In watching New Mexico’s fires the past few weeks and talking to my forest ecosystem brain trust, I’ve been repeatedly struck by the set of questions Emma Marris raises in her new book Rambunctious Garden (great, recommended) about what baseline we’re thinking about when we talk about restoring natural systems that are currently badly out of whack.
In particular, I’ve been talking to USGS ecologist Craig Allen and some of the other folks he has worked with over the years on fire history of the Jemez Mountains, where the Las Conchas fire burned so hot and fast. (More on that in some coming newspaper work.)
This comes up a lot in discussions of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, as well, a system about as badly out of whack as out of whack can be. While in California last month, I heard about some work being done by folks at the San Francisco Estuary Institute on historical and paleo ecology of the Delta. The new Delta Stewardship Council Science News has an interesting account of what they’re doing, and why:
The goal of the project is not to create a literal template from which to recreate the historical Delta since the Delta has undergone extensive changes over the years. Rather, the objective is to better understand ecosystem function and how it varied throughout the system in response to identifiable physical gradients (e.g. salinity, tidal range). This can inform large-scale restoration strategies currently being considered for the Delta.
The Institute’s work raises a lot of the same questions I’ve been thinking about in regard to forest systems here, especially one of scale:
In considering how to restore important ecological functions that have been lost, scientists and managers have recognized the importance of thinking at larger scales. “For instance,” Whipple said, “a restored tidal marsh might provide really different ecological functions depending on whether it is five acres or one hundred, whether it is adjacent to riparian forest, or whether it receives winter flood flows. We need to think about more than just habitats as single units, but how habitats are arranged into mosaics (complexes of different communities of species), and how those mosaics fit together in the landscape.”
You could say the same thing about the patches of forest around Los Alamos that we’ll be talking about a lot in the next few years. Given that there’s no going back to the pre-grazing, pre-fire suppression, pre-homes in the woods, pre-global warming world (or the pre-Delta farming and water export world), how do we decide what sort of “nature” we’re trying to preserve/create?