True Nature: Revising Ideas On What is Pristine and Wild

I thought this was interesting, as it came across my screen right after our discussions of “ecological integrity” in the new planning rule. My hypothesis is that every twenty years or so the same “truths” are rediscovered..because the shifting and fragmenting nature of disciplines leaves scientists unfamiliar with previous thought on the same topic.

So here’s an article in Yale Environment 360. It fascinates me that this is reported as if Dan Botkin (yes, the same who spent time at Yale Forestry School) said much the same in his book Discordant Harmonies in 1992 (over 20 years ago). The use of the idea of “museum exhibit” reminded me of this paper by Connie Millar and Bill Libby in Fremontia in 1989, when they used the more colorful term “Disneyland”. Due to my disciplinary loyalty, the photo above is of Disneyland and not a museum.

Given the discussion we’ve just had about “ecological integrity,” here’s an interesting excerpt:

For instance, it calls into question the conventional view that ecosystems such as rainforests are complex machines, or super-organisms, that have emerged through a long process of co-evolution of species to fill ecological niches. But, if that is so, asks ecologist James Rosindell of Imperial College London, how come alien species are so good at invading other ecosystems, frequently becoming fully integrated neighbors?

Ecosystems begin to look a lot more accidental, random, and transient than niche theory would suggest. They are constantly being remade by fire and flood, disease, and the arrival of new species. They are a hodgepodge of native and alien species. This fits a rival model for how ecosystems work called “ecological fitting,” first articulated by the legendary U.S. ecologist Daniel Janzen of the University of Pennsylvania. He said that co-evolution is a bit-part player in ecosystems; most of the time, species muddle along and fit in as best they can.

Far from reaching some equilibrium state with niches filled, ecosystems have always been in a constant state of flux, says Stephen Jackson, of the Southwest Climate Science Center in Arizona, in Novel Ecosystems. “Change, including rapid and disruptive change, is a natural feature of the world.” Humans may have dramatically speeded that up, but novelty is the norm.

In that light, we need to look afresh at conservation priorities. Novel ecosystems cannot be dismissed as degraded versions of proper ecosystems, nor can alien species be demonized simply for not belonging. If novelty and change is the norm, Hobbs and colleagues ask, does it make sense for the growing business of ecosystem restoration to try and recreate static historic ecosystems? By doing that, you are not creating a functioning ecosystem; you are creating a museum exhibit that will require constant attention if it is to survive.

Gee, I said the same thing.. 😉 But of course those folks and I did not redefine “restoration.” Also, Pearce keeps using “virgin” inappropriately, in my view, as per my post in HCN here.

6 thoughts on “True Nature: Revising Ideas On What is Pristine and Wild”

  1. I sense we will forever differ on our notions of appropriateness.

    For instance, who could forget your referenced article’s title, ‘Face it: All forests are “sluts”‘ in that bewildering urge you have to demonstrate the “inappropriate”(ness) of the term “virgin” being attributed to old growth forests?

    Linguistically, forests as sluts,(aka “prostitute, whore; tart, floozy, tramp, hooker, hustler; scarlet woman, loose woman, hussy, trollop; harlot, strumpet, wanton) is by orders of magnitude, a far more linguistically inappropriate offense than your claim of “virgin forests.”

    At least “virgin,” by virtue of long standing custom, precedent and convention, (which is the whole basis of the establishment of common law) earned its meaning over centuries. As far as I know, your coinage of old growth forests as “sluts” only celebrated its first birthday last month.

    I’m compelled to respond to this deeply offending and poorly conceived and defended notion of “appropriateness” because I inhabit and directly benefit from virgin old growth temperate rainforest ecosystems of the Tongass National Forest and know for a fact that despite continuous human habitation over the last 10,000 years or so, structure and function of these forests has been maintained. That is, until the advent of the American government’s genocidal campaigns were consummated by the establishment of native corporation land managers. Equally problematic, were the several decades of unsustainable and wholly inappropriate “management” by your former employer (USFS) which wreaked unholy havoc in many areas now requiring “restoration and stewardship” in Southeast Alaska.

    While Hobbs and colleagues ask important questions about “restoration,” they seem to fail to understand the role of capitalism as the inherently unsustainable and the driving force of mismanagement in the destruction of ecosystem integrity. In other words, historically facile usage of the term “land management” can best be understood as a condition of either willful ignorance, or willful disregard of the maintenance of ecosystem integrity. (I suspect it is a combination of the two fueled by unmitigated and unwarranted hubris.)

    What is becoming clear over time, is the intense need to overlook your former agency’s role in causation of widespread devolution of “ecosystem integrity.” Regarding the claim, “Novel ecosystems cannot be dismissed as degraded versions of proper ecosystems.”, I would remind you that “proper ecosystems” is a far more problematic term than ecosystem integrity. Though the latter term is not a convenient one to pin down for regulators and land “managers,” that doesn’t mean “ecosystem integrity” is without meaning and context, for in the absence of ecosystem integrity, we are left with the quintessential euphemism of “novel ecosystems.”

    All in all, this post represents habitual abuse of not only language meaning and context (as in virgin vs. slut”, but the most basic realities of the failure to maintain ecosystem integrity as causation of ecosystem collapse — inexorably leading to “Novel ecosystems.”

  2. My sense is that this line of argument turns ecological science to mush leaving management unguided. Without any ecological guideposts, “anything goes.” The winners will be those who want to log more. They will say that whatever happens in the aftermath of logging is not good or bad, just different.

    I think there is more substance to the ecological sciences. We can distinguish between natural patterns, and the patterns created by humans. I think some patterns serve the public interest better than others. Ecology does offer guideposts allowing us to evaluate management activities.

    No mush for me, thanks.

    • Nope, YOUR ideas say to do nothing and accept “whatever happens” to our forests, regardless of impacts to both humans and wildlife. We seek to restore forests, with a definite ecological goal in mind. We deal with ecological realities, instead of ecological fantasies.

    • But Tree, these folks are ecologists. All they are saying is that there is no static state that we can return to. That is the science. Science, by its very nature is empirical and not normative (what is and not what should be). People in some scientific fields have sort of skipped over that.

      I think ecology has actually suffered by people stating that their management predilections are “science.” It obfuscates the values ..

      And in most cases, we can’t distinguish between “natural” patterns and those caused by humans. Because humans have been part of the planet for so long. Because humans influence climate and climate influences everything.

    • Tree: As a college-trained ecologist myself, I have to disagree with your assertion the “We can distinguish between natural patterns, and the patterns created by humans.” That has not been my experience, or even close. Most of the forest and wildlife ecologists that I’ve dealt with through the years cannot readily separate cultural (“human”) patterns on the landscape from their “nonhuman” associates and collaborators. To me, that is the biggest single failing of many of the ological practitioners — no real concept or understanding of human impacts in the environment over time, or any attendant ability to recognize and account for them. Curious: you say “we.” Are you also an ecologist?

  3. Human patterns on the landscape are easy to find, e.g., here, here, and here.

    What’s tricky is finding non-human, natural patterns still remaining. Suggestions?

    PS: Reminds me of the Mapleton lawsuit, circa early 1980s, involving clearcut logging of Oregon coastal mountains. Timber industry called an expert witness who testified that there wasn’t much difference between the different coastal watersheds he studied in regard to stream structure, large wood, and the like. On cross-examination, he acknowledged readily that he couldn’t find any uncut watersheds as a control.


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