Thursday, February 07, 2008

Everything will change

Most people in my field agree that there are three major issues facing natural resource conservation right now. In order, they are: habitat destruction (urban and agricultural encroachment), exotic species, and climate change. If state and federal agencies had any teeth, we could stop habitat destruction and get a handle on exotic species. But climate change…what’s a conservationist to do besides ride her bike more and change light bulbs? Of course, non-profit organizations like the Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation are lobbying to change energy policies, but most state governments (other than California and a handful of others) are mum on the issue.

I spent an entire day listening to theories about what will happen to the beautiful, biodiverse Ozarks between now and 2050, when the temperatures in Missouri will have increased by 10 degrees Fahrenheit. I heard theories on how herpetofaunal populations, bird populations, and insect populations would be impacted by global warming. I heard one of the most respected men in my field tell us that due to the increased possibility for drought, landscapes will become drier. We’re moving towards an age, he speculated, where Ozark oak hickory woodlands will morph into xeric (dry) shortleaf pine woodlands. Missouri used to have almost 6 million acres of shortleaf pine, but most of it was harvested at the turn of the century (more on that next). Managers have been working tirelessly to coax it out of the degraded, timbered landscape, but are having limited success.

My esteemed colleague further speculated that the prairies of western part of the state will magically march across the landscape, taking over areas that were once oak savannas. His maps and models showed a Missouri very different from the one we live in now. With higher temperatures, the flora and fauna of Arkansas will move into Missouri. Mud snakes will leave the southeast and move into the lower Ozarks. Our glacial relicts, those rare little patches of the Ozarks that the ice age left behind when the glaciers retreated, will disappear, no longer having the comfort of lower temperatures and cool spring waters. They simply won’t have anywhere to go. Fens, for example, may cease to exist.

His theories sounded plausible to the rest of the audience. His maps showed shifting ranges, expansion of the now small, relictual pine forests that land managers have been trying to expand, in vain, for almost 40 years. Everyone in the room agreed with him. He’s a truly brilliant man, a great speaker, and a fantastic person, in general (he lives in Columbia, after all). The only problem with his theory was the one thing he didn’t mention: us.

In a presettlement landscape, these changes might feasibly occur. We might have seen a change in diversity, another blip on the ever-evolving geologic timetable. But now, in 2008, we have roads, cities, millions of acres tied up in agriculture. These precious landscapes of mixed pine-oak woodland, prairie, and oak-hickory savannas won’t expand or move into other landscapes because they don’t have anywhere to go. Shortleaf pine won’t magically move into the oak hickory woodlands. Prairies are so dissected and fragmented even now that prairie chickens don’t have anywhere to go. Our native landscapes exist in patches, with the largest in the Ozarks in the southeast: Mark Twain National Forest (where, incidentally, grows the largest stand of uninterrupted shortleaf pine in Missouri). Landscapes can't move around Springfield, or even cross I-44, for that matter.

Aerial photos of Missouri depict a landscape very unlike the presettlement landscape. St. Louis continues to sprawl westward, pinning in Babler State Park on all sides. Springfield is growing in every direction, impinging on the degraded prairies of the western edge and the karst areas of the east. My very own wonderful town of Columbia is growing, creating two small islands of trees in Three Creeks Conservation Area and Rock Bridge State Park. Statewide, our natural resources are feeling the pinch of urban and agricultural encroachment. Climate change is just another battle to fight.

So, what’s the answer? What’s a land manager to do in light of climate change and continued urban sprawl? The best he can. We should be more vigorous in our management regimes, protecting what’s left, managing to the best of our abilities. With increased temperatures and lower humidities looming large on the horizon, we’ll see fewer days when we can safely send fire through a landscape (a process which gets harder and harder in light of increased urban encroachment. No agency wants to smoke out a town or a highway.). Higher temperatures will likely break up the pollen of many plant species, rendering them sterile and slated for extinction. Warmer ambient temperatures will alter groundwater temperatures which will affect our struggling mussel and Ozark hellbender populations. So, we need to be doing the best we can to make our remaining landscapes as strong as possible in light of future dire consequences. Our actions today will make the Ozarks stronger in 2050.

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