Leaf Litter

Expert Q&A: Emma Marris

Find out what water-related work gets this internationally acclaimed ecological designer excited.

By Amy Nelson

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Emma Marris is freelance writer who covers the environment, evolution, energy, agriculture, food, language, books and film. Her work has appeared in Conservation, Wired, Nature Medicine, OnEarth Magazine, and Nature, where she worked as a staffer for several years.

Published earlier this year, Emma’s first book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post Wild-World, is already generating buzz-and not just among ecologists.

In the book, Emma proposes a radical shift in the way we define nature, and thus in the way we approach conservation. Rather than cling to what she deems an antiquated notion of nature as pristine wilderness, she encourages us to embrace a new vision of nature-one that includes novel ecosystems. According to Emma, this paradigm shift has already begun, and it will change the future of conservation. After all, she argues, “as humans change every centimeter of Earth, our strategies for saving nature must change as well.

Emma arrived at this conclusion based on her experience reporting on conservation and ecology for nearly a decade and embarking on such adventures as Dutch safaris with Nazi-bred cattle, treks deep into “totally non-native, totally wild” jungles of Hawaii, close encounters with European bison, and a kayak tour through the hidden river at the heart of Seattle.

Emma is currently writing an undergraduate textbook on environmental science. She holds a Master’s in Science Writing from the Johns Hopkins University and a firm belief that our planet is a strange, beautiful and totally humanized place.

Where do you think invasive species and novel ecosystems fall on the radar screens of mainstream Americans?

I tend to break the American public into two groups. One is the green-interested laypeople. They are hyper aware of exotic species, but the concept of novel ecosystems has not really broadened out to that audience yet.

As for the non-green public, I think there is at least a peripheral awareness of things like kudzu and zebra mussels, but there is zero percent chance they’ve heard of novel ecosystems.

Do you think awareness is any higher in other places around the world?

My guess is that as far as novel ecosystems as a concept, with that “brand” name attached to it, probably no. There’s a chance that it’s slightly better known in Australia, in part because Richard Hobbs, one of the biggest champions of novel ecosystems, is an Australian researcher. But I’d guess that even in Australia it’s a fairly new concept. Invasive species, however, are hugely understood in Australia (probably more so than here), because they are so much a part of every day life in dealing with the environment there.

In places like Europe, I don’t think people care as much [about non-native species and novel ecosystems], because they don’t have the same obsession with pristineness and purity that the Americo-Australian-Pacific Island group does.

In your book Rambunctious Garden, you propose a new way of thinking about nature, and thus conservation. Before we go deeply into this new vision, I think it’s important to talk about the past: the evolution of the conservation movement and the way people regard native/non-native species and the idea of novel ecosystems. Tell me about some of the common misperceptions regarding some of America’s iconic figures in conservation, such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir.

The chapter about the history of these ideas was by far the most difficult for me to write. As any historian will tell you, history is complex, contradictory and multi-faceted. I had a lot of simplistic ideas going into the research. I thought that people like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt-the ‘grandfathers’ of conservation-would all be in the mode of worshipping pristine wilderness and not wanting any human activity in the wilderness. But it’s more complicated than that.

The original transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau, almost predate that obsession with nature devoid of humans. They talk a lot about wild places, but also about pastoral landscapes like orchards and commons. Those human-managed places help one transcend place and time just as effectively as wild spaces. So there wasn’t this insistence [on their part][you can take out brackets if you like] on places unchanged by humanity.

I expected John Muir to be a total purist in this regard. In his writings, he says that the only way to appreciate nature is to go alone into the wilderness with no baggage. Yet he thought it was important that roads to national parks be built because he was very interested in getting people out to experience the parks. He felt that certain human uses on these landscapes were okay while others weren’t. It was okay to build a cabin and maybe do some small scale mining and deforestation for your own use, but it wasn’t okay to run sheep in the Sierras. He had a much more nuanced view than we sometimes remember.

