became something of a pariah to the environmental movement.

    • FWIW: From “Patrick Moore background information | Greenpeace International” (here)

      Patrick Moore Did Not Found Greenpeace
      Patrick Moore frequently portrays himself as a founder or co-founder of Greenpeace, and many news outlets have repeated this characterization. Although Mr. Moore played a significant role in Greenpeace Canada for several years, he did not found Greenpeace. Phil Cotes, Irving Stowe, and Jim Bohlen founded Greenpeace in 1970. Patrick Moore applied for a berth on the Phyllis Cormack in March, 1971 after the organization had already been in existence for a year. A copy of his application letter and Greenpeace’s response are available here (PDF).

      • Bjorn Lomborg was the heretic.
        As for Patrick Moore and whether he was or wasn’t in at the beginning of Greenpeace, maybe he was their fourth member? Pretty low number on his party card.

  2. One cannot seriously invoke confirmation bias, and simultaneously, the “soul” (sic) of conservation science while employing confirmation bias and overlooking the absence of soul in the world’s wealthiest conservation nonprofit. So this must be a joke, right? Because it seems the sordid profit takings and countless violations of the conservation ethic of TNC are precisely what is being overlooked here.

    The Washington Post certainly didn’t overlook TNC’s, hypocrisy, fraud, and theft when it reported TNC’s decision to DRILL natural gas on the same lands it received from Mobil Oil as a donation meant to be, according to the donor, “the last, best hope of saving one of the world’s most endangered species.”
    The Attwater’s prairie chicken.

    The jaw dropping tale is shocking to some and unworthy of note to others invoking the soul of a scientific discipline no less.

    In short: Not only did TNC, the ‘conservation nonprofit,’ settle out of court for $10,000,000 for violating the mineral rights of its legal owners, it utterly botched its professed intentions to conserve an endangered species in the pursuit of illegal profit taking in its last remaining habitat. The misrepresentation was not only attributed to its “conservation” claims. TNC thought “it would be a good idea” to send a frontman to make an offer on buying the rights for its neighbor’s gas at the same time it was stealing and profiting the gas through horizontal drilling.

    And I can’t overlook TNC’s Chief Scientist soulful use of the bully pulpit to take cheap-shot swipes at dead iconic figures of the environmental movement. Imagine: Karieva came all the way to Southeast Alaska to shamelessly denounce traditional conservation ethics in order to hawk TNC’s brand of conservation ethics: financialization of all the natural elements and processes of the public domain so that they can be owned, speculated and scammed in the deregulated derivatives trading markets in the name of conservation. (You think 2008’s credit default swaps’ popped housing bubble and the Great Recession was bad? Just wait for the multi-trillion dollar Carbon Bubble to explode.)

    Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that the WaPo article featured TNC in 1999 using a corporate front man to scam resources of unsuspecting victims back then, and is currently using Dr. Karieva as the corporate front man to shamelessly scam resources from unsuspecting victims presently.

    But I don’t think so.

    • The thing to remember is that “environmentalism” is risking its social license with its Natur, Nature Uber Alles mantra. Even the TNC people are figuring that out — probably because the lands they’ve grabbed do in fact carry a management responsibility. Getting desired conditions requires investment to pay people to do the hard flippin WORK it takes to keep land on the “desired trajectory.”

      • “Getting desired conditions requires investment to pay people to do the hard flippin WORK it takes to keep land on the “desired trajectory.”

        And that trajectory is Disaster Capitalism.
        The negative externalities of which are not working out so well for much of the US’ 99%, and especially not well for the billions of innocents in third world countries situated 20 degrees or so north or south of the equator.

        As for the 1% ‘s take on this, I quote the caption in a cartoon depicting a corporate board room setting featuring a speaker at the podium:
        “And so, while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportuities for profit.” (Mankoff)

        • So you think capitalism is a disaster?
          Seems the other isms don’t have that great of an eco-track-record….and in fact, the surplus generated by capitalism was the genesis for that other currently-popular ism.
          Thanks for clarifying your worldview.

  3. ““Contrary to our expectations, we did not detect systematic [diversity] loss,” the scientists wrote. What they found, instead, was much evidence of ecological change that altered the composition of species, but not its richness or diversity.

