Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

For Peats Sake: Climate Changing Paradigms

By Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

Northern Spotted OwlI have been involved in climate change discussions since the mid-90s when I helped coordinate what I think was the first climate change conference at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado. At the time, scientists were already warning us about the potential impacts from climate change but not very many folks were listening. Those who were listening were fairly skeptical if not in outright disbelief. Most of the country was still arguing about the Spotted Owl – climate change seemed to be too theoretical and too far off in the future to take very seriously. Saving the rainforests and endangered species were the popular causes of the day.

As the Project Leader for ASWM’s Wetland Restoration grant over the past year, I have found myself in the middle of a debate over wetland restoration best practices. Central to this debate is the question – how do we define “success”? What I am finding is that an individual’s answer may be highly subjective. Do we value preservation and “native” species? Or do we focus on functions and ecosystem benefits? It depends on your priorities. But the debate has also clarified for me the significant role that climate change has made to natural resource management perspectives and the level of complexity that it has thrown into an already incredibly complex science.

On a very basic level, climate change has underscored the essential need to work on a broader spatial and temporal scale when considering natural resource management policies and projects. Scientists were arguably already moving in that direction – although they are often confined by state and local policies and regulations that end at the governing boundary. Federal policies like the Clean Water Act should theoretically help us develop a broader national perspective and strategy regarding the importance of wetlands and clean water and their vital contribution to human well-being. Sadly, that perspective has gotten drowned out by the debate over clarifying jurisdictional boundaries.

Climate change, however, continues to challenge our need to define boundaries – be it state lines, regulatory frameworks, jurisdiction, local ordinances – even science. It is accelerating the reality of “change” – something most humans are intensely uncomfortable with. The new concept of “novel ecosystems” has many seasoned ecological restoration professionals at odds with each other – but I think it has prompted an overdue and incredibly important discussion. The term “novel” is perhaps used inappropriately. It suggests that new ecosystems have developed, when in reality it is actually describing the natural process of evolution. Invasive species management is a core element in discussions regarding novel ecosystems and those who embrace the concept are looking at ways in which invasive species may actually contribute to ecosystems. This is a very hotly contested theory to be sure.

California Drought Dry Riverbed 2009But climate change is causing habitats to shift north, and the animals that depend on them to move along with them if they are able. It is altering our natural environment in fundamental ways – from extensive droughts, to water contamination from stormwater runoff, to loss of coastlines, to rapid species extinctions. And it’s happening in our own communities and to the flora and fauna that we have grown accustomed to over the past 100 years. Climate change has arrived and unfortunately we are ill prepared.

So how do we define “success” if the “new normal” is change? If we are restoring to a “reference wetland”, what happens in 25 years when the climate no longer supports that reference wetland habitat? How do we manage for change? How do we even manage our “wilderness” areas including national parks when those habitats and climates are changing? Have we boxed ourselves in with boundaries and ideals for restoration based on historic conditions?

Fortunately, there have been some efforts to develop more cooperative interstate agreements to deal with some of these issues, such as the new Bay restoration pact signed by Governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Delaware. And the National Wildlife Federation just produced a handbook on “Climate-Smart Conservation: Putting Adaptation Principles into Practice” which should be a required reading for anyone working in natural resource management and/or policy.

I believe that we are going to have to challenge ourselves to think outside of the box more than ever before. We are going to have to evolve professionally much more quickly if we want to keep up to pace with a rapidly changing climate. We will have to manage more holistically, commit more capacity toward monitoring, develop an adaptive regulatory framework and develop more fluid and robust ways for different agencies to work together toward common goals. And for Peat’s Sake, we’re going to have to work together and embrace our interdependence with each other and with nature.

Lotus Flower“We don’t wait until we overcome our self-centeredness before engaging with the world; addressing the suffering of the wider world is how we overcome our self-centeredness. Contrary to a common way of understanding the bodhisattva path, bodhisattvas don’t defer their own perfect enlightenment in order to help others; helping others is how they perfect their enlightenment. We awaken from our own self-suffering into a world full of suffering, with the realization I am not separate from that world.” – David Loy, Buddhist teacher and author and board member of Ecological Buddhism.

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