Structure, Functions, and Processes:
Communicating Landscape Ecology to Protected Area Managers.

Earlier this week I attended an internal conference titled "Managing at a Landscape Scale" (or some such thing).  One of the invited speakers was Gray Merriam, a pioneer in landscape ecology.  Of all the things he said, I kept coming back to the following:

"Ecosystems are not spatial units.  They are not habitats.  Ecosystems are a web of processes. ... We focus too much on structure."

Merriam's statements align with my experience.  Increasingly, protected area planners and managers are looking to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) when confronted with management decisions. They are much less likely to read through a report these days.  

I can use maps to effectively communicate significant or sensitive areas to protected areas planners and managers.  So instead of writing reports, these days I am focused on landscape ecological analyses and mapping results for use in GIS.  

  • Where are the best representative examples of various forest and wetland types?
  • Where are the old-growth forests?  The young forests?
  • Where are large wetland complexes?
  • Where are the roadless areas?
  • Which areas appear to be vital for maintaining connectivity on the landscape?
  • Where are areas of high physical diversity that may predict high species density?
  • Where are the flood plains?
  • Where are verified and potential spawning sites?

I don't believe that Merriam would dispute that these are important information themes for protected areas planners and managers to have.  Applied ecology practitioners do need to describe ecological structural elements, but they are only part of the story we need to tell.  Merriam felt that we have not been as good at identifying and considering ecological processes when making management decisions.  I believe that this is an accurate statement about where we have been, but it does not reflect where my organization intends to go.  The legislation that governs how we do business identifies that maintenance of ecological integrity is our primary mandate.  The definition of E.I. speaks about the importance of maintaining structure and allowing natural processes to occur unimpeded.

However, if we are essentially training protected area planners and managers to look to GIS to discover information, then communicating the importance of maintaining natural processes becomes even more difficult.  Processes are not structure, so they are generally not mappable.  They may be overlooked if decision makers are too focused on their GIS maps.  My colleagues and I will need to find creative ways to communicate about non-spatial ecological functions and processes.  Our initial approach will be to write a series of Best Management Practices.  These will cover topics such as wild fire, wetlands, dunes, roads, connectivity, restoration, hyper-abundant species, and invasive species.  But if any random person reading this tackk has other creative ideas, I'd love to hear from you.

Ed Morris (@edrmorris)

February 7, 2015

End Note:  It is probably worth mentioning that a colleague and I are the ecology unit for over 110 parks that amount to more than 3.4 million hectares. It should not surprise you to learn that we use GIS tools and methods to identify significant and sensitive areas. It is far more efficient than analyzing and reporting on a park by park basis. (Although, we do try to maintain a field program as well).

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