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Conservation in a rapidly changing world

Novel environments inspire new challenges and approaches

Fall/Winter 2013 | By Meghan Lepisto

“The Earth is faster now.”

This is how Inuit elder Mabel Toolie described the environmental changes she had witnessed over 90 years on her native Alaskan island, as recounted in a 2002 book by the same name. From the rapid melting of Arctic ice to record deforestation in the tropics, the world is riding an unprecedented trajectory of change.

A recent review of scientific literature suggests that the rate of climate change over the next century will likely be at least ten times faster than any climate shift recorded in the past 65 million years. This pace and scale of global change extends beyond warming to population growth, expanding land use and resource demands, and transformations in the world economy. By 2050, Earth’s human population is expected to reach 9.6 billion, with global food demand predicted to double.

conservation boundary sign
Through the years, conservation has balanced two
ideals: the protection of land for use by humans and
the preservation of untouched wilderness, free from
development. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers/Flickr

“There’s no going back,” says Nelson Institute Director Paul Robbins. “Today has to be about going forward in a changed environment.”

The prospect of a future environment different from anything we have known carries colossal implications not only for ecosystems and their inhabitants, but also for those charged with conserving these spaces and species. In a future that will require addressing and creating new environments, not just preserving past ones, what does conservation look like? And what must be added to the toolkits of conservation practitioners to help them – and environments – not only adapt but prosper?

Changing nature

Through the years, conservation has balanced two ideals: the protection of land for use by humans and the preservation of untouched wilderness, free from development.

Today, though, pure untouched wilderness is almost an endangered species. Human influence on the planet has grown so significant that some scientists have advanced a new term, “the Anthropocene” – from anthropos, Greek for human – to mark a new geological period reflecting our profound impact on the Earth.  

“The field of conservation has changed pretty profoundly over time, even in my career,” says Richard Beilfuss, president and CEO of the International Crane Foundation and an alumnus of the Nelson Institute (M.S. Water Resources Management ‘90, Ph.D. Land Resources ‘02). 

“Forty years ago, the great prize was to gain protected status for an area, and a lot of conservation thinking focused on establishing boundaries around important places,” he continues. “Over the years we’ve come to understand that protecting an area in isolation is not enough; we must also secure the surrounding watershed and address landscape-scale challenges such as conservation-friendly livelihoods or invasive species. We are focused on a much bigger picture now.” 

Modern conservation, Beilfuss says, must be pursued within the context of the broader landscape and changing environmental conditions. For example, today the water systems that feed protected areas are often diverted to cities, or there are no corridors for the migration of species among protected areas. 

In Africa, where the International Crane Foundation leads many conservation efforts, rapid population growth has led to swift changes in the way the landscape is inhabited. Traditional subsistence agricultural practices across scattered villages have become incompatible with wildlife, Beilfuss says, and in general wildlife are no longer found across the landscape the way they were just 20 or 30 years ago. 

“With that comes a tremendous need for rethinking land use,” he says. “It’s a big challenge to try to find community-friendly, conservation-friendly solutions in those kinds of settings, because of that change.” 

“There’s no way
we can somehow
wall off areas from
the scale of changes
that are happening.”
-Professor Bill Cronon

In general, trying to understand the drivers of environmental change and how to deal with them requires a refined approach. “Changes have become more subtle and more difficult to define,” Beilfuss explains. “Now we are trying to get our minds around what climate change means for conservation, for example.” 

In a changed climate, lands that have been set aside for protection may become less hospitable for the species they were designed to secure. But these grand-scale changes shouldn’t replace concern over some of the more immediate drivers of habitat loss and degradation, Beilfuss advises, such as poor land or water use or a hasty drive to use resources for economic growth. 

In East Asia and Africa, he and his International Crane Foundation colleagues have seen climate change almost become a national scapegoat, being blamed for an area’s degradation when in fact bad water management or large-scale development – with tens of thousands of acres of wetlands and grasslands lost annually – are largely the culprit. 

“Climate change is an enormous challenge and we need to be aware of its implications,” he explains. “But we can’t get so overwhelmed by such big drivers that we lose sight of what we’re losing right now, through actions we can control. There are good things we can do even in the broader context of climate change.” 

Biodiversity without borders 

As conservation expands in complexity, so does its range of problem-solving approaches. 

“I think one of the things that’s most exciting in this change in our thinking about conservation is to allow us to be creative and to look for places where we see bounties of biodiversity,” the Nelson Institute’s Paul Robbins said in September on the public radio show Science Friday, during a broadcast about saving wild places in the Anthropocene. 

Robbins studies biodiversity in agricultural settings in southern India – one of the most densely populated places in the world. Within a variety of managed landscapes, such as coffee and rubber plantations, he and colleagues have seen hundreds of species of animals, birds and reptiles adapt and thrive. 

“These are areas thousands of square miles that are crafted by humanity and they are producing wildlife that you don’t find in adjacent areas,” Robbins said on the show. “Wildlife is thriving in places that aren’t a wilderness at all.” 

In the last 30 years, according to Robbins, the number of protected areas around the world has tripled, but the average size of those areas is about half as large as before. 

“We’re setting aside more and more small areas that are heavily influenced by people and they’re not necessarily wildernesses,” he told listeners. “Embracing that probably is a very practical way of thinking about biodiversity protection.” 

Bill Cronon, the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies, was also a guest on the program. “No matter how large the units of land that we mark out as wilderness, they are on a planet that is increasingly altered by human activities,” he said. “There’s no way we can somehow wall off those areas from the scale of changes that are happening.” 

For example, Cronon points to the research of UW-Madison colleague Don Waller, a professor of botany and environmental studies who is resurveying more than 300 of the same Wisconsin forest communities that UW botanist John Curtis studied in the 1940s and 50s. 

Waller found that the sites where plant diversity has declined the most are three state parks – areas that were formally protected. This ironic and initially counterintuitive finding may be explained by the fact that these parks excluded deer hunting for decades, he believes. As deer populations increased, plant diversity decreased. 

Ramanella trangularis
Wildlife is thriving in places that aren’t a wilderness
at all, such as coffee and rubber plantations in
southern India, says Nelson Institute Director Paul
Robbins. Photo: Shashank Dalvi/Krithi Karanth/CWS

Human dimensions 

That working landscapes can produce biodiversity and protect species is an example of how the conservation community has had to become much more adept at recognizing the role of people in conservation, be it indigenous communities who are part of the landscape, landowners around protected areas, people living on the land, or those earning their living from the land, such as farmers or foresters. 

“The human element has just become enormous whether you’re talking about protected areas, public areas or private areas – the distinction has almost become irrelevant because in any situation you’re dealing with very strong human dimensions,” Beilfuss says. 

Arlyne Johnson, a Nelson Institute alumna and honorary fellow, agrees that conservation must now be seen through a broader lens. 

“I think traditionally in conservation we’ve tended to be biologists and focus largely on the health of species and ecosystems, which is certainly still very important,” says Johnson (M.S. Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development ‘93, Ph.D. Land Resources ‘00). “But I see today that there’s equal emphasis on being able to effectively design and coordinate programs that also are capable of identifying and addressing the social and human dimensions affecting biodiversity conservation.” 


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