A Once and Future Conservation: Business as Usual, Interrupted

Photo by TheTurducken | CC BY 2.0

Throughout recent decades, many in the forest and wildlife conservation communities have organized around concerns over the adverse effects of business-as-usual in the logging industry. Grappling with these concerns has become business-as-usual for many in the conservation community. It’s becoming increasingly clear that neither of the business-as-usual models is likely to meet widely stated goals for desired future condition of forests.

I’ve long sympathized with conservationists’ business-as-usual concerns about logging, and still do. After all, they’ve been all-too-frequently justified, and all-too-frequently still are. There’s still good and necessary work to be done in this context. I stand by the men and women doing that work.

That said, along with continuing concerns about logging, I’ve increasingly come around to a view that forests and wildlife are now far less threatened by logging than by the consequences of our fossil-fuel economy. This may nowhere be more true than the dry interior western United States.

In this part of the world, there’s been increasing evidence that rising levels of greenhouse gases, principally CO2, are already sowing heat and drought enough to transform this semi-arid region’s forests. The options include transformation even to a landscape without trees, or to a less dense, savanna-like forest of the same species, or to a “novel” forest composed of species unlike the familiar forest of today.

The stakes are high, will only be getting higher at temperatures climb higher, and the risks extend well beyond rare and already-threatened plants and animals. Given evidence I’ll consider here, we are all being forced to reconsider the future of even common, widespread species such as lodgepole pine and the mule deer. 

As the West goes dry

A new book, Climate Change and Rocky Mountain Ecosystems, 2018, J.E. Halofsky, D.L. Peterson (eds.), brings some useful perspective for evaluating the new situation. More specifically for the region from Yellowstone to Glacier National Parks, Chapter Five of the new book, “Effects of Climate Change on Forest Vegetation in the Northern Rockies”, needs special mention. 

The very first sentence of Chapter Five’s abstract lays out the critical changes in clear terms. “Increasing air temperature, through its influence on soil moisture, is expected to cause gradual changes in the abundance and distribution of tree, shrub, and grass species throughout the Northern Rockies, with drought tolerant species becoming more competitive.”

This one sentence says a mouthful. Its described path from heat to drought takes us straight into the realm where drought tolerance will be critical to hope for the likes of grasses, shrubs, trees — and animal life associated with them. 

The Nevada Department of Wildlife, for example, has found that, “Droughts are especially difficult on mule deer and their associated habitats,” and that “ the impacts of drought on Nevada’s mule deer have been significant.”

Obviously enough, drought does no favors for any wild species, in any part of the world. Elephants, leopards, tigers are known to take hits from drought and North America’s bears are clearly not immune.

Periodic drought has long been bad news to life on earth. The worse news is that we can expect more of it, including its expansion across a wider expanse of the land base. For example, in 2006, the Journal of Hydrometeorology published findings that “ … the proportion of the land surface in extreme drought is predicted to increase from 1% for the present day to 30% by the end of the twenty-first century.”

This modeled prediction of expanding drought has been variously confirmed by observed real-world trends since then. For example, a 2018 study found that the drylands of the interior western US have expanded eastward, and by 140 miles.

This is gritty stuff, and not without implications. In fact, drought predicts the health and death of animals, first through its direct effect on the productivity and quality of animal habitat, with a subsequent indirect bottom-up effect on animals’ physical health and risk of mortality. In drought, food can be very scarce, which forces animals to sprawl out more widely in search for a bite to eat, only to get in trouble when their sprawl collides head-on with a sprawling human condition.

In this collision, animals including bears can die as the ecosystem wilts.

For the conservation community, the take-home message is that conservation strategy that doesn’t account for drought is conservation with its head in the sand. The recently released Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy seems a prime example. I ran a search of the 300+ page document for drought, and got no results. Zero. Evidently, the d-word is too explosive for this government to mention even in some passing reference. 

As the West heats up

Just as wildlife and forest conservationists can’t duck drought, we can’t avoid the reality that we’ve already passed through some important thresholds of heat, and that ecosystems will be taking hits from more and more of it. 

