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What Ever Happened to The Last Great Places?

Kareiva, Peter 5/23/2011

In the 1990s, The Nature Conservancy rallied enormous financial and community support around conservation with its call to save “The Last Great Places.” We and other conservation groups produced our maps highlighting “intact ecosystems” and desperately fought to keep wilderness from changing. But inexorably, year by year, there was less and less intact habitat to save, and even those great places we saved were under siege from invasive plants, climate change and the biological withering suffered by isolated habitat islands. For sure, the Conservancy has helped to prevent the extinction of many species. But these successes tend to be overshadowed by the sense that so much nature has been destroyed and that people everywhere are also losing their personal connection with nature.

There is no question — conservation is undergoing an identity crisis. We are beginning to grapple with the realities of a human-dominated planet. Every species cannot be saved, pristine wilderness is and has always been a myth, restoring systems to their natural state is more nostalgia than science, and human impacts are everywhere. But if no untouched wilderness remains, then what is there to inspire us? If invasive species are over-running the world and novel ecosystems are the norm, then aren’t our conservation actions futile? 

I think not. Conservation can maintain local uniqueness, complexity, the services nature provides, and the sense of surprise and adventure of wildness if not wilderness. Obviously, we will never be able to halt all invasions, but there have been hundreds of cases in which particularly harmful invasive species were locally eradicated and biological complexity thus restored. Our isolated “last great places” need not whither if we also take better care of the human-dominated lands that surround those islands of nature. Ecologists have found that farmlands can contain a surprising richness of birds and bats if they are managed properly, and some cities (Berlin is a great example) are homes to an amazing array of wildlife. Even though the last great places may not be the temples to nature we once hoped for, conservation still supports both the psychological and the material well-being of people. Altered and impacted environments that harbor plants, butterflies and fish provide clean air, water and food to people everywhere.

The key idea here is so simple, yet it has not been embraced by conservation purists. Nature is not some place “over there” — some designated green area in a conservation plan. Nature is everywhere — along our roadways, in our backyards, even in the middle of New York City and Beijing.

The world we can have is what Emma Marris calls a “rambunctious garden” in her new book about conservation in a post-wild world (Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, Bloomsbury, NY). Managing for this world will require more thought than clinging to the illusion of a pristine past or giving up altogether and surrendering to the onslaught of invasive species and ecological change. Organizations like the Conservancy, where every penny counts, need to be developing a scientific framework for conservation in this post-wild world.

Conservation investments will need to be made, not just in relatively undisturbed areas, but also in highly disturbed places — because cities, farmlands and degraded lands and wetlands can be rich refugia for species and important natural capital. We will need to know when eradication of a non-native species is worth the investment, and when an invasive species is simply part of the new future. We must start doing conservation along highways, in urban rivers and on mountains whose tops have been stripped for coal. We can even do conservation in our backyards by planting shrubs that provide food for birds and other wildlife. Everyone can do conservation and it does not require an expedition to distant exotic places.

I always thought that “The Last Great Places” sounded like a plan to create a large outdoor museum—one that few people could go to. By contrast, tomorrow’s conservation must be all-inclusive. “Pristine” and “intact” can no longer be the trump cards that dictate where we invest our efforts — they were phony trump cards anyway, since no place is truly free of human influences. Instead of saving “The Last Great Places,” the future of conservation lies with making every place better for nature, and using scientific analysis to show where and how to do so in a way that reaps the greatest results per dollar invested.