My sense is that the pinnacle of demand for an untouched and human-free nature actually came in the 1970s and 1980s with people like Edward Abbey and Dave Foreman. (Dave Foreman doesn’t agree with me. He thinks that his focus on wilderness doesn’t require it to be empty of people and that the term “wilderness” was partly used as an effective policy lever to get areas protected.)

It’s a lot more complicated than one would like when trying to write a snappy chapter about the history of the idea of pristine wilderness. The end result of all of this has been the creation of this pervasive, very deeply held notion that nature is “places with no people in them,” and if you change nature with the tip of your finger, it’s no longer nature.

The creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 is regarded as a conservation milestone, yet you are very critical of the Yellowstone model for conservation. You acknowledge the power of parks and protected as a “valuable weapon in our arsenal” yet you caution, “…even good weapons can misfire, causing collateral damage and casualties by friendly fire.” How so?

Yellowstone is a fantastic place, and I’m really glad that we have it. I still think that protected areas are great, and we certainly need them for goals such as large carnivore conservation. I think most people would agree, however, that the Yellowstone model has had collateral damage. Over the decades, there have been a lot of people kicked off their land so that it could be made into a pristine park with no people in it. That is an idea getting in the way of compassion and, in a lot of senses, common sense. As Mark Dowie points out in his book Conservation Refugees, we chose certain places to make into parks because they were in very good shape. It doesn’t make sense to kick off the people who were keeping them in good shape. These people were much more effective stewards of their own land than we had been of ours.

My main beef with theYellowstonemodel is that it’s so powerful that we lose the ability to see other options. For conservationists, making huge parks is clearly not the only approach. But for a lot of regular people, that’s what they think of when they think of conservation and nature. So if they don’t have access to a big national park, they feel that they are not capable of interacting with nature and they stay inside and watch TV. That’s a huge tragedy in my opinion.

It seems as though the whole idea of conservation didn’t really come about in the U.S. until the mid 1800s, when settlers were safe, comfortable and prosperous to have the luxury of appreciating nature. (As I learned from Mark Davis’ book Invasion Biology, this was also when the first comments about the negative impacts of invasive species were noted.) We’re currently in the midst of an interesting time in American history. Do you think our economic situation will impact the way Americans regard nature?

The answer is, “I don’t know.” In their book Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’ propose that although most Americans are now safe from, say, starving to death, they are still insecure about their positions economically and socially, and that takes all their focus away from ‘leisure and luxury’ things like the conservation ethic. I can’t judge whether they are right or wrong, but that’s certainly an interesting starting point for discussion.

In my experience, conservation is very much a rich man’s sport. In my conversations with people, I have observed that people just don’t care about conservation until they reach a certain level of prosperity. It’s also cultural. Parents teach their kids about this stuff. That said, unless things get really bad and people are in bread lines or getting eaten by wolves and bears, I don’t think we’ll go back to the pre-1800s view of nature as the howling wilderness that needs to be tamed. I think people are generally indoctrinated in grade school to think of nature as a pleasant thing. But I do think people stop caring so much when they have more immediate concerns.

What can you tell us about the influences of ecologist Frederick Clements and Ariel Lugo (and his paper in the journal Ecological Monographs) on the field of conservation and the emergence of the idea of “novel ecosystems?”  

Clements, who was active a fairly long time ago, came up with this beautiful idea about how ecosystems were like organisms, and that they went through predictable succession after disturbance. So after a fire or a storm, they’d sort of be reset to zero, and then they’d move elegantly and predictably back to their climax vegetation. For every climate, you could say, “this is what the climax vegetation should be.”

Even at the time Clements was proposing this idea, it wasn’t universally accepted. There were other factions who thought that ecosystems were not so much super organisms but rather a bunch of plants and animals hanging out in the same place. But Clements’ idea was so compelling and so beautiful that it wormed its way into the hearts of the conservation and ecology communities. Policies, nature writing, and the way we have talked about nature in the last 85 years have been influenced by this notion of a set climax vegetation; of every place having a perfectly balanced, correct state.