Heat has consequences for species and ecosystems. By 2002, an article in Nature reported that, “Although we are only at an early stage in the projected trends of global warming, ecological responses to recent climate change are already clearly visible”

By 2004, Global Environmental Change could publish findings that, ”Between 1C and 2C increases in global mean temperatures most species, ecosystems and landscapes will be impacted and adaptive capacity will become limited.

By 2006, it was already too late to halt the heat at .06C above the pre-fossil fuel era. In that year, biologist Camille Parmesan’s review of over 800 reports focused exclusively on wild species and ecosystems found that a third of species had already felt the effects of “recent, relatively mild climate change (global average warming of 0.6 C).” 

Within a few years, it was already too late to halt the heat at 0.7C, and then too late to halt it at 0.85C. As of 2018, it’s already too late to halt the heat at 1C, and it’s not going to stop climbing. Instead, species and ecosystems are likely to take hits from increasing heat for at least the next 30 years.

By 2016, an article in Earth’s Future could report that “… the historically hottest summers would become the norm for more than half of the world’s population within 20 years.”

In 2017, the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Association published findings that the record-breaking heat of  2015 “ will be the new normal by 2040.”

Since then, the assorted sciences gathered under the banner of climate science have reported that it will be extremely difficult to halt the heat at 2C, let alone 1.5. And in May, 2018, an article in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences cited evidence that, if the world economy continues on it’s business-as-usual dependency on burning fossil fuels, we’re on course to the 4C scenario.

That study was no outlier, no weird departure from the rest of reports on a future of increasing heat. In 2017, other scientists were already saying, ”Our study indicates that if emissions follow a commonly used business-as-usual scenario, there is a 93 percent chance that global warming will exceed 4 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.”

If we let it our carbon dumping force heat to 4C, very much is very, very screwed. 

In September of 2017, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interviewed Clive Hamilton, an experienced observer of climate science. According to Hamilton, ”No one wanted to pay attention to the implications of a world four degrees warmer… Then a few scientists said let’s have a conference and actually talk about it. …. It was then that I would buttonhole a couple of scientists and say: ‘Well, you know we’re speculating about this. But what do you really think is the situation?’ And one of them just looked at me and said: ‘We’re f–ked.'”

As more and more people begin to get their heads around the urgency of our climate crisis, the odds of avoiding 4C will likely improve. The bottom line here is that saving forests and wildlife requires — yes, requires — actual effort aimed at saving the atmosphere. 

This new responsibility for conservation would keep wild habitats and species out of the fire but, sad to say, it won’t keep them out the frying pan. Even if the world does halt the heat short of 4C, a lot will remain at risk at 3, or even 2.

Truth is, just as drought predicts the health and death of animals, so does heat. “  … organisms have a physiological response to temperature, and these responses have important consequences …. biological rates and times (e.g. metabolic rate, growth, reproduction, mortality and activity) vary with temperature.”

As with drought, conservation strategy that doesn’t account for heat is conservation with its head in the sand. And again, the recently released Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy is a prime example. In running a search of its 300+ pages, I found only three pages that make reference to temperature, and those few references left a lot unsaid about the risk grizzlies will be facing in an increasingly hotter world.

Some conservationist are beginning to shift gears

Noting that “Climate Change may undermine the effectiveness of current efforts to conserve wildlife and ecosystems”, a 2018 Wildlife Conservation Society report cites “examples of how conservationists are strategically altering their approaches to keep pace with climate change.”

WCS biologists say “Our hope is that this report will help conservationists learn how to move beyond business-as-usual conservation approaches and make their work climate informed.” 

They spell out a basic necessity for moving beyond business-as-usual conservation. “The first step is to consult the latest science on observed and projected climate impacts.”

The need for conservationists to get ready for change was identified three years earlier, in 2015. Writing for Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Paul R. Arnsworth  et al asked “Are conservation organizations configured for effective adaptation to global change? They opened their discussion by saying, “Conservation organizations must adapt to respond to the ecological impacts of global change.” 