    It’s the kind of result that many conservation biologists would probably find maddening. Kareiva, though, was fascinated by the implication. “Think about it,” he said. “If you live to be 50, one out of two species you saw in your back woodlot will have been swapped out for a different species—but the number of species would not have declined.” “

    What many conservation biologists would find “maddening” is not the idea that various diversity indices (richness, evenness, whatever… there are several) might remain the same in various ecological communities, but rather the claim that a static diversity index is especially meaningful. Depending on which taxonomic groups you focus on, the species diversity of a landfill might be identical to that of a forest or prairie (maybe greater). So what? Swap out bluebirds for starlings, and monarchs for fire ants, the “number of species” won’t have declined. Again, so what?

    I’ve encountered Kareiva and his work over about three decades now (meetings, panels, whatever) and he’s a very smart and hard-working guy. Hard to talk to, because he seems to prefer listening to himself (just my experience, others may have had a different experience). He relishes being a guru and perceived iconoclast. His thoughts as described above fall very much within the Nature Conservancy party line, making it harder to discern where they are insightful, and where they might be only self-serving.

    • Both sides seem to embrace the species versus species trades. I subscribe to the idea that the more rare species, and their rare habitats, should be “worth” more than any burned landscape, no matter how “diverse”. The idea that incinerated nesting habitat is better than occupied nesting habitat, due to more “diversity” is quite flawed.

      The “Whatever Happens” strategy, supported by those “Deep Blue” ecologists is a plea to the public to embrace drought, bark beetles and wildfires. The public isn’t buying that mindset. Of course, the public needs more education to see which side is more believable.

    • Guy, about Kareiva, I could say what you say about Kareiva about many academics that I have spoken with…(present company excepted ;))

      Full of themselves
      Don’t listen to others with different perspectives
      Fall within the academic disciplinary party line. My observation is that academic party lines are no more noble than TNC’s… they are just harder for outsiders to observe.

      You are critiquing that he falls within the TNC party line but outside the conservation bio party line. Well, if you, like me, fall outside the disciplinary party line, you have to find a job somewhere…and it’s best to find an organization you generally agree with.. so I don’t see the problem.

      And so forth..

  4. I think part of the point of the article is to promote more dialogue. (or you can use it to attack the Nature Conservancy).
    The other day I searched on the web about “salvage logging” and all I found were sites that told you how terrible it was. Which isn’t the whole story.
    I happen to have a piece of forest ground that was logged several times. The last time was about 25 years ago by a logger who had the nickname, Glade the blade. This was because he logged with a cat and made a cat road to each stump. For the first 20 years the site was so brushy that it felt like you walking around in a jungle. Now the understory brush has died off and there is a nice stand of timber on the site, which is fairly diverse. It’s not that I am recommending this sort of logging practice, but that the resiliency of nature is truly amazing. I think this is part of the point, if we are careful in how we interact with nature in using natural resources, the sky will not fall. (If we cut down a tree over 20″ the sky won’t fall either).

  5. Tensions are often productive, and I think this dialogue between the “new” and “old” conservation is a very fruitful one. Conservation, like any other discipline, can sink into orthodoxy and dogma; new ideas are much-needed; and new ideas can bring their own orthodoxies and dogmas, too. So long as everyone’s arguing it out, good things should arise.

    In having that dialogue, though, it’s important to be careful about how ideas are defined and history remembered, though. One assumption that needs to be examined is whether the so-called old models of conservation have really been founded on a philosophical binary of pristine and despoiled nature. Most conservationists I’ve known have been much more pragmatic, and understood that there is a spectrum of human impacts, and have worked to limit those impacts in places outside national parks. They haven’t been driven by some sense that humans are separate from nature; if we were, we wouldn’t be a problem. Instead, we’re very much a part of nature, and thus need to be aware of how we affect lives other than our own.

    That said, conservation sensibilities are frequently too quick to assume that human impacts are bad, that change is bad, and to measure those changes according to static, somewhat arbitrary notions of what we’d like nature to be. (I’d also argue that this is mixed up with a cultural habit of wanting to control nature, to manage and tame its independence — a habit present in both old and new conservation alike.) Sustainable, ecologically sound development is absolutely something that deserves far more attention from conservation-minded people.

