Rethinking resilience-based management before it’s too late

October 05, 2018

Ecosystems around the globe are resisting and adapting to human-induced change: infrastructure invades wild spaces, new species are introduced or disappear, and climate change continues to shape the natural world. A new paper from UC Berkeley scientists addresses an important resource management issue: the need to track environmental change while supporting healthy levels of adaptation. 

The paper, published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, links two influential ideas in modern natural resource management: ecological resilience and novel ecosystems. 

A system’s ability to resist and recover from disturbance indicates its level of resilience. In tandem with the ebb and flow of resistance and recovery, novel ecosystems—systems created in response to human disturbance—are emerging across the globe. Managing the different types of ecosystem changes that are occurring across the globe is an increasingly important management concern today. 

Dead sugar pines in Sequoia National Park.
Sugar pines in Sequoia National Park that have been killed by beetles. Photo: Robert Heilmayr.

“I watched over 100 million trees die during the hottest drought in recent California history, and I realized we had a long way to go before we knew how to manage these types of catastrophic events,” said lead author Joan Dudney, a PhD candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM). “Practitioners are dealing with really difficult decisions—whether to accept or manage ecosystem change. Even if it’s possible to manage change, it’s often unclear what the right path forward is.”

The authors highlight that while resilience is emerging as the dominant management paradigm, misapplications can occur due to the complexities and ambiguities of resilience theory. 

For example, organizations such as the National Parks Service are considering strategies that protect refugia for critical native species. Other agencies, such as the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, are experimenting with more active interventions such as introducing non-native, climate-change adapted species. Both of these examples are designed to support long-term resilience, yet they represent potentially contradictory perspectives on the role of novelty in ecosystem function.

“What we try to do in our paper is provide a conceptual framework that defines the relationship between resilience and novelty,” notes co-author John Battles, a professor in ESPM.

Wilding pines in New Zealand
Wilding pines, including Pinus contorta, are invading many landscapes in New Zealand (pictured here), while P. contorta is used in Alaska to increase the adaptive capacity of the local forests. Photo: Joan Dudney.

Given that novelty—non-native genes, species, or functions—can both threaten biodiversity and increase a natural system’s ability to adapt to environmental change, management decisions are further complicated. The authors note that goal setting that aligns with underlying organizational values can help managers decide on appropriate strategies.

“Resilience to global change is not always the ultimate goal,” said Dudney. “It’s a catchy way to conceptualize global change management but it can lead to novelty traps that threaten conservation-based objectives.” 

Recognizing that resilience should be accompanied by other goals that identify the desired ecosystem state can greatly improve outcomes.

Other co-authors are Richard Hobbs at the University of Western Australia, Robert Heilmayr at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Katharine Suding at the University of Colorado, Boulder.