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Biodiversity conservation and environmental change: using palaeoecology to manage dynamic landscapes in the anthropocene.

Biodiversity conservation and environmental change: using palaeoecology to manage dynamic landscapes in the anthropocene

Lindsey Gillson

Oxford University Press 2015. ISBN 9780198713043. Paperback, 240 pages. 34.99 [pounds sterling]

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Forest science and forestry both have experienced great shifts in scope and purpose during the past several decades, retaining and enhancing their relevance while issues of biodiversity protection and the enhancement of ecosystem services increasingly inform global, regional and local concerns. Lindsey Gillson, in her book 'Biodiversity Conservation and Environmental Change' focuses largely on forest and woodland palaeoecology and history, and through this she does forestry an excellent service. Her aim was 'to explore the role of long-term data from palaeoecology, historical ecology, and other disciplines to the emerging science of ecosystem management.' Palaeoecology she defines as the study of interactions between plants animals and their environment on timescales of decades to millions of years--and on these terms, sound forest science is also palaeoecology. Every forest has a history, and what we find today needs to be explained and understood not only from its contemporary biophysical and soco-economic determinants, but also through this history: as Gillson shows, we are now much better equipped to reconstruct and understand such histories than before.

Her book has eight chapters. In the first, she outlines what she terms the conservation paradox, the vexed task of preserving ecosystems that have been under change in the long past, and continue in flux today, confronting managers with the quandaries inherent in responding to such complexity. Her concluding chapter addresses policy and management in the face of complexity and flux, based on the idea of resilience theory. And here she focuses on the protocol called strategic adaptive management. This is a recursive protocol of informed reaction to observed change with the goal of guiding ecosystem change within 'thresholds of potential concern', i.e. ecosystem state parameters derived (ideally) from a knowledge of the past, an approach employed most famously perhaps in the Kruger National Park of South Africa.

Between these, the book has chapters on elephants and the management of African savannas, on rewilding and landscape restoration, on the insights from long-term data on wildfires, and on palaeoecology and its use in managing climate change, as well as one on palaeoecology and the management of ecosystem services such as water supply.

The chapter titled 'The Elephant Dilemma' uses the experiences of the interactions between elephant populations and the densities of large trees (important keystone structures in these African savanna ecosystems, also distinguished uniquely by the survival of their megafauna). These accounts document the apparent dilemma of managers in the period up to the the 1990s in their attempts to hold the ecosystem in an idealised steady state, and the philosophical perplexity of 'the balance between the welfare of a single species [the elephant] and the well-being of the ecosystem ...'. The story of the Tsavo in East Africa illustrates the emergence of the idea of ecological change as the norm. The account of changing management philosophy regarding elephants and trees in the Kruger National Park in South Africa, with its historic lessons from the culling programme and unknowable ecological baselines, captures the conceptual shift toward the management goal of sustaining the facets and fluxes of biodiversity, and strategic adaptive management as the means to this end.

In 'Where the Wild Things Were', Gillson takes us through the emerging conservation agenda of rewilding in Europe and North America, of forests as wood-pastures or woodland mosaics, and the issues facing ecosystem management from the legacy of the long-past extinction of the megafauna in these regions. The chapter on 'A Burning Question' surveys recontructions of long-term wildfire histories and transitions in fire-management policies (again, with Kruger National Park as an excellent example). In this context she leads us through the problematic question of shifting baselines, and fire as an agent in effecting state shifts from forest to savanna and grassland. The focus of the chapter is on disturbance and ecological response, and once more, on the prerequisite in ecosystem management in order to achieve the intergation of 'palaeo- and neoecology across scales to maximize resilience and biodiversity'.

