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The future of conservation

Eric Biber, professor of law | November 4, 2014

Earlier this year I wrote critically about a New York Times op-ed that proposed making the restrictions on development in wilderness areas more flexible in order to allow for adaptation to climate change.

This week the Times published what I think is a much more helpful op-ed on the topic of how we should address the challenges of climate change’s impacts on the protection, preservation, and conservation of protected areas and endangered species and ecosystems. The authors note that the growing human dominance of the planet – of which climate change is only one example – poses serious challenges to our traditional vision of conservation as protecting “pristine” nature that was present “before humans.” There were, of course, serious problems with that vision to begin with – but climate change arguably makes using historic baselines as the measure of what it means to conserve natural areas much, much more difficult.

The question is what to do instead? Do we stay hands-off even as ecosystems change in response to climate change? Do we seek to take active efforts to help resist climate change – like watering giant sequoias that are threatened by warming climates and changing precipitation patterns? Or do we seek to help facilitate the transition to a new normal, for instance by assisting the migration of species to new habitat that is more suitable in a hotter world?

The op-ed authors’ answer is – I think sensibly – all of the above. In some places facilitation of adaptation will make the most sense; in others resistance; in others a hands-off approach. Facilitation of adaptation might make sense in areas heavily disturbed by human activity. Resistance might make sense in areas where we have natural resources whose location in a particular place matters much to us for cultural or economic reasons (think sequoias in Yosemite), or where there are few palatable options for adaptation to a future location (think a restricted range species with few options for migration). The authors suggest that in designated wilderness areas, a hands-off approach makes the most sense, a position that I generally agree with.

But the op-ed authors have left a more fundamental question to be answered.

What, exactly, are we managing for if historical baselines are less and less appropriate for our conservation goals? Whatever our management choices are – facilitation, resistance, or hands-off – we still need to have a sense of what we are trying to achieve with each of them, and also when we might want to resort to one or the other in a particular context.

That is a hard question. But it is a question that we have to answer to help make the law and policy of protected areas and endangered species management function in the next century.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comment to “The future of conservation

  1. Prof. Biber, the IPCC has just issued the gravest warning to the future of our civilization that we have ever received.

    One of the greatest reality checks that will determine whether this warning will be acted upon successfully was discussed by Chancellor Dirks in the Summer 2013 issue of CALIFORNIAMAG, “Administering Change”:

    “— I’ve actually been thinking about the question of purity because of reading Richard Hofstadter’s [1963 book] Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.… He talked about how academics characterized themselves as pure. And he noted that one of the reasons, perhaps, why there were so few public intellectuals of note in America is not just because America is anti-intellectual—which of course it is—but also because so many intellectuals don’t want to take on the sort of complications and impurities that come with being public.”

    The theory, he says, resonated with him, in no small part because as an administrator his relationship with some faculty is complicated by his needing to “speak in a very different way about some of the issues in the world.… And I also have to be mindful of the current challenges to higher education, which don’t allow complacency. So purity goes along with complacency, in a way, and also goes along with a certain willful ignorance of the political and economic conditions that surround them.”

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