    But it’s also important not to let an appetite for happy, non-eco-apocalyptic narratives and new conservation alternatives turn into sloppy thinking. For example, the Science paper on biodiversity trends that Kareiva cites as putting a positive spin on Anthropocene nature. The study’s findings (in general, biodiversity in sampled locales has not declined in the last 40 years, but rather the species composition changed) is indeed intriguing — but as the authors themselves pointed out, it wasn’t inconsistent with massive global extinctions. And the findings could be framed in the context of others: that urban biodiversity is plummeting; that, diversity aside, animal populations are shrinking; and, in paleohistorical terms, previous mass extinctions may have been preceded by bursts of local diversity.

    In a similar vein, Kareiva has often talked about how the pre-Colonial Amazon was actually quite a developed place, as a way of showing that pristine-ness is illusory and Anthropocene development just the latest episode of human activity. But the preponderance of evidence shows that only a small part of the Amazon was developed, and researchers doing that work have said it shouldn’t be interpreted as supporting modern development, which has drastically different scale and effect.

    If anyone’s interested in reading more about this (and actually made it through this long comment!) I wrote about the debate for Aeon this past summer:

    I present that article with the caveat that, in retrospect, I don’t like labels — they might be necessary or useful, but there are certainly many people who identify as green modernists/new conservationists but don’t ascribe to positions described in the article. I also did Emma Marris a disservice in broad-brushing her as a green modernist who would turn nature into an object of utility. Her writing and reporting is much more nuanced than that (and also just very good) and anyone who hasn’t already should read Rambunctious Garden.

    One of my favorite parts of “Rambunctious” is a proscription for landscape management which layers uses along and atop each other, with ecology in mind. Elsewhere she’s described it thusly:

    “Protected areas like Yellowstone are not the wrong model, but a crucial part of an expanded model. Such strictly protected areas become anchors, with overlapping zones of various protection regimes and conservation goals radiating out from them, like petals from the center of a rose.”

    This seems like a great programmatic vision on which new and old conservationist impulses can alight. Likewise, George Monbiot’s superb Feral which lays out an ideological vision: respect wildness and stop micro-managing nature; turn to the ‘pristine’ for inspiration of what could exist; and love the life that arises.

    • Could you please speak about the apparent rift between conservation and preservation? Some of those “serial litigants” continue to push for a hands-off policy, nationwide. Other groups are clearly in the conservation camp, open to site specific science, compromise and some levels of active management.


      • Serial litigation upsets some people, and understandably so. Personally, I feel that a) It can be frustrating, but it’s playing by the rules. The system might need to be reformed, but it exists so that conflicting values can be articulated in just this way b) Often these are the only people trying to fully represent the interests of plants and animals affected by our actions, and that’s vitally important c) They’re also an useful countervailing force, and create a space in the middle where compromise is possible. Take the threat of litigation away, and our compromises become much crappier.

          • I got a good laugh out of that, and the Northwest Forest Plan must of been written by a bunch of stoned hippies. (no offense meant), and now these are the “rules”. Seems like it is much easier to put rules in place then it is to change them.

          • All “serial litigation” cases are brought under authority (“the rules”) of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) which was enacted in 1946.

            NEPA was passed in 1969, though signed on the first day of 1970.

            The ESA was indeed passed in “the 1970s” (1973), unanimously in the Senate and overwhelmingly in the House. I don’t know how many of those who wrote or voted for any of these bills were drunk at the time, but based on Dave’s authority, I would guess few to none.

            • Yes, Guy, drunk, or at least stupid.

              In a minor committee — passed bill sat in a file cabinet and was rushed to San Clemente for Nixon’s signature at the last possible second. That’s a screaming indictment of the care in which Congress conducted itself, which of course led to the Tellico litigation that laid out what the law really meant?
              Written by four guys in the House cafeteria, including a dude who was USFWS’s law enforcement muckety muck. Did you know after that guy croaked, an animal rights group named an award in his “honor?”
              E S A — Extremely Stupid Administration

          • Though drunk Congressmen may be preferable to sober….

            I won’t pretend to know exactly what’s going on in the mind of, say, the Barrow’s goldeneye ducks I watched feeding the other day. But it’s pretty evident that they want to live and reproduce and do the things one observes them do.

            The interests of trees are a different thing, granted. That shades more into value: does life have intrinsic value that’s worthy of respect?

