Posted by: salamandercandy | September 5, 2006

Be the president…..

Like most biologists, I spend a good deal of time thinking about conservation. There is a stereotype, to a certain extent, that “environmentalists” are all doom and gloom. If I were to conform to such stereotypic constraints I would probably be curled up in the fetal position on my living room floor too depressed to even move. And while that may be an indication of a good Saturday night to most undergraduates, it is not how I want to spend the majority my life. I therefore try to put the depressing facts aside and think about conservation as constructively as possible. What, you may be wondering, is there to think about besides trying to save the Panda or the Whales or the “______” (insert your charismatic megafaunal representative of choice)? Plenty. One issue that I have been thinking a lot about lately is what the best land usage strategy is to meet the broadest array of conservation goals. In order to best demonstrate my thoughts, I would now like for you to join me on a journey into the realm of the hypothetical (An activity that I often engage in to the dismay of my fiancée).


Imagine that you are the president of the U.S.A. Do not imagine that you are George W. Bush (A scary thought for some of us), but rather that you yourself have been elected president. It is the third year of your term and you have little to do. The senate has approved two bills and would like for you to ratify one and veto the other (I realize that I may have just alienated any fans of political science – but remember, this is hypothetical). Bill A proposes to create a network of small to medium sized reserves that, for the most part, are connected with one another and span the entire continent. A portion of the reserves will be open for recreational use, while others will not. More specifically, 1 out of every 10 reserves will be open for use. Usage will be monitored and regulated, with decisions to open or close areas to be made by managers. Additionally, the density of the reserves will be dictated by biodiversity. Lastly, any area that has a highly endangered plant or animal will be made into a small to medium size reserve and sites for future development must be surveyed for the presence of such organisms. Additionally, all current parks, reserves etc. will continue to be managed as they were historically.

The second bill lying upon your perfectly polished mahogany desk is quite different. This bill (bill B) proposes to create huge reserves throughout the continent. For example, 50% of the everglades would be protected, 60% of Hawaii would be protected, and 150,000 square miles of prairie would be restored. Each unique ecosystem would be required to have a reserve. Of course, a panel would have to convene to decide upon the precise definition of an ecosystem. These reserves, however, are quite different from the ones proposed in bill A. Roads will not be built through them and people will only have access to 1/10 of the reserve. Managers will decide where on the reserve people will have access to (with the option to rotate access areas if they decide). Additionally, these very large reserves will not be intentionally connected. Like the other bill, all current parks, reserves etc. will continue to be managed as they were historically and there will be no restrictions on setting up other such parks and “reserves” as we have in use today. Note that the same percentage of land (say 35% of total area) will be protected by both bills, and the same total area open to people will be the same. The main decision you need to make is large, few, and unconnected versus small, many and interconnected

The main point of this hypothetical exercise is to get feedback about land use and how it should occur. In bill A, would development spread out across a wide area around the numerous interconnected reserves? Would new cities and towns appear across the landscape? How would bill B dictate development? Which of these two bills would you choose and why? Which of these two bills would be better for conservation? Which would be better for people and the economy? Would a compromise between the two bills be better? Would people’s actions make a difference? Would the different bills inspire different conservation ethics? You’re the president. Let the people know your decision (i.e., post a comment).

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Responses

  1. Okay, I haven’t thought about this too hard, so I am going with a combination of highly-educated snap judgment and gut feeling. I say, let’s have the big reserves. Small reserves would probably be at greater risk of being fucked up by urbanization, pollution, invasive species, etc. If the degree of interconnectivity among the small reserves was very high, then that might make me change my mind. Maybe. But what are the chances of that? Of course, what are the chances that the giant reserves you speak of could ever be created? But I must remind myself that this is a hypothetical exercise– so I say BIG reserves!

  2. Here are some differences I see between the two scenarios. First is the edge/area ratio. Bill A would produce much more “edge” land (i.e. land near the border of the reserve). Edge land is probably bad for wildlife, because the effects of people living nearby could spill over (pollution, house cats hunting the birds, noise, etc.). On the other hand, it’s probably good for people… if there were many large reserves, most people would live far from a reserve, and the interior of the large reserves would have no direct human use (you couldn’t even gaze upon the forested hills, since they’d be too far away). However, many small reserves would allow everyone to live near reserves and enjoy their benefits (aesthetic and recreational, as well as practical benefits like water purification in natural wetlands). Small reserves that no one was allowed to enter could still be viewed from afar, and wildlife would spill out into inhabited areas to the delight of naturalists (and hunters?). Ideally, even the environments we live in can be kept clean, and the landscape would smoothly transition from ecologically healthy populated areas to areas without humans. If we could do that (a big “if,” I know), the negative edge effects on reserves would be minimal.

    A second difference is that small reserves could be tailored to specific biodiversity hotspots. Large reserves would miss patches of land where rare endemic species lived, and would probably preserve a lot of land with low biodiversity, such as mountaintops (just like our current National Park system does). This is an advantage of small reserves.

    An advantage of big reserves is that whole ecological processes could be preserved. For example, in a big reserve a population of predators with wide ranges (bears, wolves, etc.) could live sustainably and hunt without destroying the prey population. But in terms of biodiversity conservation, I’m not sure that a few large carnivores should get priority over thousands of insects, plants, mollusks, small vertebrates, etc.

    Mostly for the sake of arguing with Ivan, I’m going to say the small reserves win in this case, although I would certainly have a tough time deciding if I were actually in this position.


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