Development of a natural practice to adapt conservation goals to global change

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Heller, Nicole E. and Hobbs, Richard J.

Conservation goals at the start of the 21st century reflect a combination of contrasting ideas. Ideal nature is something that is historically intact but also futuristically flexible. Ideal nature is independent from humans, but also, because of the pervasiveness of human impacts, only able to reach expression through human management. These tensions emerge in current management rationales because scientists and managers are struggling to accommodate old and new scientific and cultural thinking, while also maintaining legal mandates from the past and commitments to preservation of individual species in particular places under the stresses of global change. Common management goals (such as integrity, wilderness, resilience), whether they are forward looking and focused on sustainability and change, or backward looking and focused on the persistence and restoration of historic states, tend to create essentialisms about how ecosystems should be. These essentialisms limit the options of managers to accommodate the dynamic, and often novel, response of ecosystems to global change. Essentialisms emerge because there is a tight conceptual coupling of place and historical species composition as an indicator of naturalness (e.g., normal, healthy, independent from humans). Given that change is increasingly the norm and ecosystems evolve in response, the focus on idealized ecosystem states is increasingly unwise and unattainable. To provide more open-ended goals, we propose greater attention be paid to the characteristics of management intervention. We suggest that the way we interact with other species in management and the extent to which those interactions reflect the interactions among other biotic organisms, and also reflect our conservation virtues (e.g., humility, respect), influences our ability to cultivate naturalness on the landscape. We call this goal a natural practice (NP) and propose it as a framework for prioritizing and formulating how, when, and where to intervene in this period of rapid change.


Heller, N. E., and R. J. Hobbs. 2014. Development of a natural practice to adapt conservation goals to global change. Conservation Biology. doi:10.1111/cobi.12269.