Discordant Harmonies Excerpt

by Daniel B. Botkin

First published by Oxford University Press, NY in 1990

Excerpt from Postscript: a Guide To Action
Nature in the 21st Century: A Guide to Action.

Copyright © Daniel B. Botkin 1990 - 2009.  All Rights Reserved. Do not copy, circulate, or publish without the author’s or publisher’s consent.

Nature in the twenty-first century will be a nature that we make; the question is the degree to which this molding will be intentional or unintentional, desirable or undesirable.  What is the likely outcome of our modern role in nature?  We can envision several specific futures.  The worst, nature after a nuclear war, might be a nature like that of 2 billion years ago, a biosphere of only bacteria, which we would not want for ourselves.

A more likely future lies on the path that we have followed, in which we continue to treat natural history as a hobby not to be taken seriously and to deal with environmental problems after they have arisen using whatever tools and knowledge we happen to have with us at the moment, assuming that nature can be taken apart and repaired and put back together again, following a machine analogy.

A third future is one that we might achieve if we were to begin a massive effort today to make up for what we have not done in the past: to obtain the information, knowledge, and understanding to manage nature wisely and prudently.  To this end, we must set aside enough lands so that we have baselines from which to measure our actions and to conserve as much of the remaining biological diversity as possible.  We must train professionals and allocate large amounts of funds for the right kinds of research and management.

Even if we adopt the third approach, the changes that are taking place now and will continue to take place as the result of our past actions will lead to major dislocations in nature.  If the present projections of the global climatic models are realistic, the climate will change so rapidly, especially in northern latitudes, as to pose serious problems for the persistence of large areas of forests as well as for the present distribution of agricultural lands.  Projections suggest that forests may begin to experience significant changes in species composition within the next 20 or 30 years.  The rate of climatic change will exceed the natural rate of seed migration, and forests may not be able to regenerate.  A seedling of a species suited to the climate at the time of its planting may find itself in a climate too warm for the seeds it produces by the time it reaches maturity several decades in the future.  The severity of the problem is unknown at this time, but might exceed our ability to plant and maintain forests.  In this case, clearly, considerable research is necessary if we are to conserve the forests of the higher latitudes.

Global warming represents one of the extreme problems that will confront us during the next decades.  As many ecologists have warned in the past decade, acid rain; pollution of the oceans, fresh waters, air, and soils with toxic substances; reduction of ground waters; deforestation; and destruction of habitats, including those of most coastal areas will continue to threaten not only us, but all other organisms in spite of our best efforts.  We can expect only limited improvements in the next decades in many areas.  These large-scale problems make the approaches to conservation discussed in this book necessary.

Wilderness in the Twenty-first Century

Since there is no longer any part of the Earth that is untouched by our actions in some way, either directly or indirectly, there are no wildernesses in the sense of places completely unaffected by people.  But there are three kinds of natural areas that we must maintain in the future, two of which we can regard as wilderness and designate legally as protected wilderness areas: no-action wilderness, preagriculture wilderness, and conservation areas.  The first is an area untouched by direct human actions, no matter what happens.  This kind of wilderness is necessary for observation as a baseline from which scientists can measure the effects of human actions elsewhere;  it is an essential calibration of the dials we should set up to monitor the state of nature.  Such areas are also important because they will help in the maintenance of biological diversity.  Some of them may be pleasant for recreation, but some may not be, and some may become a nature never seen before.  As in Hutcheson Memorial Forest, this kind of wilderness might be occupied by introduced species and native species in novel combinations.

