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As nature shifts, climate change forces rewrite of U.S. conservation strategy 

by Carey L. Biron | @clbtea | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 1 September 2021 01:00 GMT

Dead trees stand near an inlet on the Blackwater national wildlife refuge in Dorchester County, Maryland, in July 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Carey L. Biron

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As a warming planet alters natural systems, traditional practices of conserving parks and wildlife refuges are being forced to shift as well

By Carey L. Biron

DORCHESTER COUNTY, Maryland, Sept 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Standing on a jetty at the federal Blackwater wildlife refuge in Maryland, Matthew Whitbeck has a clear view of how climate change is shifting the land he's employed to preserve.

To his left is open brackish water, which is expanding into the reserve as climate change drives sea level rise. To his right are wooded hills slowing filling with salt-killed 'ghost trees'.

And in the middle is the sprawling tidal marshland he is tasked to protect - an ever more challenging job.

Sea level rise, happening particularly fast on the state's Eastern Shore, is pushing the saltwater marsh up into the hills, killing surrounding forests and opening the way for invasive species to gain a foothold and upset the balance that allows this ecosystem to flourish.

"I've worked in tidal marshes my entire career, but never really saw climate change until I got here," said Whitbeck, the supervisory wildlife biologist at the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

"Here it's very real - we have to deal with it in every aspect of what we're doing," he said in July, as the waterfowl the refuge was established to protect nearly a century ago called and rustled nearby.

How Whitbeck and others are addressing those changes constitutes a "sea change" from traditional conservation practices that seek to maintain ecosystems or help restore them to a historical ideal, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Planners at Blackwater now accept that shifts are afoot - and they are watching where they may lead and preparing for hard choices.

Those may include where to resist change but also where to try to direct it in a way that could, for instance, help control invasive species - and where to simply accept it.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Matthew Whitbeck indicates where forest has been cut in anticipation of spreading marshland, at the Blackwater national wildlife refuge in Dorchester County, Maryland, in July 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Carey L. Biron

The National Park Service, which oversees 85 million acres of land in addition to sites of cultural significance (though not the country's wildlife refuges), in April published new guidance for managers laying out those three options.

"This is about realizing we have to reckon with the uncertainty of climate change," said Gregor Schuurman, an ecologist with the Park Service's Climate Change Response Program.

"In the past we had a general understanding that if there were a disturbance and an aftermath, we could ... restore conditions. Once that's not possible, that's a different paradigm."


Already the effects of climate change are being seen across many of the 423 areas under the Park Service's management.

Sea level rise is eroding parts of Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, while warming stream temperatures are threatening key fish species in Glacier National Park in Montana.

In Alaska, thawing permafrost is menacing the road to Denali National Park and Preserve, according to the Park Service.

At Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, repeated fires have destroyed forests, with meadow and scrubland replacing them, said Collin Haffey, a conservation manager with the Nature Conservancy, during a June webinar on the "resist, accept, direct" strategies at the heart of the new Park Service guidance.

In Acadia National Park in Maine, nine of the area's 10 most common trees are expected to disappear from the reserve in coming decades - and scientists have found replacement forest types to the south will have trouble spreading north.

"If we follow accepted management actions, our forests likely will turn into largely invasive shrubland," Abraham Miller-Rushing, a science coordinator with the Park Service, said of Acadia during the webinar.

The shifts pose a conundrum for efforts to maintain parkland for coming generations, said Bruce A. Stein, chief scientist with the National Wildlife Federation and co-author of the new Park Service guidance.

The federation has pioneered the idea of "climate-smart" conservation since publishing a landmark paper on the issue in 2014, led by Stein.

"The Park Service is in charge of some of the country's crown jewels," he said.

"But if we want to protect these, we need to do it in a way that's aware of what the climate risks are. Where do we focus on resisting change (and) where won't that be possible and we need to accept or even facilitate change?"

As a botanist who worked in traditional conservation for years, Stein said he is "hugely conflicted" about the implications of the new strategies but said they ultimately offer hope.

"We're going to lose stuff, which is tragic, but if we're really thoughtful and intentional in what we do, we won't lose as much as we might," he said.

"And we'll also be able to protect and safeguard a lot that's still here, even if in slightly different places and configurations."

Dead trees stand amid the expanding marsh at Blackwater national wildlife refuge in Dorchester County, Maryland, in 2012. Handout photo by Ray Paterra/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The experience may offer lessons that go beyond managing nature, said Scott Covington, an ecologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

He pointed to the debate over whether cities under threat should engage in "managed retreat" from rising seas and other climate risks.

Thinking about the options can help a community decide what area, for instance, is "of historical significance to us, and we want to maintain it as long as we can," Covington said.

"In other areas, they'll say, 'We can't fight this' - or in others we might want to sacrifice one area to save another."


At the Blackwater refuge, which is overseen by the Fish & Wildlife Service, 5,000 acres of marsh have been lost since the 1930s, Whitbeck said.

Around 3,000 acres of forest have also been lost, with the remainder expected to be halved by mid-century - resulting in more of the dead, standing "ghost" trees that today dot the refuge's landscape.

A decade ago when he arrived at the reserve, the approach to saving the marsh remained old-school and resource-intensive: trying to fill in the open water and restore the marshes.

That can work for a period, Whitbeck said, but the waters will keep rising as climate-changing emissions continue.

Instead, he and colleagues are trying all of the new recommended approaches - doing traditional restoration in some places but in others cutting down trees to actively direct the changing marsh.

"It feels more realistic now, but we're not there yet," Whitbeck said. "We're dealing with the big questions that a lot of people will be dealing with very soon, if they aren't already."

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(Reporting by Carey L. Biron ; editing by Laurie Goering : (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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