Fall Reflections

Written By Phil Levin, Conservancy Lead Scientist

The softening gray sky; cornflower yellow leaves piled up and smelling of their earthly past; once brilliant sockeye salmon carcasses collecting in swirling waters.  Fall is in the air.  I can feel it.

After a too-short Northwest summer, the twilight of autumn envelopes me and draws me inside. 

For many, the onset of autumn’s north winds signals an end.  A time to preserve the bounty of the summer; a time to prepare for winter’s rest; a season to dream of spring’s awakening.  For me, though, it’s a beginning.  

As fall sets in, I walk through my garden, assessing which plants thrived and which ones disappointed.  Did I choose the wrong varieties?  Was the soil deficient in some nutrient?  Did the slugs take more than their fair share?  Answering these questions is the start of next year’s growth and productivity. 

Autumn is also the time I take stock of myself.  I look back at the last year--what I have done well and where have I missed the mark.  Am I the person I really wish to be? How can I grow to better father, partner, friend -- person?  The equinox is the annual moment I begin again.

Self-reflection is also critically important for the science underlying conservation.  Conservation science has been called a crisis discipline. As we confront climate change, acidifying oceans, rapidly altering ecosystems, extinctions, and the loss of biodiversity, we lack the luxury of time. Species are going extinct before they have the chance to be recognized by science, while fewer and fewer places around the globe support functioning ecosystems.  In the words of the 16th century poet and Rabbi, Eleazar Azikri, “the time [to act] is now; rush; be quick; be bold.”

The urgency of the moment requires unflinching action, but as we consider what strategies will best address the challenges confronting the earth’s biosphere, we face incredible scientific uncertainty.

Taking actions under uncertainty requires an adaptive approach to management. This means that we must take action without precisely knowing the outcomes. Instead, we must define the potential risks and benefits of alternative solutions and identify vulnerabilities to key uncertainties.  We can then identify the actions that we think are most robust to uncertainty.  

The “adaptive” in adaptive management means that we carefully monitor and assess ecosystems so that our knowledge of the world’s ecosystems is improved and we learn how they respond to our actions.  In this sense, repairing our world and growing our knowledge is not so different than my own autumnal introspection—we must take the time to reflect on our actions, determine if we missed the mark, and when necessary adapt our strategies to enhance our opportunities for success.

But when we do not stop and ponder our actions and assess how we are doing, success will be difficult.  Surprisingly, conservationists often do not monitor their actions.  For example, Steve Katz, a scientist at Washington State University, and his colleagues examined 23,123 examples of river restoration projects throughout the Pacific Northwest.  Only 1569 of these projects-6.7 %- monitored the outcomes of their actions.  In 93% of cases, conservationists lacked the ability to take stock, assess how riverine environments were doing, and if necessary, adjust and improve their actions. 

For two decades, The Nature Conservancy’s work has been grounded in the tenets of adaptive management by a framework we call Conservation by Design.  Conservation by Design provides a consistent, science-based approach with cutting-edge analytical methods. It has guided us in identifying what to conserve and how to conserve it.  And, importantly we monitor and evaluate our work, and when necessary adapt our approaches to achieve better outcomes for both nature and people. 

While there is no question that we must move boldly forward to tackle today’s challenges, autumn’s golden light reminds us of the importance of reflection.  The Hasidic Rabbi Sholem Noach Berezovsky teaches that a person is like an aging house— to truly improve, one needs to be prepared to entirely destroy the structure of the old house in order to build a deep and strong foundation for an entirely new building.  This lesson in no less important for conservation.  While we may not need to demolish our house, we conservation scientists and practitioners must pause, reflect on our actions, and, if necessary, be willing to at least do a little remodeling.  In doing so, we have the best chance to conserve and protect nature today and into the future.