Amen to that. Global warming’s effect on climate is and for a long time will be forcing increasingly extensive change not just on trees but also on soils, grasses, shrubs, and the lives of wild animals. 

These changes are and will be adding up to impact far in excess of anything logging could do in its wildest dreams of deregulation and subsidy. There is plausibly no better illustration of this sobering reality than in Figure 5 and Table 1 of  Rocky Mountain Forests at Risk. 

Where’s the hope? 

There’s serious potential of heartbreak, despair and even a sinking feeling of hopelessness for conservationists who’ve devoted a career to saving familiar forests and wildlife from the excesses of logging, only to come face-to-face with losing them to the excesses of a fossil fuels economy. In a conversation with a wildlife biologist about this, he said if we level with people about the dangers of the climate situation, they’ll see it as a hopeless cause, throw their arms up in despair and walk away. 

That’s a real risk. But there it is, and the bitterest pill takes form in the scenario of losses it’s already too late to stop, because of future heat that’s coming down the pipeline in the next few decades. When hotter and drier conditions are already forcing change on Rocky Mountain forests at only 1 Celsius above the fossil fuels era, there’s increasingly little reason to expect that upping the heat to 2 or 3C won’t endanger a lot of what we love.

And again —and it’s well worth emphasizing — there is plausibly no better illustration of the tensions between hope and hopelessness than in Figure 5 and Table 1 of  Rocky Mountain Forests at Risk. Among other things, that graphic illustrates the importance of latitude. For example, Glacier National Park is a higher latitude than Yellowstone, which raises hope that it will take less damaging hits to fir, pine, spruce — and the animal life associated with them. 

Looked at another way, Yellowstone is at a higher latitude than points south, where the loss of familiar conifers is set to be even greater than for Yellowstone. IPCC’s 2007 report made that point pretty well. ”For widespread species such as lodgepole pine, a 3C temperature increase would increase growth in the northern part of its range, decrease growth in the middle, and decimate southern forests.” 

One take home message is relatively simple. As with real estate, hope for the the survival of species and systems is increasingly going to be partly a matter of location, location, location. 

But there’s another, equally simple message that needs to be taken into account. Hope will also rest partly on traits of the species involved, and species differ in their tolerance for drought. This difference in species’ traits will be playing an increasingly decisive role in deciding the winners and losers that our fossil fuel economy and its creation of climate change will force on the Northern Rockies ecosystem. 

It’s worth repeating that key sentence from a new book’s chapter five, “Increasing air temperature, through its influence on soil moisture, is expected to cause gradual changes in the abundance and distribution of tree, shrub, and grass species throughout the Northern Rockies, with drought tolerant species becoming more competitive.”

This scenario carries a third simple message. Drought tolerant species might make it, but others will face higher risk of defeat — even with conservationists’ very best business-as-usual attempts to save them from logging.

This potentially discouraging scenario can be enough to thrust a conservation-minded individual — or group — into denial. Why? It may happen for reasons as simple and mundane as wanting to do what we know, and resist change. Or, as psychoanalyst Rene Lertzman suggests, “Might we unconsciously deny what is staring us in the face because what is at stake is too painful to consider?” 

Alternatively, where denial yields to acceptance, the result doesn’t have to be enlightenment. Acceptance of painful new realities can, as my biologist friend worried, usher us into a feeling of hopelessness. 

What do we know about hopelessness? Barbara Betz wrote in the May 1968 issue of International Journal of Psychiatry, “Hopelessness is often derived from unfulfillable, rather than from merely unfulfilled, desires and wishes focused on impossible aims.” Anna Freud, the savvy psychologist daughter of famed father Sigmund Freud, put it succintly; In our dreams we can have our eggs cooked exactly how we want them, but we can’t eat them.

Hopelessness doesn’t have to be a dead end. In her 1968 article, Betz pointed out that the feeling of hopeless “diminishes with the development of capability to change aim.” She added the counterpart to hopelessness “is not just ‘hope’ but enthusiasm and zest.”

Is this the right time to change the aim of business-as-usual conservation?