Then Lugo comes along. (I wouldn’t say that Lugois the ‘anti-Clements.’ Clements’ contemporary, Henry Gleason, who referred to ecosystems as ‘near-accidental groupings’ is regarded that way.) Lugo’s big breakthrough was in the 1970s. His big epiphany was that former tree plantations in Puerto Rico were more productive than in native forests. They made more biomass out of sunlight. Many times, when ecologists are judging ecosystems (which sounds weird. We might think ecologists should just be describing, not judging ecosystems) they are often categorized by functions, such as productivity. Others include carbon storage, soil creation, erosion prevention, etc. There was this notion that a native, intact ecosystem would do better on every measure. This philosophy was so entrenched that I believe there are occasions where changes to ecosystems that caused them to be more productive were described as degradation because it was a move away from the native system.

Lugo discovered that these sort of scruffy systems that were filled with weedy, exotic species were actually kicking ass compared to the native forest. They were very dense and making lots of plants out of the sunlight. When he tried to submit a journal article describing this, he met a huge amount of cultural resistance because of the pre-accepted notion that native ecosystems are better at everything. Lugo is charming and kind, yet very tenacious. He knew he was on to something big, so he dug his heels in, and he’s been studying these ‘novel ecosystems’ ever since. Based on his studies, he believes that they are not just rubbish. They are producing all these functions that ecologists like to measure. In many cases, they’re actually paving the way for the return for native plants by, for example, creating a shade canopy beneath which the native plants can grow. That has been his life’s work. He went through a period where people were very averse to his idea, and now people are flocking to him. He is getting a lot of attention for his ideas as the novel ecosystems paradigm heats up. I’m happy for him. He is still very active in the novel ecosystems community. He is actually doing a lot of urban work now.

Would you say, then, that the 1970s was when these differing views on non-native species and the ecosystems they affect began to diverge?

That’s a good question, and one that a historian of science, like Matthew Chew, would probably love to sink his teeth into. Lugo’s first paper was submitted in the late 1970s, but it didn’t get published until the early 1990s. In my understanding of the history of this, I’d say that the blowback against the culture of warring against invasive species has been pretty recent. I’m sure there have been people saying, “Hold on. We’re going a bit overboard,” before that, but as far as things showing up on a regular basis, I believe that has really been happening only in the last few years.

The way people regard native and non-native species certainly impacts conservation efforts. Given the low level of awareness among the general public about invasive species and novel ecosystems, and given the possibility that conservation might become less of a public concern as people become more economically insecure, do you worry about the impact of these diverging viewpoints on the power of the conservation movement?

I always get asked two questions. “How can you say invasive species are not bad? Look at species X, Y & Z!” This question is usually asked by people who are super passionate and have spent huge amounts of time ripping out, poisoning or hacking at plant X. The important caveat for those people is that just because I’m saying we should evaluate every species on its own merit based on the goals at hand doesn’t always mean we’re always going to be welcoming. There will be cases when goals will conflict with this new arrival or this old arrival that’s still hanging around, and we’ll be reaching for the herbicide just as quickly! It’s just that we switch first from a mode of “shoot first and ask questions later” to a mode of asking questions and evaluating first.

The second most common question I’m asked is, “It may be that baselines are arbitrary, and it may be that some exotic species are useful in certain cases, but if you say it out loud, aren’t you going to give ammunition to the forces of evil and development? They’re going to be able to say, ‘Hey, there’s no one, true, correct state for this place, so let’s just build a huge mall.’”

What I’m hearing in that question is, “the information in your book is true, but it is dangerous and we should suppress it.” That seems to me like a very, very bad idea. What happens when intellectuals suppress ideas and don’t tell them to the public because they’re worried what the public will do to them? Well, the public finds out, the public is really pissed off about being lied to, and all of the trust that conservation scientists may have engendered over the years goes “poof.” We think that people are distrustful of climate scientists. Wait until they find out that conservationists and restorationists have been hiding the fact that, say, 1491 isn’t necessarily the holy baseline we should be returning do. That would be a disaster.

