On the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada grow trees that confound our normal sense of time. Some of the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) trees now alive in the Sierra Nevada mountains germinated a thousand years ago, in the era known as the Medieval Warm Period. In the same groves, there are younger individual trees that began their lives five hundred years ago, in the cold climate of the Little Ice Age. Those trees in turn grow next to even younger trees that came into being in our own era, as we sense the early effects of human-caused climate change. Many sequoias in such a grove, especially those born in our own era, can be expected to survive long after everyone reading this essay has died. Those trees will persist into a future of environmental conditions that may be much different from those of today. The individual life history of a sequoia transcends all our human-scaled markers of change. To visit a grove of sequoias involves connecting to beings living on timescales far outside scientific understandings of ecological change and permanence.1 This short essay considers how to regard change, both long-term change and sudden unexpected change, through the lenses of environment and history. Forests can be used as a touchstone for understanding change, but forests also let us explore how our reactions to change relate to our views of history and environment. Academic historians often protest that the discipline should not be used to predict the future. But in other hands a historical lens can be applied in ways that do in fact address the future, and stray far from the conventional bounds of what historians do. In writing this essay, I drew on my background in ecology as much as my background in history. Scientists use historical perspective both to find reference conditions for current ecological restoration and maintenance plans, and to detect long-term environmental trajectories that must be understood in order to outline effective predictions and prescriptions. Attending to the long timescales of deep history, evolutionary change, and climatic shifts also reinforces the strength and quality of responses to sudden changes in the human-scaled world of politics and culture. Considering timescales in the sequoia grove demonstrate how aptly forests allow us to think about scaling effects. Despite forests’ slow pace of growth and change, it is clear we must still understand them as contemporary locales. Even the most carefully preserved groves are not timeless refuges from the changing world. Moreover, the scaling issues are obvious not only in temporal but also in spatial dimensions. Groves of sequoias present one set of questions about timescales and life history. Expanding our scope to larger units, to the forest biome or geographic region, or going even bigger by abstracting a forest to commodity forms of lumber and paper, brings in entirely new sets of questions to add to smaller scale ones. Globally, forests serve immediate human demands for building, fuel, and other material needs. They further provide irreplaceable ecosystem functions, in the global biogeochemical cycle, and overall climate balance. Contemporary forest trees thus exist simultaneously in contexts of natural ecosystems and global commodity systems. Environmental policy applies to both ecological and economic potential of forests, whether we like it or not. For example, a top-level change in US Department of Interior policy priorities might lead simultaneously to shifting the economic debate on US-Canada softwood lumber tariffs, reordering the applied ecological questions of large-scale reforestation, and rewriting the legal limits of wildland forest use. The historical trajectory of the modern forest is interlocked with a long pattern of expanding networks of global politics, communication, and trade. This does not only mean that human enterprise seeps into the biological forest, but also that a particular forest’s impact and influence extends beyond the locale where its trees grow. The consolidation of industries and the increased connection of distant locales through climate, commerce, and communication mean that a beetle epidemic in the Canadian Rockies or a raw log export ban in a Southeast Asian nation might affect wood flooring prices across Europe. As economies around the world evolve and intersect with one another, the spatial scale of a forest’s management becomes global, but not homogeneously so. In one recent example, UK wildlife activists’ campaign to conserve forest orangutan and pygmy elephant populations halted, at least temporarily, the development of modern transportation corridors between towns in the interior of Malaysian Borneo.2 Such unexpected intersections of competing agendas, of local and transnational desires, are a feature of our current globalized culture. Study of past conditions is an inherent part of all ecological understanding, and hence of all environmental management, on scales from human memory to evolutionary time. Global forests have already changed significantly through eons of agriculture, logging, and other direct human pressure, and also in response to the indirect human pressures of climate shifts, fragmentation, and invasive species. Because the scale of these changes has been temporally and spatially patchy, our human perception of them often overlooks longer, broader changes. One concept used by environmental scientists is “shifting baseline syndrome,” a concept derived from fisheries science.3 If generations of fishers compare current catch to catch from the start of their careers, the iterative short-term scaling that results may hide longer scales of change. Likewise, if foresters measure current forest health against that of just a decade ago, as is common in the ten-year planning cycles of many state and federal forestlands in the United States, they might miss the longer scale patterns of change in the forest.4 Environmental