In the chapter on ecosystem services, skilful synthesis work on the 19th-Century history of the Lower Yangtze Basin in China reveals the effects of land-use change, water management and political events on the wider environment and the consequences to human well-being, the lake-bed proxies revealing the drastic degradation in air quality over time, for example. The history of the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia and its wetlands, in turn, shows how policy quandaries and errors have arisen in attempts to manage this enormous sytem. The 5,000-year reconstruction of the hydrology of the Lake Athabasca catchment in Canada from the tree-ring record provides a vivid picture of long-term environmental determinants of water levels, the lagged effects of deglaciaton following the Little Ice Age, from around 1300 to 1850 AD, and how the previous lack of information on the long term has confounded contemporary water resource management. Gillson then uses the history of terra prieta cultures in the Amazon Basin and discussions of biocultural diversity and cultural ecosystem services to lead to her conclusion: understanding and managing ecosystem services 'means viewing present landscapes as part of a past-present-future continuum, in which a long-term perspective is needed to understand what is changing, on what scales and how this impacts on stakeholders through effects on ecosystem services ...'.

The penultimate chapter, 'Nature, Culture and Conservation in the Anthropocene', warns of the tipping points that may come should further transformation of landscapes not be prevented, and planetary boundaries continue to be violated. The emphasis is on cultural landscapes as 'valid conservation targets' together with traditional natural resource practices as the means to halting transformation, outside the one-eighth of the world's land in protected areas. The analytical construct is the social-ecological system, and the means to adaptation is the undertanding of its resilience. Gillson draws upon the 3,000-year history of the Erhai catchment in Yunnan, China, and 2,500 years of Maya history as cases illustrating 'building, collapse an reorganization' in social-ecological systems: reflecting 'the interplay between societal adaptation and environment': these illustrate the kinds of analysis and response we require today, to sustain present-day cultural landscapes in a changing society and environment, through a 'synergy between landscape ecology, resilience theory, and sustainability science'. Then follows a comprehensive history of the UK uplands over several millennia, a case that demonstrates the value of its palaeoecology in explaining the present-day landscape and the social-ecological predicaments arising from recent policies and external economic forces. The issue of the cultural landscape is further illustrated by the history of social-ecological change in the northern hardwood region of eastern North America. She concludes the chapter with the argument that 'Maintaining biodiversity, ecosystem services and suatinable livelihoods are common to both conservation and development, and provide focus for conservation management based on an ecosysten approach'; not a novel argument, but with palaeoecology (in her broad sense) added contributes 'to developing landscape visions that are ecologically realistic and socially desirable'.

The accounts in 'Biodiversity Conservation and Environmental Change' are necessarily selective. Gillson makes broad claims for the use of palaeoecology, such as in guiding restoration ecology through the reconstruction of past species' distributions and the composition of altered communities, and the examples she employs are in themselves sound. But palaeoecology does have severe limitations, and there are many parts of the world that lack such reconstructions. Such palaeoecology is possible only where conditions favour the preservation of pollen and other deposits--wetlands, lake-bed deposits, or sites of prior human occupation--or the tree-ring record, but such sites are not everywhere availlable. Policies derived from paleaeoecology thus require careful judgement. Extrapolation and interpolation can be chancy and misleading, and interpretation requires a sound biogeography. But she does show the way, her examples and her synthesis convince us of the value of the knwoledge of deep time.

Gillson has completed a large and novel task of scholarly synthesis, achieving a wide integration between palaeoecology, policy and management approaches. She provides a gobal picture not available before. Her book has 30 pages of references, and thus she has done a great job for the reader. Forestry today is as much about managing the stand of trees as about managing the forests of the catchment in the mosaic of land use, as part of an inclusive social-ecological system. Forest science gains significantly from this work.

The book is full of today's environmental coinage-- anthropocene, tipping points, resilience, regime shifts, perfect storm--metaphors that sometimes have useful meanings, but sometimes rather emotive than of proven scientific value. Work is still needed to validate these ideas, and the reader should confront the concepts critically.

The text would have gained through proper copy editing. One example suffices: on page 43, 'browsing' should read 'browsed', Quercus rober should be Quercus robur, 'significant different' should read 'significant difference', and 'import driver' should be 'important driver'.

These are lesser matters. The book, at 34.99 [pounds sterling], is one for universty and research libraries everywhere.

Frederick Kruger

University of the Free State and Organization for Tropical Studies, Skukuza, South Africa
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Author:Kruger, Frederick
Publication:International Forestry Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2016
Words:1520
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