These are frightening ideas in some respects, because we are removing a very stable value system and replacing it with one that is much more open-ended and requires consensus, discussion and the democratic process to figure out our goals rather than just asserting that historical fidelity is the one true thing. So it’s definitely scary, but we can’t hide from it. We can’t run from the truth. We have to operate as best we can based on what we know to be empirically true.

So you have very passionate people on both sides of this issue, yet as we discussed earlier, the general public is largely uninformed about this stuff. Do you worry that this ‘infighting’ takes time and energy away from real conservation action?

You point out a real concern. If we, meaning the broad community of people who care a lot about nature, are all squabbling among ourselves, are we going to be neglecting and confusing the public? I think the answer is probably a little bit. But I don’t see any way around it.

If you just decide that the discussion isn’t worth having because it diverts resources then you end up sticking with the old paradigm of trying to get support for conservation goals by scaring and depressing the hell out of the public by telling them that climate change is going to destroy the planet as we know it, and that unless something looks like Yellowstone, the planet is just ruined forever. These kinds of narratives have not proven successful in rallying people and getting them excited about conservation. They have proven very successful in getting people to change the channel and watch some reality TV show.

This conversation is necessary even if it diverts attention away from outreach for a few years. We have to have it, because in the end, we have a much more optimistic and compelling vision to offer the public, which is, “Hey, let’s roll up our sleeves, make a bunch of nature, and make the world a better place. Let’s increase biodiversity and expand the range of species we love.” It’s a message of “let’s make more,” rather than “let’s get out the pitchforks and protect what is diminishing with our last breath.”

When you mentioned the two questions you are always asked, I anticipated that you’d say one of them was, “By letting invasive species and novel ecosystems flourish aren’t you giving up on saving and protecting biological diversity and all species’ rights to live and evolve?”

I do get that question, because in some cases there is a very real tradeoff. We are faced with these kinds of decisions. In my opinion, making decisions and arranging management plans to avoid extinctions is generally a good way to proceed. If some new species is threatening the continued existence of some other species, then that new species is becoming problematic and needs to be bashed back. That’s my own personal take. But my vision in the book is that these decisions will be made by those who have a stake in the piece of land, the species in the area, etc.

I think biodiversity is a good and compelling goal. I think it’s a better goal than historical fidelity, and that’s sort of the root of my argument. In some cases, saving a species means beating back an invader. In those cases by all means, get out the machetes. In other cases, it might mean moving that species to a new range, thereby creating an invader. In that case, I say fire up the trucks, get the cages, and let’s move them. Basically, I don’t care about native and invasive; I care about biodiversity much more.

I suppose there will potentially be situations where you might choose some other value over biodiversity. A community desperately in need of water might choose water purification over a species, for example. That’s a difficult question, because personally, I tend to feel that extinctions are morally wrong. But not everyone feels that way.

In 2008, you visited Bialowieza Primeval Forest, located on the border of Belarus and Poland and touted as a temperate forest “untouched by humans.” What did you learn about so-called pristine natural areas from that visit?

Bialowieza was a beautiful place. The researchers who work there will admit to you within the first few minutes of talking with them that it is not a pristine forest in any sense. It is, however, marketed to tourists that way. The English language tourist materials in Poland describe it as the Bialowieza “Primeval” Forest, which certainly implies a certain level of unchangedness.

Bialowieza is used as a baseline for ecological studies. Graduate students from all over Europe make pilgrimages there to see what Europe looked like before man came changed every square inch it. Yet the more you dig into the ecological history of the place, the more you see all the management that has been going on in the forest for hundreds of years. It has been managed mostly for game for royal, aristocratic owners. Predators were shot and game was managed; people were smelting iron and raising bees. Right now they have European bison, which are among the last, free-roaming bison inEurope. But they haven’t been there continuously. By the 1920s, they were all shot out by hunters. They were reintroduced in the 1950s, and the progenitors of some of those populations actually came from Nazi zoos. Bialowieza is a very humanized place. People have been taking care of it and looking after it for hundreds of years. The only thing we haven’t done is cut down the trees.

