Fortunately for everyone this will be my last post on the concept of “Ecological Integrity”as described in the NFMA Rule. Perhaps unfortunately, not my last post on the planning directives. Other guest posts on the directives are welcome. Wading through the directives was a lonely business, and thanks much to the others on this blog who suffered and shared.
So let’s return to the definition in the regulation of “ecological integrity”:
“The quality or condition of an ecosystem when its dominant ecological characteristics (for example, composition, structure, function, connectivity, and species composition and diversity) occur within the natural range of variation and can withstand and recover from most perturbations imposed by natural environmental dynamics or human influence.”
We have discussed the first part in previous posts, here, here and here… now let’s look at after the “and”:
“can withstand and recover from most perturbations imposed by natural environmental dynamics or human influence.”
Well, that sounds like a good idea. But what “can withstand and recover”? It appears to be the “dominant ecological characteristics” composition, structure and function, species composition and diversity”. That sounds like “everything you can possibly think of.” So everything would have to go back to being the same as it was prior to “most” perturbations. And how is that?
Natural range of variation (NRV). Spatial and temporal variation in ecosystem characteristics under historic disturbance regimes during a reference period. The reference period considered should be sufficiently long to include the full range of variation produced by dominant natural disturbance regimes, often several centuries, for such disturbances as fire and flooding and should also include short-term variation and cycles in climate. “Natural range of variation” (NRV) is a term used synonymously with historic range of variation or range of natural variation. The NRV is a tool for assessing ecological integrity, and does not necessarily constitute a management target or desired condition. The NRV can help identify key structural, functional, compositional, and connectivity characteristics, for which plan components may be important for either maintenance or restoration of such ecological conditions.
But how do we know if something (er.. everything) will “withstand and recover from “most” perturbations?” Who gets to decide what “most” is?
While I thought that the 2000 rule was a full employment program for fire ecologists and historic vegetation ecologists.. this sounds like a full employment program for lawyers and modelers, as well as the fire ecologists and historic vegetation ecologists. I wonder who was sitting around the table or on the phone when this rule was developed, and if there is some correlation between the disciplines of those folks and the disciplines advantaged by this language ;)?
If we agree that climate change is unprecedented, then with climate change, the past cannot be a predictor of the future.. so we don’t really have any information, not do we have any predictive capability other than modeling. Of course, our climate models are not particularly accurate at the scales we are interested in, and humans are constantly not doing what we assumed they would do when we ran the scenarios in the models.
But for me, all this is a distraction from dealing with real environmental problems of today (dirt in streams, invasive species) and acknowledging that time’s arrow only goes one way. Yet this rule and its directives have us spending time digging up the past (sorry, Bob) and modeling the unmodelable. We simply have no clue about the future at the detail required in this rule.
Before climate change, we used to hear a lot the paraphrase of Haldane “ecosystems are more complex than we think, they are more complex than we can think,” with the sense that we needed to preserve species. Which is fine. But if in fact they are that complex, then what are we doing depending on models over observations today in a regulation?
It’s clear that it is not really about “science”. I like to go back to Michael O’Connell’s warning of 1999 in his testimony here (my italics).
Ecosystems are more complex than we think. There are many complexities at all levels of biological organization that cannot be measured, perceived, or even conceived of, that directly affect the viability of conservation solutions. Science can never provide all the answers to questions about conservation, so the response should be to exercise both caution and prudence when designing answers. Wise solutions don’t necessarily try to compensate for factors that cannot be defined, but at the same time they leave room for them. A good example of this is true adaptive management, where the results of ongoing monitoring are used to adjust the conservation program based on new information and changes in circumstance.
Nature is full of surprises. Ecological systems are characterized by non-linear, non-equilibrium and often seemingly random dynamics. Both unexpected events and unanticipated consequences affect the long term viability of any conservation solution. This uncertainty is a given, and its runs directly counter to the political, social and economic desire for predictability in the outcome of conservation plans. It is better to be forthright in acknowledging that the issue of “no surprises” is not a scientific question of predicting the future, but instead a social question of how to deal with those surprises.
Conservation planning is interdisciplinary, but science is the foundation. Creating a long-term solution for species and the ecosystems on which they depend is a complicated exercise in reconciling social, political, legal, economic and biological factors. But if science must be one of several competing interests in the negotiation instead of the method of evaluating how to reach specified objectives, then conservation outcomes will always be undermined. This raises the critical issue of how to integrate both scientific information and scientists themselves into the planning process.
So let’s take a real world example.. say a ski area. Does having an area suitable for skiing “promote ecological integrity” ? Well, a ski area would be outside the RNV, so that’s out, so we don’t have to go to perturbation. So are we expecting that the next White River Plan revision will be litigated for having ski area suitability and thereby not promoting integrity?
So let’s move on to resilience.. say the climate is warming and drying. You want to thin some ponderosa pine trees so they have enough water to stay healthy and do some fuel reduction. A lower basal area (than in the past historical period you picked for NRV) would be better in terms of resilience to “perturbations” . But as far as the historians tell you, that is not in NRV. So the two requirements for “ecological integrity”, NRV and resilience, could actually be in conflict. (aside: picking a reference period can’t really be “scientific” so this idea of NRV seems like “science” but isn’t really). As in you can have one or the other, but not both.
My question is “are we way overthinking this?” WTH is this doing in a regulation and thereafter in the court system?
Here’s what Mike Dombeck said: just plain English and inspiring. Have we changed so much since he said this? Here’s the link, the whole thing is worth a read.
My expectation is that everything we do—every environmental impact statement we write, every timber sale, recreation plan, mining plan, or allotment management plan we approve—will not compromise the health of the land. I want to make it very clear that no Forest Service program has dominance over another. Timber is not more important than wildlife and fisheries. Nor is wildlife and fisheries more important than timber or recreation, or cultural resources, and so on.
So what happened between Mike’s term and now? Have we really changed this intention (no one is more important than the other), or are we so wrapped around the axle of fuzzy words that we can’t even tell what we mean? Are we adrift in a sea of legal hooks?