Natural resource managers have used natural variability concepts since the early 1960s and are increasingly relying on these concepts to maintain biological diversity, to restore ecosystems that have been severely altered, and as benchmarks for assessing anthropogenic change. Management use of natural variability relies on two concepts: that past conditions and processes provide context and guidance for managing ecological systems today, and that disturbance-driven spatial and temporal variability is a vital attribute of nearly all ecological systems. We review the use of these concepts for managing ecological systems and landscapes. We conclude that natural variability concepts provide a framework for improved understanding of ecological systems and the changes occurring in these systems, as well as for evaluating the consequences of proposed management actions. Understanding the history of ecological systems (their past composition and structure, their spatial and temporal variability, and the principal processes that influenced them) helps managers set goals that are more likely to maintain and protect ecological systems and meet the social values desired for an area. Until we significantly improve our understanding of ecological systems, this knowledge of past ecosystem functioning is also one of the best means for predicting impacts to ecological systems today. These concepts can also be misused. No a priori time period or spatial extent should be used in defining natural variability. Specific goals, site-specific field data, inferences derived from data collected elsewhere, simulation models, and explicitly stated value judgment all must drive selection of the relevant time period and spatial extent used in defining natural variability. Natural variability concepts offer an opportunity and a challenge for ecologists to provide relevant information and to collaborate with managers to improve the management of ecological systems.
Ecological Applications – Ecological Society of America
Published: Nov 1, 1999
Keywords: disturbance ; ecosystem management ; historical range of variability ; landscape management ; management of ecological systems ; natural variability ; restoration ; variation, spatial and temporal scales
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