On the one hand, it is an incredibly special place. It feels like a fairy tale in there. On the other hand, it’s a human place. The lesson is: that’s our world. Our world can feel very wild and seem very natural, and it is…as long as your definition of natural doesn’t preclude all human influence. If it does, you’re out of luck. Everything is like Bialowieza. Every landscape is humanized.

Acknowledging that ecosystems are always changing, and like it or not, human  beings are part of the earth, would you say that many who oppose the idea of novel ecosystems are simply not thinking in long enough time scales?

That’s definitely part of it. Ecologists tend to think about different baselines in different places on the planet. In North America and Australia, they’re pegged to European arrival. Certainly that was a time when things changed, but they changed from one humanized state to another humanized state.

Ecologists may think about 1770, 1491, 1850, etc., but most people tend to think of their own childhood as the correct, historical baseline for ecosystems. Humans have difficulty thinking beyond the timescale of a single human lifetime. When we get into paleoecology and geological timescales, it’s difficult for us to put the changes we’re seeing now in the perspective of the last hundred thousand years.

I’m not saying that all ecosystem change is equally good and that every novel ecosystem should be allowed to do what it wants without any direction. I don’t think anyone argues that. But the idea that they are aberrations, that they are horrible, new things no one has seen before, is incorrect. Things move around a lot. We call them “novel ecosystems” because they’re new for us, and in many cases, they involve species meeting each other for the first time. But the ecosystems that preceded them were novel, too. Those were novel for a couple hundred years, and there was something else before that. Things just don’t stay the same that long.

You say, “if what one values is not any existing species or ecosystem per se but the process of evolution, then novel ecosystems are worth protecting.” But some would argue that by protecting novel ecosystems (and non-native species), you are expediting evolution. How would you respond?

I think that when a lot of restorationists and ecologists talk about novel ecosystems, they see them from the perspective of making the best of a bad situation or figuring out what you can do with them. They’re very interested in using the tools of restoration to guide them to helpful, useful, diverse states that are not necessarily historical.

There is a subset of ecologists who are in favor of – in some places – standing back completely and letting these novel ecosystems do their own thing. That is because everywhere else on Earth, we are directing evolution. Take Yellowstone, for example, where whitebark pines are on the decline. Park managers don’t want the species to leave the park because they are on the list of things that were in the park in 1872. They have geneticists actively breeding whitebark pines that are resistant to the beetles that are attacking them. So evolution in Yellowstone is being constrained and directed by the intensive management to keep it to its historical baseline.

In novel ecosystems like those I describe on Hawaii [e.g., a non-native mango forest described in Rambunctious Garden as “an example of a flourishing novel ecosystem…a proper exotic jungle”] we brought the parties together, but now they’re running off in their own direction, and it’s totally undirected by humans. They’re not cornfields; they’re not heavily managed parks. They are kind of the only wild places left on Earth, these feral, weedy places that have self-assembled and doing their own thing.  Maybe it’s the romantic in me, but I see value in that.

Actually, it’s not just romantic. I really think that as climate changes and land use patterns all over the globe change, these ecosystems are going to figure out a stable and productive way to live in the future. My guess is that they will do a much better job at that than we would if we were going to design stable ecosystems for the future on a computer. It’s like these guys have come together and they’re thriving, and we’re going to wrestle them all back to their home countries and not let them adapt to what we’ve done to the earth. That seems counterintuitive to me. This is nature adapting.

As you admit, “novel ecosystems are headed off in unknown directions.” I think most ecologist would also admit that we don’t know everything about every ecosystem. How would you respond if someone asked, “Wouldn’t it be better to apply the precautionary principle, and not allow an introduced species unless we are absolutely sure that it will not harm other species?”

That is a very savvy response and a good question. I realize this seems like Frankenstein stuff. We are going off into the unknown and who knows what will happen. But we are going off into the unknown everywhere on the planet. It’s every place, because of climate change, large scale land use changes and different chemical regimes. We’ve changed the game everywhere. The idea that we can stop change any place is a fiction now. Given that, our options are to try to stop the environment from changing in response to changed conditions and hold it to history, or we can let the environment change and see where it goes. Both are viable options, and my guess is that the future will be a mix. In some places, we’ll be holding to the past, hoping that by keeping the species that were together historically and have a long track record of working together, they’ll remain stable in the future. Another strategy is looking to see where these novel ecosystems go and where they thrive and don’t thrive. It’s an experiment, but the thing is, they are both experiments. There is no control anymore.