        • Some of those rules are not good rules, especially when they are created by Judges. Rarely do people “represent” plants and animals equally, as well. A good counterbalance is willing to compromise for a greater good. That sure doesn’t fit all those “serial litigators”, who endeavor to eliminate all middle ground. In fact, some fear compromise, above all (Since such proposals always seem to be so reasonable to the general public).

          I’m still enjoying the interplay between the conservationists and the preservationists. The conflict is all a part of the process of people learning about the complexity of all the issues.

        • Brandon, “plants” themselves don’t have interests.. Say if you were a red maple, you might think chestnut blight was a good thing. If I were a manzanita, I might want to get rid of that old growth pine that was taking too many nutrients and blocking out my light. there are many individuals, many species and many communities. People have interests and espouse them. Even individuals, populations and the species as a whole can have different interests, whether of plants or animals, as we have discussed here before.. It’s a lot more complicated than Joe Litigator representing The Natural World.

          • Very true — the notion of plant interests is a pretty vague one, and certainly there would be many different interests depending on the individual and species and community. Maybe it’d be better to talk about values rather than interests.

            A little thought experiment I find indulging in (rather than getting back to work like I ought to….): Imagine a patch of forest. Now imagine that forest is cut down and replaced with … nothing. Just a flat expanse of pavement. Is something lost? Is it just our pleasure in the forest, or something more? Now imagine the forest had been completely empty of non-plant life; how does the equation look with the animals removed, or taking them into account too?

            Lots of interests and values going on there, and anyone who tries to speak for them ought to do so with lots of humility. But just because those interests are complicated doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to imagine and consider them.

            • Who stands up for the goshawks, when humans let man-caused wildfire to burn down its nesting habitat? Remember, not much lives in an overstocked and highly-flammable forest… for long.

              Is something lost when a forest is thinned to match annual precipitation levels? To restore a better species composition? To increase resilience to drought, bark beetles and wildfire?

              • Now those are some fun questions!

                On the matter of fire or disease, I’d say that we ought to consider what lives after the disturbance (i.e., those dead snags serve a purpose, and there’s a burst of life as seedlings grow and succession starts anew.) On drought … do we really know what’s most resilient, or should we let nature find its own level? And ‘better species composition’ means different things to different people … which isn’t a reason to get rid of it, but to examine the underlying motivations and assumptions.

                But those are not answers, just my $.02 on the perspectives I think a good discussion includes. And of course the interests under consideration must involve people, too, most of all those directly affected by decisions.

                • Blackbacked woodpeckers only use burned habitat for a maximum of 6 years. After that, it will take 100 years or more (or MUCH more), to re-establish that burned nesting habitat. Thinning projects have been shown to mitigate unavoidable human impacts. Doing nothing doesn’t mitigate any of those same impacts, even making drought, bark beetles and wildfires worse. Here in the Sierra Nevada, there are more highly-flammable white firs and incense cedars in our National Forests than any time in our recorded history. That is where “better” species compositions come into play. We cannot do that through preservationism. “Mother Nature” will surely “rebalance” such forests, in ways humans will not like.

            • Brandon… maybe I have been spending too much time in the first and second centuries, but people have been changing the environment since hunting/ gathering days.. then with pastoral life and then with agriculture.

              Is something lost if grasslands are converted to agriculture? Perhaps, but something is also gained. Otherwise, let’s rewild Indiana.

              Is something lost if grasslands are converted to houses.? Yes but something is gained (in the case of the Eastern Denver metro area, for example, houses that are cheap enough for people with everyday kinds of jobs to afford.

              So I am confused as to where and why you think the “no changes” approach should apply (of course, composition is going to change anyway due to climate change and other factors, but I think you know what I mean).

              • I’m not sure if I’d think of “no changes” (or, “no significant human-directed changes just for our own benefit”) as a hard-and-fast rule, but an useful principle to try and follow. And of course we’re not going to follow it absolutely, but just try to navigate with it in mind. Consider it a compass bearing.

                So in the case of grasslands converted to housing developments in East Denver — which I don’t know about in any detail, I’m just riffing hypothetically — I’d first ask, is this really the only or best way to provide working-class people with affordable housing?