In his popular tune, The Gambler, Kenny Rogers says “Ya gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” 

The question of when shows up four times in that chorus, and it’s critical to the hopes we can hold in a world that favors the persistence of drought tolerant ecosystems — at the expense of ecosystems close to our hearts’ desires. Is it time to walk away from forests and wildlife we hold dear, and devote our time and efforts to species that have a chance in a hotter, drier Northern Rockies region?

In 2007, Nature published “What to let go,” by Emma Marris. “Triage” Marris wrote, “is a dirty word in some conservation circles, but,” she reminds us, “conservationists have long had to make decisions about what to save.” Amen.

“As more and more admit it,” she adds, “open discussion about how the decisions are best made — by concentrating on particular species, or particular places, or absolute costs, or any other criterion — becomes possible.”

Given what we know about the importance of drought tolerance and latitude, Marris’ references to “particular species” and “particular places” seem particularly apropos.

“Whichever criteria come into play,” Marris reminds us, “one thing remains constant. The decisions have to be made quickly.” I’d only add that these decisions should have been made years ago, but that normal human resistance to change has kept the brakes applied.

 Aiming for a forest of drought tolerant trees

Picking my way through the Montana State Nursery’s catalog, I found four trees specifically described as drought tolerant, one of them “very drought tolerant.” Juniper was one of them, and it’s a familiar tree on many dry sites.

Big toothed maple and prairie poplar, according to the state nursery, usually establish themselves along waterways but, once established, tolerate drought pretty well. These two trees may thus have some potential for persistence of riparian systems important to many plant and animal species.

The fourth tree was bur oak, and what the state nursery said about that tree got my attention more than any of the others. While the others are capable of providing shade that will be increasingly valuable to many species as heat firms its grip, and shade cast on streams could grant added value to the prairie poplar and big toothed maple, the bur oak was for me a standout.

The nursery describes bur oak as “very drought tolerant.” Equally striking, it describes characteristics recognized for the whitebark pine. Just as the  pine periodically casts off cones with nuts providing food for bird, squirrel, and bear, the oak periodically casts off acorns. Birds and small mammals pounce on his periodic plenty, and bears have been known to pull down bur oak branches to eat acorns directly from the tree when they and other beneficiaries have already gobbled up the goodies fallen on the ground.

Business-as-usual conservation in the Northern Rockies has long been organized around the familiar fir, spruce, and pine ecosystems. These are the systems we know and love and, for many, perpetuating these forest is the desired future. A forest of juniper, prairie poplar, big toothed maple and bur oak would clearly be a novel forest and, for some conservationists, a heresy. 

And yet, for at least some others, including me, a novel forest would just as clearly be preferable to no forest at all. Getting from here to there will plainly require departure from business as usual. Given the latitude of the Yellowstone region, the National Forests around the Park seem a reasonable enough place to start, so I’ve been pestering the Custer-Gallatin Forest to at least start thinking and talking out loud about it.

This will require a shift from the Forest Service business-as-usual approach of managing for ecosystems’ desired future conditions. The need for this shift was strongly underscored in no less a journal than Forest Ecology and Management. 

An article there by S.W. Golladay et al makes a forceful case for shifting our aims away desired future conditions, and aiming instead for achievable future conditions; “We contend that traditional approaches to forest conservation and management will be inadequate given the predicted scale of social-economic and biophysical changes in the 21st century. New approaches … are urgently needed … These approaches acknowledge that change is inevitable and sometimes irreversible, and that maintenance of ecosystem services depends in part on novel ecosystems, i.e., species combinations with no analog in the past.”

This is a slightly edited version of a column previously published in Mountain Journal

Lance Olsen, a Montana native, was president of the Missoula, Montana-based Great Bear Foundation from 1982-1992. He has also served on the governing council of the Montana Wilderness Association and the advisory council of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. He was previously a college teacher and associate of the American Psychological Association and its Division on Population and Environmental Psychology, and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. Now retired, he runs a restricted listserv of global scope for climate researchers, wildlife researchers, agency staff, graduate students, and NGOs concerned about the consequences of a changing climate. He can be contacted at lancolsn@gmail.com