You say that we need a gestalt switch that enables us to see nature in a new and different way, and that without this, conservation efforts can only result in “little islands like the past” or “de facto zoos.”  How do you see nature and how did you come to see it this way?

I think kids start out seeing the backyard, the strip of grass in a parking lot, and the invaded drainage ditch behind the suburban cul-de-sac as nature. Then, they are taught by grown ups that these spaces aren’t good enough, and that real nature is inside parks.

For me, it was a return to the view of nature that I held as a child. Partially, it came from going out with ecologists to sites that I expected to look like those places you see in Disney nature documentaries that didn’t. We’d be out in some protected park, and there would be roads, fence posts and beer cans. Certainly there are places on Earth where you can go and become totally lost, where there is no sign of man and no cell phone reception, but those places are increasingly difficult and expensive to access. I realized that those places are not all that counts. And if they are, that’s pretty sad. I believe all this other stuff counts, too.

Here’s a great example. In my city of Columbia, Missouri, there is a little stretch of land that I pass with the stroller on my way to the park. It’s in between the road and a horse paddock. It’s a little, six feet by 50 feet ravine with water bubbling through it, where nobody has mowed or cut down trees. (This is where I filmed my book trailer.) It’s the kind of place I’m in love with because it’s nature that nobody sees. I passed it yesterday on the way to the park with my husband and daughter and we saw a Tufted Titmouse, cardinals, blue jays, Black-capped Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, and a few robins-all of these species in this little place. They were all eating who knows how many species of bugs, berries and seeds from plants, many of which were horticultural plants that had escaped people’s gardens. It’s incredibly diverse and it’s nature, and it’s just a ditch and nobody looks at it. That’s the paradigm case for me.

When you start to realize that, your backyard can be nature. The median on the highway can be nature. Farms can have higher biodiversity values so they can start counting as nature, too. Nature is all around us, but it’s all improvable.

This reminds me of something I read in your book. You write that when you visited Hawaii with graduate student Joe Mascaro, he said of his early field experience in ecology, “You walk for hours through the trashy stuff to get to your site, and you don’t study the trash….we need to study the trash.”

Yes. Many of your readers will probably recall finding certain landscapes beautiful when they were uneducated, but when they learned that these landscapes were dominated by exotics, they learned to see ugliness.

As you say in the book, “layering goals and managing landscapes with an eye toward the future” is the cutting edge of conservation, but “some…just aren’t there yet.” Why not?

Part of that is because of this notion that there was a one, perfect, pristine, pre-human state for every place is so beautiful. I totally agree that it’s an idea of poetic beauty. It’s also so clear and simple: you put things back the way they were and the problem is solved. It’s easy, it makes sense and it appeals to our cultural sense of the Garden of Eden. It is a lot harder to look at a place and say, “Where do we want this go? Let’s get together and do some scenario planning and figure out what are objectives are.” It’s just not as poetic. It’s more bureaucratic, to be honest.

I also think that it’s hard for people to change. People were brought up in an environmental movement that worships wilderness, and now there’s not much wilderness and the wilderness we have is not very wild. People can mourn or they can jump onto this new way of thinking. I think there are some people who are so used to mourning they’re not ready to become optimistic.

Let’s get back to this new vision of nature. You say we need a gestalt switch that will enable us to see nature “as the living background to human lives.” If we can do this, you say, “…we may be able to win.” How do you define “win?”

Winning is this: we figure out what our goals are, and then we achieve them. If our goals are to reduce extinctions to a certain rate, protect species X, make sure that everybody has fresh water to drink, and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and we achieve those goals, then we win.

I see a winning future as a future in which there is a lot of diversity and a lot of nature, children know the names of lots of plants and animals, farms have plants and animals on them, backyards have plants and animals on them, and nature is integrated into our lives.

