Mother Nature or Nurture?

The question of whether to begin saving creatures and habitats from climate change

One thing is clear: Climate change has obviated preservationists' job of restoring natural ecological balance, because nobody knows what that balance will be.

"It may be that soon one-third of the species I'm seeing outside my window might not be able to find habitat here. Maybe half of them will be new species that find the new climate here amenable," says David Graber, chief scientist for the Pacific West region of the National Park Service, whose office is at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. "Am I going to fight the new species? Am I going to welcome them?"

Similar questions are unfolding all over California.

Ironically, the issues of climate change and potential habitat extinction are particularly acute in the metropolis of San Francisco.

This is true even forgetting the font-of-life Farallons, which by accident of political history are within the San Francisco city and county lines.

Onshore San Francisco, with its distinctively fogged-over cool summers, and areas of soil composed of a mineral named serpentine, is a veritable vivarium of rare and endangered plant species. The Presidio of San Francisco alone is home to at least a dozen species of extremely rare wildflowers and shrubs. The San Francisco lessingia, a tiny sunflower, exists in small patches in the Presidio, and in another little patch in Daly City. And the Presidio klarkia, a flower with four tiny lavender petals, exists in three patches in Alameda County, and two in the Presidio.

San Francisco's queen mother of endangered plants, called raven's manzanita, consists of just one Presidio shrub in the entire world.

When the climate becomes hostile to our unique local plant species, should workers begin replanting them somewhere in Sonoma County? Or as far north as Del Norte County along the Oregon border?

Officials with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which includes the Presidio, Ocean Beach, Ft. Funston, the Marin Headlands, and Bolinas Ridge in Marin County, are preparing to study the question in earnest. But so far, the GGNRA officials I spoke with who will help lead the parks' global warming response effort have yet to decide precisely what they need to worry about.

The fact is that science doesn't yet know what global warming will do to local weather. And researchers haven't yet figured out how much climate change any particular habitat, plant, or animal can weather before perishing.

"All I've heard for the San Francisco Bay Area is that they don't know whether it will get drier or wetter. They don't know what the effects on the fog patterns are. And a lot of our species and plant communities have adapted to those fog conditions," says Bill Merkle, a Golden Gate National Recreation Area wildlife ecologist.

This year the GGNRA is revising its management plan, with working groups focusing on how to deal with climate change. A separate task force at the park has also been formed to discuss the park's reaction to climate change.

Bordering the GGNRA to the north, Pt. Reyes National Seashore is run by superintendent Don Neubacher, who testified a month ago before Congress on how his park was responding to climate change. Rather than proposing new projects to protect ecosystems from global warming's effects, Neubacher characterized current natural preservation projects, such as evicting a commercial oyster gathering operation from Drake's Estero, as making the environment more "resilient" as the climate transforms.

"The resiliency of ecosystems to climate change is greatly enhanced by removing destructive activities," Neubacher told a U.S. House subcommittee on climate change on April 26. "For many ecosystems, it is truly a death by a thousand cuts."

I posed the question of what parks should do once global warming destroys old habitats and and creates new ones to Tamara Williams, a GGNRA resource management specialist.

"I know everybody's looking for that list, that ultra-sensitive list that we need to be incorporating in our planning and management decisions," says Williams.

Until scientists conjure such a list, Williams suggested there isn't much park stewards can do. Throughout California and the U.S., however, natural preservationists are becoming convinced they must act. They're just not sure how.

Scientific studies are emerging to begin the list Williams describes.

Two hundred fifty miles southeast of San Francisco, new studies, resulting from decades of research conducted over wide swaths of forest habitat, show that giant sequoia saplings thrive less in their central Sierra Nevada ancestral homeland as the Earth warms.

So do park officials build sequoia sapling greenhouses? Do they install sprinkler systems around the great sequoia monarchs? Or do they prepare a new habitat farther north, removing other species to make space for the new, more regal saplings? Will this even be necessary, given the still-fledgling nature of predictive climatology?

"We still don't know whether the Sierra Nevada is going to get wetter or drier," notes Graber.

Indeed, the only thing scientists and park managers seem to know for sure is that they need to talk, a lot. The coming year's calendar is chock-a-block with seminars, conferences, task force meetings, special hearings, paper presentations, and other discussions on the issue of how to preserve nature when global warming is distorting what "naturalness" means.

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