Mother Nature or Nurture?

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

"I've had a number of conversations with land managers, identifying all the land in California that could conceivably be used as refugia, and what would be the appropriate species to go where. The magnitude of the problem is mind-boggling. There is a vocal minority of people in the conservation community who believe that things should unfold on their own. The theory being: "We don't know what we're doing. And we're bound to screw things up,'" says Graber, the National Park Service scientist. "What we're talking about is an order of intrusion greater than anything we've done in the past."

Scientists don't have evidence to link the forest fires that are devastating the Lake Tahoe area directly to climate change. But experts who study forests say there's no doubt that hotter- and drier-than-average temperatures will scorch the Rockies, the Sierras, the Cascades, and other mountain ranges during coming years. With increasing heat and drought, many trees will simply die off, such as the 2.5 million acres of piñon trees that have recently perished due to heat and drought in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.

Global warming promises a bonanza for one of coniferous forests' greatest enemies: bark beetles. Heat- and drought-weakened trees are more susceptible to beetle infestation. And scientists now believe that recent average winter temperatures in the Pacific Northwest may no longer be cold enough to kill off tree-eating beetles. The evidence file consists of 25 million acres of Canadian lodgepole pine forests that have been killed by a beetle plague. Dry, beetle-weakened, and dead trees tend to burn, especially in hotter and drier weather. And if enough trees die and burn, forests may actually become carbon dioxide polluters, rather than absorbers, accelerating the very global warming problem causing their demise.

"We may go through a pulse of [forests] bleeding carbon back to the atmosphere," says New Mexico U.S. Geological Survey forest researcher Craig Allen.

A rescue program might involve sending legions of chainsaw-wielding loggers into the forests, to thin trees en masse so that available water can keep fewer trees healthier. But such a controversial, environmentally counterintuitive step might remain politically impossible — until it's too late.

"That's one of the things that might make forests resilient and persist longer as climate conditions change. But in the end, if the climate changes enough, it's still going to kill a lot of what's growing here now, and anywhere else," Allen says.

In verdant, national parkland-pocked San Francisco, natural preservation is criticized as a fringe obsession practiced by a few wacky ideologues with an obsession with tiny plants such as the city's endangered Presidio klarkia, wispy stalks topped by four delicate lavender petals surrounding a red center.

Four years ago dog-walking activists rose up in revolt against the city Department of Recreation and Parks natural areas program, which consisted of a tiny staff of gardeners who cleared invasive weeds from San Francisco's remaining patches of primitive ecology and — in an extremely controversial move — limited certain areas to only dogs on leashes. Dog activists have for years crusaded against the National Park Service, whose managers have attempted to have pet owners leash their dogs on portions of Crissy Field, Fort Funston, and Ocean Beach to help provide safe habitat for the endangered snowy plover.

And in 2003 a plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove 3,800 Monterey cypress, in order to rescue the lithe, dandelion-like San Francisco lessingia, provoked what the New York Times called a "philosophical tempest."

This political feud engaged lovers of historically "natural" habitat of the sort that existed here before the white man came — "sand-hugging zealots," according to one local columnist — against lovers of relatively recent horticulture, such as the cypress planted by founders of the Presidio military base.

But while natural preservation may be controversial in San Francisco, that debate ended long ago among stewards of America's national parks. Natural preservation is second nature among people running the vast natural-industrial complex made up of parks, preserves, refuges, private nature conservatories, and millions of other acres of protected U.S. wild lands.

Multiple federal, state, and local agencies, supplemented by the work of nonprofits such as the Nature Conservancy and PRBO Conservation Science, assiduously study forests, deserts, islands, oceans, and the rest of the natural world to better understand its history, so that workers and managers can restore and preserve protected areas in a semblance of what ecosystems might have been like over the eons.

The U.S. ecological world wasn't always so sure of itself. There are other possible, sensible-sounding approaches to maintaining nature preserves. Golden Gate Park is a horticultural fabrication, with no relationship to the natural world that came before it — and locals seem to like it just fine. And even in the wilderness, humans clearly prefer some species over others; witness the public furor over the Pt. Reyes deer culling plan.

But in 1962 the Secretary of the Interior set up a special advisory board on wildlife management, led by ecologist A. Starker Leopold, which went about researching and discussing exactly what America's parks should be. They came up with an idea, summarized in a pamphlet known universally in the nature bureaucracy world as the "Leopold Report." It is best known for four evocative words summarizing what became the American scientific community's consensus on what U.S. nature preserves should be: "a vignette of primitive America."

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