Friday, February 15, 2008

How do you preserve nature in a world where nature is changing rapidly?

A long, probing article about how the U.S. natural preservation bureaucracy is responding to climate change, by Fiona Gow and M. Martin Smith, from the Sacramento News Review, via the High Country News Syndicate. This is just a few snips: ….Since the 1960s, the idea that natural preservation consists mostly of letting nature take its course—absent manmade environmental disturbance—has been doctrine among public parks bureaucrats, biologists, environmentalists, rangers and other members of the vast landscape of individuals and organizations involved in preserving America’s natural environment. When naturalists have intervened to save species, as in the 40-year struggle to save the bald eagle, their efforts have been driven by the goal of returning life to its wild state, so that a damaged ecosystem can tilt back into balance. For the most part, naturalists have not sought to save nature purely from itself. With global warming, however, this hands-off approach is rapidly becoming quaint and out-of-date.

As the planet grows hotter, and the consensus mounts that the temperature is not turning back down, there may be a lot less meaning in the idea of preserving “naturalness” than has been the case. After all, in the not-too-distant future, the state of nature will in many cases be something nobody’s ever seen.

So far, however, public-land managers have responded by doing almost nothing, according to a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the agency that evaluates federal programs.

By and large, the GAO says, officials who manage U.S. public lands have simply ignored a 2001 Department of the Interior directive ordering them to identify and protect resources that might be threatened by climate change.

This is no minor failure. An emerging scientific consensus says that unless the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, state fish and game departments and private environmental organizations redirect their missions to deal with climate change, they’ll oversee the advance of nationwide environmental catastrophe. The character of public wildlands will be drastically—and permanently—altered….

…Leigh Welling, the park service climate change coordinator, puts it a different way. “It’s a scary thought,” says Welling. “Managers are looking at their job and saying, ‘Oh geez, how do I do my job?’” Some naturalists have a one-word answer to that question: Differently.

Photo of a Coast redwood in Redwood National Park, from "Urban," Wikimedia Commons

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