Is It Time to Mess with Mother Nature?

During the past three years Russ Bradley has been checking on the breeding sites of the gray burrow-nesting Cassin’s auklet on the Farallon Islands. The islands, just off the Northern California shore, are a craggy paradise for hundreds of thousands of birds. But when it comes to the auklets, Bradley has been finding abandoned eggs, dead cue ball-sized chicks, and skinny, faltering fledglings.

“Most of the chicks have died,” says Bradley, a research biologist with PRBO Conservation Science, a nonprofit founded as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. “This was as complete a failure response as we’d ever seen before. And we’d been following this species for 35 years.”

The apparent culprit: Ocean currents, redirected by rising sea temperature, have swept out of range the millions of tiny krill that the adult birds scoop into their beaks, chew into purple smelly goo, and then spit up for their young. In other words, this unprecedented starvation wave may be a result of global warming.

Bradley is one of the experts who know most about the auklet die-off. Just the same, he’s adamant in his belief that he should not attempt to save any of the dying chicks. To do so, he says, would be considered unnatural and unscientific. “We try to maintain ourselves as scientists. But we really feel for the birds,” Bradley says.

In the world of natural preservation, it’s not just scientists who take this don’t-mess-with-Mother-Nature stance. Since the 1960s, the idea that natural preservation consists mostly of letting nature take its course–absent human environmental disturbance–has been doctrine among public parks bureaucrats, biologists, environmentalists, rangers, and other members of the vast landscape of individuals and organizations involved in preserving America’s natural environment.

With the advent of global warming, however, this hands-off approach is rapidly becoming quaint. Mountain lakes are disappearing along with the glaciers at Montana’s Glacier National Park. The pika, a cool weather-loving mountain rodent, is vanishing from the Sierra Nevada. Rising seawater threatens to salinize the freshwater ecosystems of the Everglades and submerge beach habitat along the Northern California coast. And an increasingly hot and dry climate is projected to kill 90 percent of the trees at Joshua Tree National Park.

An emerging scientific consensus says that unless government agencies and private environmental organizations redirect their missions to deal with climate change, they’ll oversee the advance of nationwide environmental catastrophe.

So professional preservationists, and the environmental movement as a whole, are left with unnatural choices: intervene aggressively or allow millennia-old ecosystems to die off.

Take the case of California’s celebrated sequoias. New studies resulting from decades of research show that giant sequoia saplings are thriving less robustly in the warming central Sierra Nevada. Should officials in Sequoia National Park build sapling greenhouses? Should they install sprinkler systems around the great sequoia monarchs? Or do they prepare a new habitat farther north, removing other species to make space? Should such moves even be contemplated, given the still-fledgling nature of predictive climatology?

And what of the rest of the trees in the West–the ones doomed to die from drought, fire, and beetle infestation?

Scientists studying forest diebacks say one response might be to thin forests so that individual trees are hardier and more beetle-resistant. Other controversial ideas include intensive breeding and genetic engineering to create insect-resistant tree species, combined with the aggressive use of herbicides and pesticides.

Wildlife managers have long believed that local plant species should be kept genetically pure. But climate change may ultimately call for a sophisticated type of wildlife gardening in which heat-loving southern plant species are brought north and encouraged to crossbreed with cold-loving cousins.

Helping plants and animals migrate north isn’t just a matter of leasing fleets of flatbed nursery trucks. Many species under threat aren’t easy to dig up and put in a pot. Soil microorganisms, fungi, butter­flies, and other small creatures critical to the functioning of ecosystems may also find their traditional homes unlivable. Assisting species migration would mean setting aside broad swaths of wild land to provide an uninterrupted pathway north for entire habitats.

Already the nonprofit Nature Conservancy is considering buying land and ecological easements to create north-south habitat-migration superhighways. Doing this on any sort of meaningful scale, however, would require making the preservation of American grasses, trees, and rodents an expensive national priority.

Putting America on this sort of ecological wartime footing–to prepare for an environmental future that nobody can fully predict–is likely to be a hard sell in Washington. Almost as difficult will be convincing the environmental community to abandon a hard-won national consensus about what it means to preserve the natural world.

Excerpted from High Country News(Feb. 4, 2008), an award-winning newsmagazine that covers the West’s communities and natural resource issues. Subscriptions: $37/yr. (24 issues) from Box 1090, Paonia, CO 81428;

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