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January 31st, 2008

Conservation, restoration strategies must shift with global environmental change

Tim Seastedt, along with colleagues Richard Hobbs (Murdoch Univ, Australia) and Katherine Suding (UC Irvine, former INSTAAR), investigated ecosystem management studies from the past 12 years in an effort to begin determining best practices for the future. They propose that biologists and managers focus on making existing ecosystems resilient to further environmental change rather than on attempting to restore them to their original state.

In their view, enormous global environmental changes are rapidly and irreversibly modifying nearly all ecosystems on Earth into so-called "novel ecosystems"--thriving combinations of plants, animals and habitat that have never occurred together before. It is these new ecosystems that should be accepted, preserved and enhanced in order to shield them from further modifications linked with global environmental change (i.e., atmospheric pollution, climate change, exotic species invasions, extinctions and land fragmentation).

Current management practices often involve trying to fix only one aspect of an ecosystem, like eradicating an invasive species. But in many cases, such action does little to improve the ecosystem's overall health. Invasive plant species that have been removed, for example, are frequently replaced by other invasive species that quickly colonize the ecological "vacuum." Instead, biologists and managers need to work with new approaches that focus on desired outcomes, emphasizing genetic and species diversity. Such projects could include "reassembling" forest ecosystems in the West devastated by bark beetles, replanting them with bug-resistant trees and introducing vegetation that absorbs large amounts of carbon dioxide and filters nutrient-enriched water.

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