The Relevance Of Ecology To Natural Resource Management

As indicated in Chapter 1, this book does not provide explicit recommendations for resource managers for two important reasons. First, management decisions must be temporally, spatially, and objective specific. Thus, this book should not be used for site-specific management decisions; rather, management decisions should be couched within this temporally and spatially broad discussion and should be made by managers most familiar with individual systems (sensu McPherson and Weltzin 2000). Second, specific management activities, although presumably based on scientific knowledge, are conducted within the context of relevant social, economic, and political issues. These specific issues and concerns are beyond the scope of this book, which is instead focused on scientific knowledge.

As discussed by McPherson and Weltzin (2000), the realm of science represents a substantial reservoir of relatively untapped information available to resource managers. As such, managers in need of scientific information are encouraged to use existing data, work closely with the scientific community, and communicate the need for specific information. Further, it is critical that resource managers understand how scientific knowledge is obtained: effective managers should be familiar with scientific principles. For example, not all scientific information will enable managers to predict accurately the response of an ecosystem to a specific disturbance or manipulation. Some research findings actually present untested hypotheses rather than observed responses to well-controlled experimental manipulations. The results of such research should be interpreted judiciously (Chapter 1).

Figure 5.3 Identifying grassland plants along a transect. Photo by Kiana Koenen.

The development of theory is intended to be as general as possible. In fact, the discovery of universal scientific laws (e.g., evolution by natural selection) represents a powerful goal for science. The application of ecological theory is necessarily site and objective specific; in addition, management must be conducted within the context of relevant social, economic, and political issues. Resolving the paradox between the generality of theory development and the specificity of theory application represents the crux of the problem for applied ecology (Figure 5.3).

The paradox between the generality of theory development and the specificity of theory application is exemplified in virtually every issue of scientific journals. Few managers read the ecological literature because the research reported therein does not appear to be relevant to natural resource management. We offer three familiar examples. First, heated debate has developed with respect to the relative importance of the size and number of reserves required to meet conservation goals. The single-large or several-small (SLOSS) debate has filled hundreds of pages in leading ecological journals. The volume of literature dedicated to this topic implies that it must be important, yet an overwhelming majority of managers will never contribute to the design of a conservation reserve. In the rare cases when new conservation reserves are established, we suspect that the SLOSS literature - which is characterized by debate about simple ecological models which trivialize the natural history of important species - is ignored in the process of their design and establishment. Second, the relationship between species diversity and ecosystem function has received much attention from ecologists. Consensus has not been reached on the importance of species diversity to ecosystem function, much less on a cause for a relationship. In fact, there is no reason to expect a single, general relationship between species diversity and ecosystem properties (e.g., productivity, rates of nutrient cycling) because the relative contributions of species to ecosystem properties are strongly influenced by the environment (Cardinale et al. 2000). In other words, the environmental context within which species establish, grow, and interact has greater influence on ecosystem function than the absolute number of species. A surprising amount of energy and expense has been spent to discover that the identity and characteristics of species exert considerable control over ecosystem function: that species "matter" has been known at least since Aristotle's time. Third, journals are similarly replete with case studies of specific species or ecosystems. Paramount to publication of research in the "best" journals are the ecologist's ability to couch the research question within the context of contemporary ecological theory and the cleverness of the experimental design used to address the question. Considerably less important is the creative application of research results beyond the system under scrutiny (and sometimes even within this system). It is small wonder that overworked managers dedicate little time to the study of ecological literature.

Given the overwhelming volume of ecological literature, it is easy to understand why managers rarely consult literature that is not based on local research. Few managers are interested in the SLOSS debate (similarly arcane examples are plentiful), and many consider the results of case studies to be site specific and of no particular importance to management in local systems. This reflects a recurring theme in ecology: the quest for general principles (which is valued in ecology, as in other sciences) necessarily involves the study of details. As a result, scientists frequently end up making natural history observations instead of contributing to ecological theory and, in the process of illuminating details, all hope for generality seems to vanish. Of course, this problem is not restricted to ecology. Different people appreciate different degrees of generality, so that one person's conceptual richness is another person's trivial detail. Anyone who has been subjected to the wedding videos of friends can understand the roles of familiarity and perception on the appreciation for detail.

Different levels of specificity are necessary for different management questions and ecological scales. Ultimately, ecological theory may consist of a series of nested conceptual models (Keddy 1989). Specific models geared toward the management of individual systems will use site-specific information and precise taxonomic resolution. These models will be particularly useful for the development of site-specific management strategies. Presumably, they would be nested within more general conceptual models which would incorporate relationships among state variables and functional groups of organisms. The latter models would be useful for establishing and assessing landscape-level policies.

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