Adapting conservation goals to global change

Untangling the pretzel logic of conservation?

Conservation goals at the start of the 21st century reflect a combination of contrasting ideas. ‘Ideal nature’ is something that is historically intact, but at the same time, futuristically flexible. Ideal nature is independent from humans, but also, because of the pervasiveness of human impacts, only able to reach expression, or maintain itself, through human management. It’s very pretzel-like in its logic (see below section on ‘Pretzel logic’).

In a recent reflection on this conundrum, we attempted to make sense of these inherent tensions in an effort to understand what are appropriate goals for conservation in a time of rapid global change (Heller and Hobbs, 2014). Our exploration led to the development of an approach that we have called ‘natural practice’.

Benchmarks of naturalness 

Common management goals to maintain ecosystems in a desired state – goals such as integrity, wilderness and resilience – rely on native, historic communities as indicators. All goals share a conceptual coupling of place and historical species composition as an indicator of naturalness (eg, native, historical = normal, healthy, independent from humans). This is the case regardless of whether the goals are looking forward and focused on sustainability and change (such as resilience), or looking back and focused on the persistence and restoration (such as integrity) (see Figure 2). The coupling creates ‘essentialisms’ about how ecosystems should be (eg, what species should be there) in order to be considered ‘natural.’ Yet, ecosystems are changing and indeed must change as they evolve in response to global change.

We argue that, from a strategic perspective, our dependence on historic states as benchmarks of naturalness is limiting options of managers to accommodate the dynamic, and often novel, response of ecosystems to global change. The critical question that we must ask then to succeed in biodiversity conservation in a time of rapid change is: How can we visualize intact, healthy nature that does not resemble known natural histories?

We need to ask at what point does the effort to conserve or restore all the parts and relationships, as described by human agents at particular points in time, undermine the resilience or self-expression of the whole? That is, does an approach aiming to maintain current assemblages in a particular place actually work against the adaptive behaviour of individual species and the formation of assemblages that are resilient to ongoing change?

Goals that focus on specific endpoints, reference states, and benchmarks create expectations about how and when ecosystems should change. Management thus requires human agents to intentionally control the degree and rate of change.

Beyond endpoint goals 

To get out of this situation, we propose that that we move beyond endpoint goals and move toward establishing process goals. In particular, we advocate the development of process goals related to human behaviour in management, as a process to establish a framework for interventions, such as invasive species management, fire management, and restoration.

The reason to focus on human behaviour in management is that the way we interact with other species influences our ability to cultivate naturalness on the landscape. Specifically, we argue that the extent to which our interactions are similar to the interactions among other biotic organisms, and also reflect our conservation virtues (eg, humility, respect) will impact on whether ‘naturalness’ emerges.

Of course ‘naturalness’ is a subjective term that can be defined in different ways. Anything can be ‘natural’ depending on your definition. We use the term here in the sense that is strongly articulated in philosophy of conservation and environmental ethics – namely that nature is that which is independent of intentional human control, and is not regulated through deliberate human technological interventions.

Thus to cultivate naturalness, as an emergent property of an ecosystem, we need to stop being dominators and instead become participants. And our participation, just like other organisms, can either promote or prevent diversity through local behavioural interactions. By shifting our perspective on our role, we can think about how to interact positively with ecosystems to support both preservation and allow for transformation in response to global change.

Natural practice as a framework 

We call this goal a ‘natural practice’ and propose it as a framework for prioritizing and formulating how, when, and where to intervene in this period of rapid change. Clues from ecology and ethics serve as guidelines for questions to be asked in defining a natural practice.

Ecological science provides many clues about how biotic agents behave within ecological communities, the scale and impact of behaviour, and what behaviours tend to produce diversity.

Conservation ethics provides clues about human character traits that are desirable and conducive to conservation (eg, humility, respect, restraint, care, reflection). These traits are important because they are distinctly different from the traits commonly expressed toward nature in modern industrial development that are at the root of biodiversity decline.

