Essay By: Tom Bailey, Executive Director, Little Traverse Conservancy
Change is coming to northern Michigan in a number of ways. The Great Lakes have become an immense experiment in what happens when exotic species are introduced to an ecosystem with virtually no limits or controls, as ballast water from ships all over the world continues to dump new organisms into the Lakes. Diseases like the beech bark fungus, and pests like the emerald ash borer and hemlock wooly adelgid have come from Europe and Asia in wood products and shipping containers with little to prevent more such pests finding their way into our system. Ornamental plants which look pretty in the yard can turn out to be major invasives that crowd out native plants, displace food for wildlife and proliferate virtually unchecked across the landscape.
These are serious threats to the balance of our ecosystem in northern Michigan, and the environmental, economic and social devastation they can cause should not be underestimated. More courage to regulate those aspects of interstate and international commerce that threaten our aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem could go a long way in addressing these perils.
Looming over it all, of course, is the Big Issue of climate change. During my lifetime I have watched the opossum, previously not found in the northern Lower Peninsula, arrive and multiply. Though their population can be reduced by a hard winter, these animals are finding it easier to live in areas that were previously too cold to sustain them. Winters just aren’t what they were several decades ago when I was a boy.
Meanwhile, measurements of rising carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere have been made at the University of Michigan Biological Station near Pellston. To help figure out what this might portend, scientists at the Station have been subjecting various tree species to carbon dioxide levels expected to prevail later in this century. I recall hearing about one study that found in maples, for example, growth speeds up but reproductive success goes down; not the best prospect when we consider that exotic pests may make it harder for our forests to sustain themselves.
Exotic pests, climate change–given all this, what’s the role of the land conservancy??
First and foremost, as owners and guardians of natural land, land conservancies have some of the best areas to study and observe trends and changes in the natural world. Areas that are maintained with minimal direct human intervention can serve as control plots versus areas where management is undertaken. Everything from complex research to simple measurements can be done by institutions ranging from large research universities to local school science classes. The general public can be involved, too, through volunteer efforts such as the “bio-blitz” that identifies the multitude of species present on a given property at a given time. Over a period of years, results from these exercises can provide insight into what might be changing and how.
Volunteers and educational institutions can keep phenology records, noting events like first and last frost, first and last snow, first blooming of vegetation, dates of bird migration, monarch butterfly migration, and so on. This information tells us a lot about what’s going on with weather and climate.
And on managed parcels, land conservancies can engage in some modest experiments to test ideas that have been advanced about forest migration in a changing climate. We can, for example, plant trees and shrubs whose northern ranges were previously found two or three counties to the south and see if they thrive under changing weather and climate conditions. We can invite universities and others to study and in some cases experiment in our forests, meadows and wetlands to learn how plants and systems might adapt to changing conditions and how the ranges of various organisms might be shifting.
Some people consider climate change “settled science” as others remain skeptical. Land owned by conservancies can help to shed light on what is and isn’t happening by providing areas for research and areas to serve as controls.
In the long run, perhaps the best hope offered by land conservancies and our collaborations with local, state and national park and resource management agencies is to keep enough land in a natural state that Mother Nature will be allowed to evolve and adapt. The more we can do to protect what is common today, the less we will need to worry about what might be endangered or threatened tomorrow.
I have long said that if one thinks of extinction in terms of the metaphor of falling off a cliff, it seems that in the rush to protect threatened and endangered species we are spending too much time at the edge of that cliff trying to keep things from falling off. I would suggest that our time and effort might be better spent ensuring that we protect the integrity of the land back away from the cliff so that all species have the opportunity to thrive, and Mother Nature can decide which unsuccessfully adapted species will be relegated to the cliff’s edge.
This approach demands careful and continuous study, and the kind of humility that Jack Ward Thomas seemed to have in mind when he reportedly observed that “ecosystem management is not only more complex than we think; it’s more complex than we can think.”
This is the essence of good, old-fashioned conservation: the wise use of our environment and its bounty only to the point where we don’t remove so much from the system—or pollute it with too many byproducts—that the system becomes unable to sustain itself. Change is the only constant in Nature. However, it is essential that we recognize that some of the changes brought about by human activity can be damaging to natural systems and to humanity itself. We have a responsibility to our great-great-great grandchildren, to our fellow creatures on the Earth and to ourselves to avoid the recklessness that in the past has led to environmental devastation in Michigan, the United States and worldwide. We need to learn from our mistakes, set aside our hubris and strive to be responsible stewards of our environment.