managers and conservation biologists encourage awareness of shifting baseline syndrome as a means to understand how scales of human history obscure longer term changes in the environment. While it may cloud understanding of long-term trends, the phenomenon of the shifting baseline syndrome may not necessarily be bad in itself. It is surely human nature to consider the recent past differently than the distant past, and easier to call to mind the world of the previous decade than that of childhood. Allowing baselines to shift, goalposts to move, and timescales to slide can be important in practical ways as well as psychological ones. Ecological restoration, for example, would almost never be possible if managers demanded strict adherence to presettlement conditions and original goals.5 Flexibility and adjustment are vital for maintaining progress in long-term undertakings, both in environmental contexts and in general. A willingness to shift baselines is arguably necessary for effecting fine-scale improvements and adjustments and to understand multiple scales of change simultaneously. Complex adaptive systems of all types, from forests to human societies, survive through time by being resilient. The ability to adapt to change after change on different scales of time and space may be a necessity, not only in the realm of environmental management, but also in our general experience of human affairs.6 Environmental management demonstrates the value of such flexibility in the development of an experimental approach to solving pressing issues at the intersection of ecology and culture. Sustainable forestry planning processes provide excellent examples of iterative and adaptive management approaches in action. Although it may be a commonly stated goal in forest management, defining and actually achieving long-term sustainability in a commercially logged forest is not simple. Transregional general principles and reliable rules of thumb are difficult to come by. The ecological variations among forest types and the long timescales of forest management plans mean managerial practices cannot be easily generalized or extrapolated. For example, the processes of natural regeneration for major timber species differ greatly from one to the next, as does the pattern of regeneration from one area of a forest region to another. When a forest is subject to industrial logging for the first time, as for example the Pacific Northwest Douglas fir was in the early twentieth century, predicting the challenges and timescales of post-logging management required a decade of scientific forestry to determine.7 Thus each new project must tackle anew challenges like establishing a viable second growth, determining the frequency of harvest, maintaining healthy flora and fauna, and so on. Since there are often no clear guidelines for success, forest managers proceed in what should be recognized as an experimental mindset.8 It is valuable to keep historical conditions in mind and to be conscious of trajectories of change, not just for nostalgic or aesthetic reasons, but to anticipate future surprises. In their widely read commentary on uncertainty and the theories inherent in conservation management, the mathematical biologist Donald Ludwig, writing with two fisheries ecologist colleagues, acknowledged the value of bringing historical consciousness to environmental management. They underlined the importance of confronting uncertainty and incorporating unanticipated future events into planning processes, urging scientists to “act before scientific consensus is achieved,” and to incorporate the likelihood of the unexpected rather than denying it, favoring “actions that are robust to uncertainties; hedge; favor actions that are informative; probe and experiment.”9 The importance of addressing and incorporating such change is paramount, so that then conflicting trajectories and other historical challenges are not seen as a hopeless quandary, but rather an expected facet of the management plan. Humans and corporations often act irrationally, and hence attempts to develop long-term environmental plans without incorporating uncertainty and unexpected events are destined to fall short. When management strategies encompass the inevitable unpredictability of culture, economy, and the natural world, however, it becomes possible to reframe unexpected challenges and surprises as part of the planning process. Almost twenty-five years after the commentary of Ludwig, Hilborn, and Walters was published, however, reluctance to acknowledge the likelihood of uncertainty and unanticipated change has become no easier. As hard as it may be to cope with, both emotionally and practically, drastic unexpected change can yield much of value for our store of knowledge about the world. Indeed, in cases where constraints of time and money mean rigorous experimentation is not possible, such as managing climate change or developing sustainable forestry, dramatic and destructive events can be seen almost as natural experiments. The eruption of Mount St. Helens, for example, yielded immensely important data and theoretical insight for a wide range of scientists, as has the emergence of new volcanic islands such as Iceland’s Surtsey.10 When we leave the realm of volcanic eruptions, however, drastic events may be harder to welcome as natural experiments. Science policy scholar Kai Lee observed how difficult it is for stakeholders to welcome unexpected change, writing that “usually, the greater the surprise, the more valuable the information gained. But the costs of information often seem too high to those who do not foresee such surprises.”11 This is true not just within the sciences. Rather than decrying unexpected events or unforeseen ripple effects as interruptions of a stable world, we can see them as the most recent facets of long-running trajectories in spatial connectivity. Balancing short-term and long-term thinking is a challenge that draws on both our