Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ponderings on Conservation

A series of recent events and two blog posts by my friend Gerry Ellis (see
got me thinking.  So tonight, I put these thoughts in writing.

Gerry, I am so glad that you are calling attention to the importance of habitat as well as the wonderful animals that live there.  Saving habitat does seem like a "no-brainer", but apparently, that is not always the case.  I have met plenty of people who don’t understand the most basic of ecological principles, in part, because they tuned out science at a very young age.  For these people, the charismatic mega-fauna are especially important so as to tug at heart strings and some inner DNA sequence deep within our cells that still connects us to that which is wild.

I am relatively new to the conservation circles, but admit to being most surprised that some who are not new to the field don’t seem to grasp this fundamental principle of habitat either.  I find myself sitting through too many meetings where the focus is on developing conservation models and strategies using fancy software or the time is spent arguing about what should be the best indicator species for forest health, climate change impacts, or a measure of success of the conservation outcomes.  For the work I am involved with, it is often a bird species.  That makes sense; we know about the canary-in-the-coal-mine sensitivity of birds.  But sometimes the mega-fauna icon of interest is a game species (i.e. of economic/recreation importance).  I guess that makes sense.  Unlike many neotropical migrant songbirds, however, I suspect that the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) and the omnipresent white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are quite good at adapting to most anything we humans inflict on them.  (Interestingly though, the microscopic infectious proteins-gone-wild known as prions can bring down herds of deer causing Chronic Wasting Disease otherwise known in the scientific world as transmissible spongiform encephalopathy.)

For the stretch of the Appalachian Mountains where I work, the habitat is forest – the mixed deciduous woodlands that represent the southernmost reach of some northern species and the northward expanding boundary of some southern varieties.  Do these people not see the proverbial forest through the trees?  A satellite image of forest cover does not tell you if the stand is healthy.  It doesn’t tell you if this truly represents a priority parcel to target for a conservation easement.  It tells you if there is tree cover.  A simple walk through the woods tells a very different story -- a tale of the damage caused by decades of acid deposition, gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) outbreaks (and the rapidly approaching Emerald Ash Borer or Agrilus planipennis ), unsustainable deer populations that have destroyed all the understory, except where invasive Japanese exotic shrubs are rapidly filling in the bare spaces.  And climate change “adaptation” is creating a remix of species – both in terms of habitat and inhabitants.

In many cases, those constructing the models haven’t actually walked the ridge they are trying to protect.  I am reminded of your recent post entitled “Conservation – Eventually It Must All Be Local”.  How true.  Computer models have their role (I have spent many years doing either protein or climate change modeling), but in conservation, it cannot be in isolation from "boots on the ground" assessments.  How else will we truly know the state of the habitat with its ever important soil type and structure, primary producers, and the truly unglamorous decomposers?

I had a series of emails this week from a resident of the mountain and self-taught ecologist expressing concerns about some “restoration” work that is happening on a stretch of the mountain that sadly, is part of a Superfund site.  The “experts” (not local) seem to have forgotten some basic ecological principles but that is another long story for another time.  But to make matters worse, they are disturbing a rather large stretch along the Appalachian Trail to access the site that will undergo restoration.  So to reiterate:  New habitat fragmentation along an important hiking trail that runs through a unique scrub habitat/native savannah to do some reforestation work at a neighboring site where there is no topsoil, vegetation, or decomposers, but a lot of heavy metal contamination.  Right.  No-brainer.  They have now created an ATV trail on the AT.

But here are the words of the resident that provided a spark of hope for the future of the conservation work along the ridge:

 "I am not a butterflier, real birder, or botanist, but I do love this mountain...No matter what the long range plan for the plant community is though certainly I would not like it to be known as "the road most taken" anything other than foot.”

Yes, indeed.  All conservation should really be local.


  1. So glad you are writing - and cannot ask anything more of my words/thoughts than to inspire more - thanks!

    1. Gerry, your work, your words, and your photos are inspiring. The Great Ape Diaries project will indeed be a part of my fall Conservation Biology Seminar.