Historically-representative ecosystem management

Pucky Freak

Well-known member
Mar 4, 2019
Historically-representative ecosystem management
In respect to land management, both preservationism and multi-use strategies each have their place in the history of conservation in America. This essay presents a third strategy, historically-representative ecosystem management, designed to reflect social, political, and economic trends in 21st century America.

Ecosystems of North America developed through the 2.5 million-year Pleistocene period. This period was characterized by alternating cool and warm global climates, with each glacial cycle lasting 60,000 to 115,000 years.

During the last ice age humans migrated from Asia to North America around 16,500 years ago, and colonized the Americas over the next several thousand years. This colonization resulted in major changes to ecosystems in America through the megafauna extinction event, coupled with human-originated fires to intentionally alter plant communities.

The altered ecosystems remained in relative stability for another 10,000+ years until the arrival of European settlers in the 16th century. When this occurred, many ecosystems began to undergo dramatic changes as a result of steep drops in indigenous human populations, a massive increase in the human population brought about by immigration of Europeans, and large-scale modifications of natural areas implemented by this latter group.

State of ecosystems today
Today much of the land in America has been converted to human use in such a dramatic magnitude that it bears little resemblance to how it looked prior to European colonization. Wetlands were drained, waterways were channelized and dammed, grasslands and forests were converted to housing or farmlands. Some ecosystems are present in <5% of their original size, and are highly fragmented. Ecosystems less-utilized by humans such as boreal forest, tundra, alpine, and desert continue to reflect much of their pre-European colonization appearance.

Forces that continue to modify ecosystems in the present include mass species extinction, wildlife habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation, oil, gas, and mineral extraction, acid rain, pollution, radioactivity, fire suppression, growth of urban centers, spread of invasive species, restrictions of human activities in the environment, absence of historical land management by indigenous people groups, global warming, all the -icides, light and sound pollution, livestock, and domestic pets.

Evolving ecosystem management goals over time
Americans have the capacity to consider how to manage ecosystems, and also have the luxury to be able to do so, as we are not totally dependent on all of our land area for our survival. There are a diverse array of opinions among Americans as to what defines the optimal land management priorities.

Dominant land management priorities in the 16th-18th century include: land acquisition by the State, trade with indigenous people groups, colonization, resource extraction, investment, natural harvest. In the 19th century trade with indigenous people groups declined, and there were new emphases on cash crops, removal of indigenous population groups, ranching, mineral extraction, and accessibility (e.g. railroads, steamboats, etc.). In the twentieth century investment, farming, ranching, resource extraction, timber production, tourism, accessibility, public access, and restrictions on human activities were emphasized.

As the 21st century unfolds, dominant land management priorities in America include farming, restrictions on human activities, residential development, tourism, investment, and energy development. Ecosystems continue to be reduced in size and altered from their historic forms.

A substantial percentage of Americans desire to maintain and even expand natural ecosystems in our country. There are a diverse range of views on the goals of managing such areas, as well as the means to achieve those goals.

Preservationism and multiple use management
The preservationist approach aims to protect natural areas from human influence. They exist to protect native species, preserve the natural beauty of landscapes, and allow for low-impact human activities for our enjoyment. Preserves came about in a time in American history when many species were rapidly headed for extinction, and limited protected areas were available for those species to exist. It was an effective stop-gap measure to turn the tide of extinction and complete elimination of some natural ecosystems.

While preserves served a critical role in American history, flaws of this strategy have become increasingly apparent over time. Preserves remove the historical mechanisms to regulate ecosystems, primarily through fire suppression, and also through limits on the presence of native grazing animals. The result of this management strategy is abnormally-uniform monoculture plant communities, and dramatic reductions in the populations of native species. Cycles of destruction and regeneration in ecosystems depended on wildfires and extinct megafauna prior to human colonization. After human colonization, ecosystems depended on grazing animals and fire management of indigenous people groups. In the absence of these regulation mechanisms, preserves become blocks of land in arrested development, instead of a living, dynamic, ever-changing system.

Multiple-use land management focuses on implementing a diverse set of commercial and recreational activities within the same area. Advocates of preservationism may object to multi-use land management as it can imperil vulnerable species, and enjoyment of natural places may be disrupted by roads, mining, oil and gas extraction, livestock grazing, logging, fences, human hunting, and motor vehicles.

Advocates of multi-use land management may be opposed to preservationism as historical human activities are severely restricted, such as wild harvest, and plant community management by fires. Enjoyment of preserves is also negatively affected by the unnatural monocultures of same age class plant species, and resulting vastly-depleted populations of other native species.

Historically-representative conservation (HRC)
HRC is a possible alternative to preservationism and multi-use management, that highlights some of the strengths of both, as well as caters to the social, political, and economic influences of the 21st century. Representations of historical ecosystems create a living history experience for the public. HRC involves selecting a time period in American history to represent; two such time periods are described below.

Pre-human settlement HRC would seek to replicate the effects of extinct megafauna on the landscape, as well as cycles of wildfires. Candidates for this type of HRC include national parks, and federal wildlife refuges. Historical accuracy of megafauna could potentially involve the importation of similar extant species from other continents, such as camels, horses, elephants, hyenas, and lions. However, the presence of extinct megafauna is beyond nearly all historical cultural memory of persons in America, so the plausibility of introducing these megafauna species may be slim to non-existent.

