All models are wrong, but some are useful
In light of the ever increasing human population and its growing demands for space and natural resources, it is clear to me that conservation of biodiversity is faced with serious challenges.
The overarching question we face is “how do we accommodate human development and yet ensure the protection of the natural world?”
One of the lessons learned over the past century of conservation is that acting locally without thinking regionally is not going to ensure the protection of biodiversity in a heterogeneous and changing landscape.
Instead, we need to conserve functioning landscapes that facilitate ecological processes such as dispersal and gene flow that allow ecosystems and species to persist and adapt in the face of change – we need a “landscape approach” to biodiversity conservation.
Moreover, in light of the inevitable landscape changes, driven by processes such as global climate change and urban growth, it is clear to me that we need to anticipate the likely changes in order to make strategic conservation decisions today.
For example, protecting a particular patch of critical habitat for a species of conservation concern is unlikely to be effective if the climate will no longer be suitable for the species at that location in 50 years – we need to embrace the notion that landscapes are dynamic, and plan accordingly.
Lastly, given the complexity of biodiversity, it is obvious to me that effective conservation solutions will require the integration of complex, multivariate ecological and socio-economic data. Fortunately, thanks in part to the recent explosion in remote-sensing technology, there are now vast amounts of relevant spatial data available that can be brought to bear on the conservation challenge.
Given the need to integrate lots of ecological and socio-economic data across multiple scales in space and time, I contend that a computer modeling approach to biodiversity conservation is urgently needed. Accordingly, in my role as principal investigator for the Designing Sustainable Landscapes project of the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, I have focused the project on developing a modeling approach to simulate changes to the landscape under a variety of alternative future scenarios (e.g., climate change, urban growth), assess affects of those changes to the integrity of ecological systems and populations of priority fish and wildlife species, and inform the design of conservation strategies (e.g., land protection, management and restoration) to meet biodiversity conservation objectives.
The project will allow us to forecast changes to the landscape across the Northeast and assess the consequences of those changes to biodiversity at multiple scales in space and time. This information will help inform the tradeoffs associated with alternative conservation actions, so that limited conservation resources can be directed to where they will do the greatest good.
And while this model does not include all of the factors that must go into real-world conservation decisions, I am confident and excited about the prospects that the model will provide useful information. My confidence is boosted by knowing that the North Atlantic LCC, through its extensive conservation partnership among Northeast agencies and organizations, will deliver this information to conservation agencies and organizations — the practitioners that get things done on the ground.
To learn more about the North Atlantic LCC and the DSL project, please click here to download the project factsheet. (PDF)