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Cultural Lag: Public policy lags behind science regarding “invasion biology”

June 29, 2011

This is a good-news-bad-news story.  The good news is that the most successful environmental organization devoted to the preservation and conservation of wildlands, The Nature Conservancy, has announced its intention to reorder its priorities in what we hope will be a less destructive direction.  The Conservancy is a science-based environmental organization that is unique in that regard.  It employs over 600 scientists to guide and inform its projects, in contrast to many other organizations that employ more lawyers than scientists.  The scientific orientation of the Conservancy undoubtedly puts it in a position to reflect and respond to the increasingly loud voices of other scientists who are expressing concern about the costs and environmental damage that are the unintended consequences of the “restorations” which have evolved out of invasion biology.

The bad news is that public policy regarding native plant “restorations” lags far behind the developing scientific consensus regarding invasion biology, namely that original theories require revision.  This is the consequence of the cultural lag that is inevitable when science moves forward, but communication of its findings to the general public lags behind. 

The Nature Conservancy redefines its goals

In the past few months, the Chief Scientist of the Nature Conservancy, Peter Kareiva, has written several articles in the Conservancy’s publications expressing his views about the future of conservation.  In “Beyond Man vs Nature,”(1) Kareiva is quoted as saying that species preservation should not be the top priority of the Conservancy.  He admits he is “not a biodiversity guy.”  Rather, he says, “The ultimate goal [should] be better management of nature for human beings.”  He does not agree with those who claim that the earth is fragile and man must be excluded from nature in order to protect it.  He considers nature resilient.  He calls the concept of “biodiversity hot spots” sham science and he rejects the notion that conservation and development are mutually exclusive.  We wants conservation efforts to focus on the things that people need from nature such as clean water and clean air.  If and when people experience the benefits of conservation, they will support and participate in those efforts.  The Conservancy can’t save the world alone.  The active participation of the human population is required to achieve the Conservancy’s conservation goals. 

Golden Gate Park San Francisco. Most plants and trees in GG Park are not native. Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike

In “Conservation should be a walk in the park, not just in the woods,”(2) Kareiva says that the Conservancy should participate in more urban conservation projects because that’s where most people live and even more will live in the future.  He wants conservation to be more visible to people and he wants people to benefit directly from the projects.

In his most recent publication, “Invasive Species:  Guilty until proven innocent?” Kareiva acknowledges the debate about invasive species.  On the one hand, a few invasive species have done a great deal of harm, particularly on islands.  On the other hand, many invasive species aren’t doing any harm and some are benefitting native species, even endangered species in some cases (e.g., Southwestern Willow Flycatcher in Tamarisk).  He concludes, “Science-based conservation cannot be about knee-jerk platitudes and simple views of good and evil…the fact is we cannot control all invasive species, and in many cases, yesterday’s invaders have become plants and animals that are beloved by local people.” 

There is nothing scientifically new to us in what Kareiva has said recently.  What’s new is that he speaks as a representative of one of the most important environmental organizations in the world.  Therefore, he makes a connection between scientific theory and action.  That is new….very, very, new and very encouraging.

Public policy always lags behind science

Public policy is inherently conservative.  It usually reflects consensus and consensus occurs late in every scientific debate.  Once that consensus is finally reached, changing it is a slow process.  And so, we are not surprised by the most recent example of a local community continuing the crusade to eradicate non-native trees.  Two ordinances were recently passed in the Los Altos Hills on the San Francisco peninsula, to do just that. 

  • Citizens building or expanding buildings on their properties will be required by ordinance 10-2.802 to cut down all eucalypts within 150 feet of any roadway or structure.
  • “Town guidelines concerning restoration action” (5-8.08) “deems certain trees undesirable,” including Monterey pine and cypress, as well as eucalyptus.

We are heartened by the publication which announces these new policies.  The author objects to being dictated to regarding her tree preferences.   She also responds to the usual myths regarding the negative qualities of eucalyptus.  In response to the usual justification for its eradication, that it is not native, the author says, “Who cares?”  Indeed, who cares?  We certainly don’t care and we speculate that the vast majority of people in Los Altos Hills don’t care either.  When we speak up on behalf of our trees, we speed the process of changing public policy to reflect the considerable scientific evidence that non-native trees are not harming anything or anyone.   Indeed, their eradication is causing far more harm to the environment by releasing tons of sequestered carbon and requiring greater herbicide use.    


(1) Nature Conservancy, Spring 2011

(2) Nature Conservancy, Issue 2, 2011

One Comment leave one →
  1. Paula Fitzgerald, Natural Forest Advocates permalink
    July 2, 2011 12:37 pm

    This is great news! A series in the Washinton Post May 3-6, 2003 exposed many of the bad practices of the Nature Conservancy. Having read about Peter Kareiva sometime back we in Chicago were hopeful for change in that organization. It is a long time coming and most welcome.

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