                And maybe it is. In which case the principle is something to apply in how those developments are built and managed: in such a way, hopefully, that nature flourishes as much as possible. So keep the turf-and-ornamental, immaculate-but-lifeless landscaping to a minimum; respect the natural water flows; install secure waste receptacles, so ‘problem’ animals hungry for food we throw out don’t need to be killed; and so on.

                And while they’re at it, build some nice walking paths and picnic benches, so people who live there can more easily enjoy and come to love the grasslands where they’re so lucky to live.

    • I would argue that what your programmatic vision says (or Emma’s) is already occurring.

      I would argue that the management of the surrounding parks and forests to Yellowstone are already like that.. and the political inclinations of the various states play out in terms of diverse management approaches to management/conservation. If management and conservation are linked, then you need to understand the ideas of both to be able to do landscape scale conservation/management unless conservation is simply leaving things alone.

      Let me quote from a previous post here:

      This claim for superior legitimacy of biologists in policy is echoed by Soule’ (1993) who critiques the “bureaucrats, technocrats, planners, development specialists, lawyers and economists, whose views often determine how governments decide to manage wildlands and biodiversity, or if they should be managed at all.” He goes on to describe some of their good points, but criticizes their lack of biological knowledge, their comfort with the idea that science is a social construct, and their urban backgrounds. Certainly science is a social construct, as is nature. There is a paradox in that scientific information is useful but it is not reality, and science is a social enterprise conducted by humans with all the comedy and tragedy that that entails. Several paragraphs before, Soule acknowledges that the best policy is a mix of science, economics, anthropology, sociology, and local native knowledge, if it still exists. While some would say that social sciences are also sciences (and that makes one wonder exactly what Soule’s definition of a science is), in fact, there are fields such as policy analysis and decision science which are specifically about policy and decisions. Why do some of our most prominent biologists appear to be unwilling to grant scientific legitimacy to social scientists? Why are they unwilling to allow that good policy comes from teamwork from people with diff

      It’s funny but when I used to work with my law school faculty colleagues, they assumed that their academic conservation biology colleagues knew more about management/conservation of landscapes than I did, when I had both a relevant degree and years of practical experience, including writing and reviewing documents about environmental impacts.

      We would have conversations like: Professor S. “the new planning rule should incorporate the science of conservation biology” Me: “I think it does, which particular aspects are you interested in?” But if Professor S. went on to say “island biogeography” or whatever, I couldn’t really have the discussion with him as to whether the Rule incorporated that idea or not, or the arguments pro and con for the relevance of the concept. And it’s kind of funny to me that as important as everyone says “science” is, there are very few venues where a serious discussion can take place between a scientist who makes a claim and people who challenge that claim. So it’s more of a “drive-by”.. and so people get the dissonance between the Noble Idea “science or academia as places where all ideas can be discussed” and Reality “science or academia being the realm of a group of silverbacks attempting to maintain their power.”

      • Agreed that the multi-layered ideal of land management is already playing out. But I thought Marris described it exceptionally well — she took something that I was aware of in a general but fuzzy way, and stated it powerfully and in a manner that conveyed the power of thinking this way purposefully rather than by circumstance.

        Another thing I liked about “Rambunctious Garden” were the descriptions of nature’s somewhat unappreciated historical dynamism. I didn’t agree with every specific example — e.g., the idea that fire management by Native Americans played a significant role in pre-Colonial landscapes isn’t supported by paleoecological evidence — but it seems very true that many biologists, ecologists and other land managers have a static ideal of nature. In the east, for example, the peak successional forest is celebrated, but there’s less appreciation for the mosaic disturbance habitats (arising from disease, fire, etc.) that have long existed. So beaver trapping proceeds without any real appreciation of their wetland habitat-creating role, there’s little pressure to manage roadsides and utility corridors as the grasslands they could be, and so on.

        • Here in the Sierra Nevada, huge amounts of lands were burned on schedules with the many Indian tribes. Burning off the bearclover, as well as the brush species, opened up their lands to more grazers and more of other kinds of food. The flammable bearclover made it really easy for Indian experts to time their ignitions just right and to rotate their burning “plans”, from year to year. Some parts, near Yosemite, had up to 14 burns in the last 100 years, determined by fire scars.