Some might argue that seeing nature as the “living background to human lives” is anthropocentric and therefore unfair to other species. How would you respond to that?

This is where my pragmatism really comes through. You can propose that the human population should be less than the population of bears, for example, but it’s not going to happen. To me, it’s irresponsible to spend all of your energy fighting for an outcome that is not going to come, like massive voluntary population reduction. Given that a woman has a right to have children if she wants them (just as she has the right not to have them if she doesn’t want them) there are going to be billions of people on this planet, so how are we going to make room for everyone?

So maybe my view is anthropocentric, and ultimately this is an ethical question. But as a pragmatist, I want to see stuff happen and improve. Even if I had a deeply held view that humans are less or equally worthy as other species, I’m not going to poison water supplies to reduce the human population.

In the book, you impose reality (budgets, politics & time) on this vision, and stress the need to make choices. You recommend a menu of seven goals from which people managing land should choose to achieve success in conservation. Can you share some thoughts about them (For the benefit of our readers, I will list the goals.)

  • Protect the rights of other species
  • Protect charismatic megafauna
  • Slow the rate of extinctions
  • Protect genetic diversity
  • Define and defend biodiversity
  • Maximize ecosystem services
  • Protect the spiritual and aesthetic experience of nature

I’m a big fan of the goal to “protect genetic diversity,” because then you aren’t just stamp collecting species, you’re actually looking at population and variation within population. To me, genetic diversity is the real bedrock of the diversity we are trying to protect.

Other goals involve beauty and aesthetic values. Others actually involve historical fidelity. We shouldn’t forget that there are some places that are going to be managed to a historical baseline because that’s what we want at that place. Certain historical and national parks, for example, may be managed that way for educational purposes. Protection of charismatic megafauna is a goal that is often operationally happening. People may manage their preserve specifically for elephants or tigers. I’m less of a fan of that because, as I said, my interests are at the genetic level. I’m sort of a dweeb about all diversity, not just the sexy diversity.

For actual managers on the ground, the goals you end up with will be uber-specific. For example, “We want the water temperature to be X degrees at the outflow,” or “We want X sediment load or X amount of carbon sequestration.” Those kinds of goals will be quantitative by the end of the planning process and I think they already are in a lot of places.

What I still struggle with, and what I don’t have an easy answer for is the question, “What is the perfect process to come up with your list of goals?” Obviously it will be site-specific and it will require a lot of stakeholder meetings and scenario planning exercises. There is very bureaucratic work involved in this.

At the end of your book, you summarize you advice: “give up romantic notions of a stable Eden, be honest about goals and costs, keep land from mindless development, and try just about everything.” Most Leaf Litter readers are engaged in ecological restoration, conservation planning or regenerative design. What do you see as their in achieving the vision you propose?

Your readers, and people like urban planners, have the power to help guide what happens to big chunks of land. I suggest that if your management plan is cued to a date in the history books, ask what you hope to achieve by cuing to history. Is it biodiversity? Beauty? Recreational value? Ecosystem services of one kind or another? Then reorient towards your actual goal. Using history as a proxy for your goal isn’t necessarily going to be the most effective way of moving forward. Say you’re managing a piece of land to be the way it was at a certain previous date so that it will filter water for a watershed. If water filtration is your main goal, you could probably stop pulling out some of those invasives. Let’s say it’s a biodiversity question. Then which of the invasives are threatening biodiversity and which are just hanging out?

A lot of these ideas sound very radical, but when you talk to people who are managing lands, they are already making these kinds of calculations because nobody has the money to achieve the pristine vision. People may talk about putting everything back the way it was, but few people have the resources to do that.

I also suggest being more open and honest. The Nature Conservancy web site has [numerous] usages of the word “pristine” in their marketing material. But if you talk to the scientists who work for The Nature Conservancy, they obviously don’t think that any of their sites are pristine. So there is a disconnect between the way that people are operating and the way that people are talking to public, and I think that’s going to bite us in the ass if we’re not careful.

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