Jonathan Nathaniel Hayes
A critical review of Implications of Current Ecological Thinking for Biodiversity Conservation: a review of the Salient Issues
September 13, 2014
It was with great interest that I read the article under consideration in this review. Having seen the application of a “hands-off” approach to conservation in my professional career- and feeling that it was failing the ecology of the forest in which I served- it was heartening to see that the practices I had witnessed were based on antiquated practices.
The article does a great job at bringing the “equilibrium ecosystem” model into question. It does little, however to clearly present an applicable alternative in its “non-equilibrium” paradigm. To paraphrase, it seems to be saying, “The old model is wrong. We don’t have a viable replacement, but it is wrong.” It seems the researchers had understood this themselves as they repeatedly stressed that one of their primary purposes was to stir up a meaningful conversation in the scientific community. It is important to bring the old paradigm into critical review, but without showing a solid replacement model or scientific consensus (which is where I feel the paper failed) it runs the risk of making ecology seem irrelevant. It is truly stated that ecology is “a science in transition.” But the direction of that transition should, as the article suggests, be more clearly defined.
Swinging from an “equilibrium based ecology” to a “non-equilibrium based ecology” is an extreme pendulum swing- or as we’d say in the south- “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” By modifying and expanding the old paradigm to include, succession, compositional, transitional, and disturbance regimens, we would come to a cyclic paradigm that is broader and more variable, but still testable and- ultimately- somewhat predictable. A great illustration for the article thesis was that of “distribution regimens” (such as naturally occurring wildfires)- which are often integral to regional ecology- being prohibited by ecosystem fragmentation. In such cases, merely allowing “nature to take its course” or preventing all disturbances (like wildfires) means that the cyclic ecology of the region cannot, on its own, sustain itself.
The notion of a “static equilibrium” may have been prevalent at some point in history, but the prevailing notion over the past several decades seems to be that of a balanced but gradually evolving ecology in any environment. Disturbances, fragmentation, species arrivals and deletions and management are all part of the evolution of a regional ecology. I’ll conclude by sharing an observation from my professional experience. I had come to the conclusion that the “hands-off” approach to conservation management was faulty while working as a ranger for the Maine Forest Service and as well as a ranger in Baxter State Park. The article states very well that “Simply giving legal protection to conservation area does not guarantee that the systems within it will remain as they are currently.” Baxter State Park is a prime example of the paper’s assertion. Governor Percival Baxter began piecing the nearly 30,000 acre park together from the 1930’s to the 1960‘s. The land had been clearcut by timber companies prior to sale, in order to eek out any possible remaining revenues. Applying the old ecological paradigm, Governor Baxter mandated that it be left to itself- to restore itself. Now, more than 70 years later, the land is in an awkward adolescent stage of succession. It is still too thick and brushy for many of the larger fauna that used to call it home and the flora that now dominates the forest are not those that will ultimately dominate the “mature forest.”
It is my belief that active management, rather than “merely giving legal protection to conservation areas…,” would have assisted in establishing species in Baxter State Park that struggle and-in the case of the woodland caribou- died out. Many of these species would find even the current ecological condition of this protected land uninhabitable.