          A very large chunk of the Oregon Coast Range was kept largely conifer-free, due to their burning Indian practices, and penchant for acorns, berries and deer.

          If you haven’t read any of Dr. Pyne’s writing, I would heartily suggest something from him. He has a particular literary style that is very appealing, and he seems to avoid politics, as well.

  6. These two comments are interesting, I’m not sure how much I can agree with either of them…

    Back in the day as I was getting my Ph.D., there wasn’t “conservation science” and “regular science”, there was just “science.”

    I’ve often thought much of the environmental movement and environmental education was based on pessimism.

    As long as I can remember, we’ve had, for example, “forest science” (coincidentally the name of a pretty good scientific journal), “agricultural science”, “medical science” etc. etc. They pretty much all deal with a spectrum from pragmatic/management to theoretical/fundamental; commonly we stick the somewhat arbitrary labels of “applied” and “basic” towards either end of the spectrum. Either they all qualify as “just science”, or none do. Incidentally, all or at least most of these fields have distinctly normative aspects, for example we generally believe (and direct our scientific efforts towards the belief) that growing crops to feed people is good, that controlling or preventing disease of plants and animals is good, etc. Some observers (e.g. Robert Lackey) have been confused on this point, as has been discussed here previously.

    Conservation science, or conservation biology, may be a fairly new name, but that doesn’t mean that its fundamentals are brand new. I’m thinking about this today, because our new semester starts tomorrow, and I’ll be teaching microbial ecology, another subject with a fairly recent name but a very long history, going back hundreds or even thousands of years. In the room will be environmental science students, agricultural science students, microbiology students, forestry and range students… It won’t be a pessimistic class, I’m pretty sure. In fact, I’m getting close to three decades on the university environmental science faculty (we’re an interdisciplinary group, most of us have specialty areas), and I’m having trouble thinking of good examples of what Dick Powell calls “pessimism” in environmental education. Most of what we do and teach is oriented towards understanding and, in most cases, trying to manage or ameliorate environmental concerns: e.g., biological pest management (my research), remediation of environmental pollutants like lead and cadmium in the Coeur d’Alene River and people’s wells, reducing agricultural and landfill GHG emissions, etc. These are real problems, and recognizing them and working on them is not pessimism. I guess Dick Powell is correct, when he notes that just saying “hey, things are pretty good” doesn’t carry much weight with people interested in solving problems. But the opposite of Pollyannism should not be confused with pessimism.

  7. I was actually rooting around after something I’d read in National Geographic, a futurist predicting that environmentalism would become a full-blown religion in the next couple of decades. Didn’t find that, but I found the essay leading to others, including Soule’ s 1985 paper that laid out the framework for conservation biology. I’m of the mind that CB and SCB are less science driven than they are an ideological construct, the ecocentrist worldview versus the anthros….
    Anyway, there was this other paper, Biodiversity at 25 Years, Revolution or Red Herring, Morar Toadvine and Bohannan.
    Don’t know any of these folks, but there were some interesting things written: Quoting Takacs:
    “Scientists who love the natural world forged the term biodiversity as a
    weapon to be wielded” in battles over biological resources (Takacs, 1996, p.3; cf. p.37).”
    And, “Secondly, despite the well-known fact that biodiversity was first introduced to the media and general public in order to influence political decisions about conservation practices, (see what I mean, blatant advocacy glossed over by “science”) no clear account has been offered of the relationship between biodiversity’s descriptive and normative aspects.”
    And — “Lastly, we suggest that biodiversity is only the most recent in a long line of scientific
    “proxies” promoted to the public as a basis for conservation values. Such proxies gain
    widespread popularity due to their veneer of empirical objectivity, which encourages the public
    and policy makers to believe that decisions made on their basis are value-neutral and free from
    any ideological commitments.”
    No kidding? Really?
    And defining biodiversity or making it applicable is subject to normative biases — citing Gaston and Spicer — ““both what you are measuring and how you are measuring it reveals something about what you most value” —
    Well, that explains it when you have the presence of large predators as the preferred, um, species richness, um, SURROGATE. Sheesh.
    But I’m happy to see this discussion and real papers being published — when values drive science, the science has no value. Lots of fields where that’s a real flipping PROBLEM, kids. Values should be expressed, sure, but don’t give me any guff about being objective as to the outcomes or policies.

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