adaptability and our focus. Change is inevitable, both long, slow-moving change and fast, unexpected change. Planning, policymaking, researching, and learning should be flexible and iterative if they are to survive. This is a lesson we gain from examining human attempts to manage forests in a natural world caught between the pressure of enterprise and the culture of restraint. Whiplash changes on the national and global political stage are coupled with a strengthening awareness of the long slow changes affecting climate and globalization With the stakes high, it seems more tantalizing to believe a single correct path exists for imperiled environmental processes. We do well to remember, however, that we live in a world where a giant sequoia tree will live beyond all our planning horizons and fathomable predictions. Presuming certainty for that tree’s future is surely futile. Practices in historical and environmental scholarship demonstrate that any feeling of certainty is rooted in ignoring scales of natural variation and change. While not easy, it would be wise to become comfortable with uncertainty rather than to deny its existence. Emily K. Brock, the author of Money Trees: The Douglas Fir and American Forestry, works on the intersections of environment, science, business, and global trade. She is currently studying environmental management at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Notes 1. The case of the giant sequoia is a repeated touchstone for ecologists in discussing reference conditions and long-term ecological change. See John A. Wiens, Hugh D. Safford, Kevin McGarigal, William H. Romme, and Mary Manning, “What Is the Scope of ‘History’ in Historical Ecology? Issues of Scale in Management and Conservation,” in Historical Environmental Variation in Conservation and Natural Resource Management, ed. John A. Wiens, Gregory D. Hayward, Hugh D. Safford, and Catherine M. Giffen (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), Chapter 5; Constance I. Millar and Wallace B. Woolfenden, “The Role of Climate Change in Interpreting Historical Variability,” Ecological Applications 9, no. 4 (November 1999): 1207–16; and Nathan L. Stephenson, “Reference Conditions for Giant Sequoia Forest Restoration: Structure, Process, and Precision,” Ecological Applications 9, no. 4 (November 1999): 1253–65. 2. Jeremy Hance, “David Attenborough’s ‘Guardian Headline’ Halts Borneo Bridge,” The Guardian, April 21, 2017; “David Attenborough Protests Sabah Bridge to Protect Pygmy Elephants,” The Malay Mail, March 3, 2017. 3. For an example of the concept in use, see S. K. Papworth, J. Rist, and E. J. Minor-Gulland, “Evidence for Shifting Baseline Syndrome in Conservation,” Conservation Letters 2 (2009): 93–100. The classic articulation is Daniel Pauly, “Anecdotes and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome of Fisheries,” Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10, no. 10 (1995): 430. For a more complete discussion of fishery measurement challenges, see Tim D. Smith, Scaling Fisheries: The Science of Measuring the Effects of Fishing, 1855–1955 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994). 4. A large number of books have been written about the US Forest Service and its management challenges including the disconnect between career life span and forest life span. Two good entry points are Nancy Langston, Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995), and Mark Hudson, Fire Management in the American West:Forest Politics and the Rise of Megafires (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2011). For state and a federal comparative perspective, see also William G. Robbins, American Forestry: A History of National, State, and Private Cooperation (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985). 5. The best general exploration of restoration’s paradoxes may be Eric Higgs, Nature by Design: People, Natural Process, and Ecological Restoration (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003). For the edges of ecological restoration, see Laura A. Watt, The Paradox of Preservation: Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016). 6. The recent turn toward systems thinking and iterative planning in fields of general management, especially refined in certain industries such as high tech, has a popularity, perhaps reflecting the increasing unpredictability of the political and environmental risk landscape. See, for example, Forest L. Reinhardt and Michael W. Toffel, “Managing Climate Change: Lessons from the U.S. Navy,” Harvard Business Review 95, no. 4 (July–August 2017): 102–11. 7. See Emily K. Brock, Money Trees: The Douglas Fir and American Forestry, 1900–1944 (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2015), esp. Chapter 3, “On the Ground: Ecological Experiments and Philosophical Refinements.” 8. The literature on sustainable forestry is vast; for entry points, see Roger A. Sedjo, Alberto Goetzl, and Steverson O. Moffat, Sustainability of Temperate Forests (Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 1998), or Stephanie Mansourian, Daniel Vallauri, and Nigel Dudley, eds., Forest Restoration in Landscapes: Beyond Planting Trees (New York: Springer, 2005). 9. Donald Ludwig, Ray Hilborn, and Carl Walters, “Uncertainty, Resource Exploitation, and Conservation: Lessons from History.” Ecological Applications 3, no. 4 (November 1993): 547–49. 10. Jerry F. Franklin, J. A. MacMahon, and F. J. Swenson, “Ecosystem Responses to the Eruption of Mount St. Helens,” National Geographic Research 1, no. 2 (January 1985): 198–216; Thomas D. Brock, “Primary Colonization of Surtsey, with Special Reference to the Blue-Green Algae,” Oikos 24, no. 2 (1973): 239–43. 11. Kai N. Lee, Compass and Gyroscope: Integrating Science and Politics for the Environment (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993), 9. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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