94th ESA Annual Meeting (August 2 -- 7, 2009)

SYMP 24-6 - Adapting protected areas management to the realities of global changes

Friday, August 7, 2009: 10:00 AM
Blrm C, Albuquerque Convention Center
Nathan L. Stephenson, Sequoia and Kings Canyon Field Station, United States Geological Survey, Three Rivers, CA

Management policies for protected areas (parks and wildernesses) in the United States usually direct natural resource managers to restore and maintain naturally-functioning ecosystems.  When this is not possible, managers are directed to maintain the closest approximation of the natural condition.  However, in the face of rapid global changes these management directions pose significant challenges.  What is “natural?”  What role might resilience play in maintaining naturalness?  How does one maintain naturalness when future environmental conditions are expected to have no analog in the past?  Has the concept of naturalness lost its value?  Supported by examples from literature, I examine whether current management policies for protected areas are sensible (or even possible), and offer ideas for moving forward.


Naturalness in the sense of historical fidelity (conditions as they were before the advent of modern technological society) will almost certainly become impossible to maintain.  In fact, efforts to maintain a semblance of historical fidelity might result in ecosystems that are inherently unstable to novel environmental conditions.  On the other hand, naturalness in the sense of freedom from intentional human intervention will remain possible, but may be undesirable if accompanied by the threat of sudden, catastrophic loss of native biodiversity or key ecosystem functions.  Thus, impetus for management intervention may be high.  However, precise characterization of appropriate management interventions and desired future conditions will be confounded by (1) the unprecedented nature of environmental changes (meaning we will have no precise reference analogs in the past), and (2) the unpredictability of future environmental and biotic changes at spatial and temporal scales useful for management.  Managing for ecosystem resilience may be useful less as a desired end in its own right, and more as a means of buying time while a range of adaptation options are explored and implemented.