The second kind, preagricultural wilderness, is an area that has the appearance of landscape or seascape that most closely matches the ideal of wilderness as it has been thought about in recent decades.  In North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and other places in which the time of arrival of modern technological man is readily dated, the idea is to create natural areas that appear as they did when first viewed by the European explorers.  In the Americas, this would be the landscape of the seventeenth century.  It is necessary to choose a time period that has the desired appearance; if we do not, then we face the situation that I discussed for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which, from the end of the last ice age until the time of European colonization, passed from ice and tundra to spruce and jack pine forest.  If natural means simply before human intervention, then all these habitats could be claimed as natural, contrary to what people really mean and really want. What people want in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is the wilderness as seen by the voyageurs and a landscape that gives the feeling of being untouched by people.

The conservation area, the third type of natural region, is set aside to conserve biological diversity, either for a specific species--for example, the Kirtland's warbler--or for a kind of ecological community.  Because we have so altered the landscape and have allowed inadvertently only small patches of former habitats to remain, most of these areas require active intervention on our part if they are to persist.  For example, to manage the habitat of the Kirtland's warbler in a way that allows the species to survive, we must pay attention to the frequency of fires and increase or reduce the rate so that it best suits the needs of that species.  When and if climate changes through our actions, we might have to relocate the natural area for the warbler and learn how to persuade it to move as well.

It is important that we understand the distinctions among these three kinds of natural areas, each of which represents a different aspect of the older meanings attached to wilderness. Each is quite different from the others, and it is generally not going to be possible to manage the same area to be all three at once: truly undisturbed, appearing as in a presettlement landscape, and functioning to conserve endangered species or biological diversity.  Under the old perspective on nature, one could assume that all three goals would be accomplished in any area simply by removing all human actions.  Each kind of natural area must be a certain (and generally as yet) undetermined size to be viable.  For example, Kirtland's warbler conservation areas must be large enough to support the breeding territories of hundreds of males.

The smaller the size of a conservation area, the more diverse and more intense must be our actions.  The amount of intervention required increases as the size of any specific preserve decreases.1 The smallest area is simply a zoo within which we provide all the necessities and remove all the wastes for the forms of life that we maintain there.  At the opposite extreme is nature before technological civilization, where vast areas unaffected by human beings existed.  The amount of effort required to maintain a preserve of any size depends also on the characteristics of the species found there, including life history characteristics such as size and longevity.  As a general rule, large and longer-lived organisms require large habitats.  Tsavo, which is the biggest national park mentioned in this book, was not extensive enough to function as an independent preserve for the African elephant without active intervention by people.  Of the examples discussed in this book, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is perhaps the area that could persist with the least direct human action.  The largest mammal within the Boundary Waters is the moose, which is much smaller and shorter-lived than the elephant.  (A moose weighs about 1,000 pounds and lives for about 17 years; elephants weigh as much as 6 tons and can live for 60 years.)   The number of actions required of us will increase as our global impacts create more indirect effects on natural areas, and therefore our actions will have to increase in the future.  This is especially true if global warming takes places in the next century.

To maintain wilderness areas in the future will require that we develop means to make these lands secure from undesirable  uses.  As resources become limited and the human population continues to grow, there will be increasing pressure on natural areas for the extracting of timber, harvesting of wildlife, and mining of minerals.  As an example, the poaching of elephants, a crisis whose countermeasures required so much effort when Tsavo National Park was established, remains a serious problem.   Elephant populations are undergoing a severe decline because poaching has continued widely, and it is unclear whether the African elephant will be able to survive in the wild in the twenty-first century unless new approaches are found for their security.  Elsewhere, as resources such as firewood and valuable furniture timber become scare, there will be more and more pressure for people to simply take them from an area even if it was set aside as a preserve.  How to ensure that large natural areas are physically secure is an issue that has received very little attention and is not a simple problem.  A nature preserve surrounded by police with weapons seems to violate the idea of the preserve and to require funds that would seem impossible to obtain.

1This point is made in L. B. Slobodkin, D. B. Botkin, B. Maguire, Jr., B. Moore III, and H. J. Morowitz, "On the Epistemology of Ecosystem Analysis," in Estuarine Perspectives, ed. V. S. Kennedy (New York: Academic Press, 1980).

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