Natural practice is not about a specific set of recommendations, but envisions a process of debate and reflection that interrogates methods of management at the start of the 21st century. An intervention decision should include the question: What species assemblages are compatible with an appropriate set of practices? This shifts management methods from defining static endpoint targets and using almost any means possible to try to establish targets, to defining broad goals and the pursuit of human-non-human interactions that are deemed consistent with the natural biotic processes that are to be honored in conservation.

This requires thoughtful consideration of when and how to intervene and recognizes the need for prioritization of conservation interventions given the increasing number of species at risk.

Biodiversity conservation is a wicked and complex problem, replete with many undesirable trade-offs. We argue that change is increasingly the norm, so management for specific visions of what nature should be is becoming increasingly inappropriate because these visions are simply unattainable. To better accommodate global change and the dynamic response of ecosystems, management goals should expand from static endpoint targets to include norms of practice. Focusing on practice can contribute to a framework for prioritizing and formulating how, when, and where to intervene.

We suggest that this approach may help integrate the need for adaptation with the desire for preservation, thus ultimately protecting biodiversity better on long-time scales.

Pretzel logic

“Those days are gone forever Over a long time ago, oh yeah” Pretzel Logic, Steely Dan (1974)

Steely Dan wasn’t writing about climate change back in 1974; that was a notion that still lay in the future. What the band was referring to was how things change over time, and how yesterday’s dreams and goals can become irrelevant as the world moves on – yesterday’s goals may even create today’s problems. We felt this was a useful way to regard conservation goals because our engagement with these goals is becoming ‘pretzel-like’ – wrapping around in a twisted logic (Figure 1).

The reason for the pretzel status is understandable. Scientists and managers are struggling to accommodate old and new scientific and cultural thinking, while at the same time implementing legal mandates from the past to preserve particular species in particular places. Conservation rhetoric seems to paradoxically ask that managers allow for change so that ecosystems can adapt, while at the same time not permit change so that systems can remain intact (ie, not damaged or impaired).

Consider discussions surrounding adaptation to climate change. On the one hand there are recommendations suggesting that biodiversity managers intervene dramatically to resist change and maintain species populations. At the same time managers are encouraged to broaden their notions of what belongs and what is resilient. Conservation managers may increasingly find themselves having to choose or find a balance between future-looking management emphasizing change, and past-looking management emphasizing persistence. Is a balance possible in practice?

Figure 1: Pretzel logic in conservation

Figure 1: Pretzel logic in conservation

Past, present and future goals

Past-looking orientations search for earlier times when nature was more fully expressed on the landscape. Industrial human activity (pre-European) is often seen as a critical break in nature. Authenticity, ecological integrity, and historical fidelity focus on pre-industrial ecological conditions and the historical range of variability in recent centuries to situate nature.

Recognition of the transformative effect of indigenous humans on ecosystems motivates some people to look nature further back in time (pre-history). Re-wilding promotes the introduction of exotic animals from Africa to function as proxies for extinct mega-fauna in North America.

Figure 2: Some examples of common management goals are shown with their orientation in time (with examples of typical approaches). (From Heller & Hobbs 2014).

Figure 2: Some examples of common management goals are shown with their orientation in
time (with examples of typical approaches). (From Heller & Hobbs 2014).

Present-focused biological management tends to focus on ecosystem health. This translates into controlling the most pressing threats to keep systems providing ecosystem services, and looking to reference states found in the present for guidelines. For example, the Index of Biotic Integrity assesses a site’s status relative to a similar undisturbed or the least-disturbed reference community in a region.

Future-looking orientations tend to focus on near-term sustainability and promote goals like resilience. Resilience seeks to diminish the possibilities for maladaptation that might occur if systems are manipulated to mimic the past when the environmental and social context of places has changed dramatically. The bottom of figure 2 shows a graph depicting a hypothetical line of the level of knowledge about ecosystem states across time. Knowledge about past conditions decays slowly at first, and then rapidly going further into the past. Future projections show average regional trends, but local realizations and rates of change are highly uncertain in the near and distant future.

More info: Nicole Heller 


Heller NE & Hobbs RJ (2014). Adapting conservation goals to global change by expanding them beyond endpoints. Conservation Biology 28: 696–704.

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