Pre-European settlement HRC would highlight human manipulation of ecosystems through historical methods such as fire management for maximized natural food production from the landscape. These areas would not include resident human populations, but in order to maximize the living history experience, large numbers of Americans could participate in the historical land use via wild harvest, and other low-impact recreational activities. Candidates for this type of HRC include USFS land, BLM land, and public land owned by the states. Pre-European settlement HRC differs from multiple-use land management as it sunsets logging, most vehicle roads, mineral extraction, oil and gas extraction, livestock grazing, and fences.

One potential focus of HRC is restoration of historical ecosystems that have largely been destroyed such as tallgrass prairie, longleaf pine, and mountain big sagebrush. As private land ownership is dominant in such areas, it may be necessary to compensate landowners to participate in HRC development, or even pool government or non-profit funds to purchase large tracts of land to convert into new public areas.
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Not sure I understand the concept, or how it would cater to modern needs, seems that all the demands for extractive and consumptive use are a result of 21st century social values, and the desire for preservationism without use some people have tends to ignore the reality of the influence and interconnectedness of humans with the ecosystem.

I think multiple use is the natural progression in our attempts to provide for modern needs while preserving non human values, and I do think that there are already parts of North America and the rest of the world that are managed in the pre human and pre European concepts you describe and I think that is part of multiple use and preservationism both. I don't see us ever leaving the use some/save some approach without giving up modern technologies and conveniences, which we won't do.

Many natural resource management approaches rely on historical conditions as reference points or goals, but considering the level of manipulation that our species has already exerted on the world, and our obvious inability to stop what we've begun, I often wonder why we don't manage for the future and keeping up with evolving ecosystems and meeting the needs of society while using science to minimize negative impacts and accepting that we have been and will continue to be part of the ecosystem.
If I had my way I would reduce our need for protein and convert that back to natural land use. So much of the Midwest in particular is for beef and hog production. Reducing that would allow for more natural state.

That being said, not many people would sacrifice their beef burger for my wants and needs. Hog chicken and turkey are better but we sure love our long growth cycle beef that requires so much dedicated land for them
Incredibly well written and thought-provoking piece! I think there may be merit in this, particularly in states where "mutualism" is taking root. However, we don't want to exclude many of our "multi-use" partners as they are great allies in wildlife conservation. For hunting to survive we do need more hunters writing and publishing pieces, creating positive dialogue.
I envision HRC as a tool for managing some lands where either a preservationist or a multiple-use management has proven problematic in recent years in that particular location. It is just one additional strategy that could be more palatable to the mutualism crowd while still allowing some natural harvest by humans to reflect historical traditions and practices.

There are already manifestations of HRC in natural areas across the US, e.g. APR.

Some species are very sensitive to multiple-use practices such as road development, mechanical lights and sounds, cattle grazing, & O&G extraction. If the native range of that species overlaps considerably with areas of heavy multiple use, native populations can disappear or shrink to tiny remnants.

I think it’s reasonable to consider reclaiming large chunks of some unique ecosystems that are either privately-owned, or disrupted by multiple use. What if there was a contiguous million-acre sage grouse restoration zone absent of cattle and roads? Or a 10 million-acre bighorn restoration zone where all domestic sheep and goats are required to be immunized from diseases that wreck havoc on wild sheep? Could we restore a contiguous million-acre tallgrass prairie without crashing Illinois’ ag economy?

Likewise, the NSFS continually faces lawsuits and threats of lawsuits from the granola crowd whenever a logging plan is proposed that would actually help the a forested ecosystem.

What if we said, ok forget logging. Let’s just cut fire breaks, or do controlled burns, or bulldoze the matchsticks, or something similar. Why? Because in the modern world active management is unavoidable if we the goal is to showcase a representation of a naturally-regenerating forest in it’s full glory. I’m hopeful that one day the hands-off management crowd could become more open to active forestry management if the goal is historical representation rather than a combination of economic gain, protection of mcmansions, and boosting game populations.
Here is an interesting study done on mountain goats and bighorn sheep in the GYE, to dig into @Pucky Freak . Just so you know, the GYE is 22 million acres. Bigger than the 10 million acre restoration area you are proposing. Most all the bighorns there, already carry the pathogens you are concerned with. Yet they still remain healthy.


  • Mountain-Ungulates_PART_1.pdf
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How about focusing your efforts and talents towards smaller pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, @Pucky Freak ? Something like this?

Part of broader project that is already underway. Click on the "2019 Whiskey Mountain Bighorn Sheep management plan" link in above link.

Here is a list of who is funding this work:

"Funding for these efforts have been provided by Game and Fish, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming Governor’s Big Game License Coalition, Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation and Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust."

Efforts like this, or whatever suitable project you find worthy, could definitely use your writing skills to inform the general public of the importance of these projects.
What do you think?
Absolutely. Small projects can build into bigger ones and gain momentum.

Thanks for the encouragement. I'm an occasional contributor to an international journal in my occupational field that has a viewership in the 100's of k's. Because of public employment media restrictions I'm credited as "anonymous".

For a few years now I've been batting around to write an opinion piece on bighorns as an American legacy species and a symbol of the conservation movement. The purpose is to appeal to the general public about the vast existing potential to put many more sheep on the landscape through changes to federal government agency objectives, state disease control practices, available winter range, as well some real conversation about what $$ might be required to do those things. My knowledge of sheep is pretty slim, so if you're up for it I can DM you a draft if you'd care to look it over.

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