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Authenticity: A modern definition of wilderness

October 9, 2012

Conservation biology is being revised so rapidly that we are struggling to keep up with it.  In our previous post, we introduced our readers to Professor Scott Carroll’s proposal that a more realistic approach to conservation would accommodate non-native species because they are often better adapted to present conditions than their native predecessors.  He calls his approach Conciliation Biology.

Today, we are introducing our readers to another proposal to redefine wilderness to a new standard which acknowledges that the environment has been radically altered by man.  The author of this proposal is Nigel Dudley, a practicing British conservationist.  He calls his new standard “authenticity,” which he defines as follows:

“An authentic ecosystem is a resilient ecosystem with the level of biodiversity and range of ecological interactions that can be predicted as a result of the combination of historic, geographic and climatic conditions in a particular location.”*

Let’s focus for a moment on this portion of that definition:  “…historic, geographic and climatic conditions in a particular location.”  Mr. Dudley explains this particular parameter of his definition of authenticity:  “…some ecosystems have unusually high levels of diversity…through being isolated or undisturbed for exceptionally long periods.  Other ecosystems have already been hugely changed and in some cases impoverished…it will not always be possible either to recover lost elements or to remove additions.  What an ecosystem is likely to contain in the future needs to be based on current realities…”   

Clearly places like the Berkeley Meadow are not candidates for “authenticity.”  This particular native plant museum was the former garbage dump for the city of Berkeley, built on landfill.  This seems an extreme example of denial of current realities.

The Berkeley Meadow, a 72-acre fenced pen for native plants on the former city garbage dump

Choosing candidates for authenticity

Dudley’s point in proposing this new standard is to focus conservation efforts where they are most likely to be fruitful.  Our interest in this new standard is in the stark contrast it provides to the local projects which fail by every measure introduced by Mr. Dudley in his book about authenticity.

  • Natural species composition:  Virtually all predators and grazing animals are gone from the urbanized San Francisco Bay Area.  San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program claims to have designated only “remnants of native vegetation” as natural areas.  In fact, vegetation cover in the 1,105 acres of natural areas is on average only 46% native.  Some of the 31 natural areas are populated by as little as 11% native vegetation.
  • Migrant composition:  Some bird migrations are intact, but others have been changed by existing vegetation such as the tall, non-native trees of which there were few in the native landscape.  Migrations of ungulates are long gone.
  • Invasive species:  Non-native plants and trees outnumber native species throughout the Bay Area.
  • Chemical composition:  Air, water, and soil composition are vastly different than they were 200 years ago.
  • Functioning food web:  The food web has been radically altered by the loss of top predators and ungulates and cannot be recreated in a densely populated urban environment.  Bears may be welcome in the zoo, but are not wandering our streets looking for their next meal.
  • Functioning ecological processes:    Funneling most creeks into underground culverts is an example of a lost ecological process in the urban environment.
  • Regeneration process:  Fire is a regeneration process that is lost in the urban environment.  Prescribed burns are allowed by some managers of public land in the Bay Area, but San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program has reluctantly agreed not to conduct prescribed burns.
  • Resilience:  Although the original goal of San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program was that once “restored” the natural areas would be self-sustaining, fifteen years later, NAP concedes that on-going maintenance will be required to sustain the natural areas.  Dudley says, “Ideally, authentic ecosystems should also be self-sustaining:  they should not need constant and often expensive manipulation to maintain their values.”  Clearly, the “natural areas” in San Francisco’s parks do not meet this criterion for authenticity.
  • Area:  Most of the restoration projects in the Bay Area are too small to be sustainable.  The average size of San Francisco’s 31 natural areas is only 35 acres.  The smallest is only one-third of an acre.  Size is a proxy for the ability to isolate a restored site from repeated re-invasion.  The natural areas are small and are surrounded by non-native vegetation which will quickly return.
  • Connectivity:  Virtually every restoration project in urbanized Bay Area is physically isolated.

It may be possible to compensate for these bad odds of a sustainable, authentic restoration project in the urbanized San Francisco Bay Area.  If so, it will be extremely costly, which is undoubtedly why most projects have not been successful.  The National Park Service has had some success with its projects because they seem to have greater resources than other managers of public land.  But is this the top priority of taxpayers?  As the presidential election season heats up and the debate rages about raising taxes and cutting federal spending, one wonders why these projects are not in the budget-cutting cross-hairs.

Looking on the bright side

Grey squirrel. Creative Commons

We make every effort to end each story with a positive outlook.  In this case, we turn to Mr. Dudley to remind our readers that the environment is not necessarily destroyed by the mere existence of non-native species.  Being British, he uses British examples to make his point.  The North American grey squirrel is considered an invasive species in Britain and the native red squirrel is now rare.  While the British are not happy about the loss of their native squirrel, Mr. Dudley reminds them that the non-native grey squirrel is performing the same ecological functions as its native predecessor.  There is apparently no evidence that the environment has been harmed by this substitution.

We don’t like change.  But is change actually doing any harm?  If not, let’s accept it, because fighting against it is costly and probably futile.  That is the definition of wisdom:  that we accept what we cannot change.

************************

*Nigel Dudley, Authenticity in Nature. Earthscan, 2011

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