A Brave New World of Restoration

Restoration ecology has always held a sort of sweet spot in my heart. It’s like the applied science of ecology, where we can test our understanding of how ecosystems function and thrive by trying to create one, which is a pretty cool idea in my opinion. For decades this has been synonymous with removing non-native species, re-introducing locally extinct species, and generally rebuilding a lost community. The argument has always run that the natural way, the way nature had constructed itself before humans screwed things up, was the best way, which would support biodiversity and result in the healthiest ecosystem. Well a recent conflict over a San Francisco forest rife with invasive eucalyptus is calling this much beloved and heavily defended paradigm into question.

A news article in the latest issue of Nature reports on the controversy, which surrounds the Mount Sutro forest that sits in the heart of the Bay City. The forest, which is comprised largely of the invasive blue gum eucalyptus along with Monterey cypress and pine, is the target of the University of California San Francisco’s management effort which aims to eradicate the invasive eucalyptus. The plan is looking to free up some canopy space, allowing increased sunlight to the forest, which would both encourage larger tree growth and bolster local brush and flower populations. According to the University consultants, doing so would help the forest better address its pest issues and provide additional foraging space for the local great horned owls.

The problem with this plan, which seems fairly foolproof on paper, is the public. The forest has been in place and populated by the invasive blue gum since it was first planted in the 1880s by Mayor Adolph Sutro. Since then, it has been loved and enjoyed by a number of generations who are now highly skeptical of this restoration effort and quite vocal about that skepticism. They are quite attached to this wild forest at the heart of their city and are not keen on seeing it managed in the name of science.

 Now the ecologist in me instinctively rebels at the idea of listening to an emotional public in matters of conservation. It’s a lot like hunting deer on wildlife refuges, where locals claim it’s just an excuse to hunt on protected lands, when in fact without it deer populations would expand beyond the habitat’s carrying capacity and you would end up with an enormous population starving to death from exhausted resources. Then you get a whole new set of angry phone calls. That was my first thought when I read this article: mild annoyance with a public that doesn’t understand ecology. But that’s not necessarily the case here.

There is a new, subtle trend in restoration research finding that ecosystems don’t necessarily need to return to natural states to be healthy. A number of studies have found that nature is dealing with human encroachment and thriving. As the Nature article points out, new findings show that non-native tree species in Australia provide habitat for threatened cuckoos and North American northern Goshawks are managing to set up shop in forests used for timber farming as opposed to the rarer old-growth forests previously thought necessary. These are only two examples of studies which are showing how restoration work can be done with damaged or altered ecosystems in ways that don’t require actual restoration. Instead, new dynamics can be established and nurtured within the new habitat that still encourage biodiversity and support valuable species.

This is a pretty radical idea, though it may not seem like it, and it is being met with a lot of opposition in ecology. But the prospect of not having to attempt recreating an already destroyed ecosystem means a lot of time saved, time which can now be applied to working within the new environmental confines to create a stable environment. In many situations, including this example in San Francisco, re-establishing previous conditions is damn near impossible and would eat up a lot of resources towards a potentially unattainable end. A lot of work needs to be done to understand how these altered conditions can be worked with in the context of conservation, but it’s a pretty exciting possibility.

I suppose it’s really not all that surprising. Jeff Goldblum said it back in 1993, “Life will find a way.” Just give it a little time.

Original Article: http://www.nature.com/news/forest-management-plans-in-a-tangle-1.13672



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