Saturday, September 15, 2012

Ecer 2012, Day 4: The Novel Ecosystem Brawl

Day 4 of the ECER 2012 conference was the day for my presentation on the topic of using functional analysis as a tool to detect environmental filters in ecological restoration. It occurred at the same time as a much visited and controversial full afternoon session on Novel Ecosystems took place. I had time to listen to the beginning of this brawl.
Cara Nelson, Vice Chair of SER International, opened the session by making the point that new concepts can cause strong oppositions due to unclear terms. She stated that people are many times closer to each other than they think. “Well, let´s see about that!”-commented one professor.  After Cara, James Aronson explained the scale from undisturbed systems-hybrid systems-novel ecosystems, with novel ecosystems being systems that came into being due to human influence, but that no longer needs human input to stay alive. He commented that people have been using environmental disasters (e.g. oil-spills) as example of novel ecosystems, and stressed that this was never the intention. My comment to this is that such an exception is hard to make, since an oil spill fueling the growth of oil-eating bacteria is indeed a novel ecosystem, that has replaced the system that was previously there. If I understand the novel-ecosystem camp correctly, examples where we should accept novel ecosystems are when restoration is not possible (that is not a choice), or when the restoration comes with an environmental cost, that is higher than what can be gained from the restoration of the ecosystem.
When the debate opened for all listeners to contribute the fight was on. One professor stood up and said that he basically did not think the novel-ecosystem people had contributed with anything new, and that their definition of what´s novel is wrong to start with, since systems are changing.
A Belgian scientist stood up and got a lot of attention when he stated that he thinks that this topic is a dangerous topic, which we should not discuss (blogging about it is probably forbidden to). He stated that those who are keeping this debate alive are playing with fire. The reason for his fear is that the E.U. is investing a lot of money into ecological restoration, and we may find ourselves in a situation where a politician makes the argument that restoration is not necessary since the degraded site is now a novel ecosystem. Although I share the fear that many politicians would do this, and one person in the audience from the U.S. stated that this is already a reality in the U.S., I still object to the notion that something should not be discussed due to fear of it being misused. Especially when the topic has been published repeatedly in leading scientific journals, and gotten media attention. We may not like the terrible destruction that can be caused by fission processes, but the knowledge of nuclear physics will not disappear just by stopping people from talking about it.

We should never accept the novel ecosystem argument as a reason not to restore, when restoration is possible, and can be done without causing more damage than what can be gained. At the same time we have to realize that we have already accepted novel ecosystems. The once wide-stretched European primeval forest has in most places in Europe been replaced by monocultures of grains originating from the Fertile Crescent. Cities protected by floodwalls have replaced flood meadow, and become a good place for those species that have learned to make use of human architecture and lifestyle.

The day after I drove from Ceske Budejovize to Prague Airport and headed home enriched with new input from many great presentations by outstanding scientists.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

ECER 2012: Recap of Day 3, One of those days.

Day 3 was a day for excursions, and I had signed up for going on what was called the peatland-complex route. It was clear already when the bus left from the hotel that this would be a challenging day for my wind-protecting but not very waterproof jacket. As we left the bus to start a 6 km walk along a peatland forest that had been excavated some decades ago, the entire sky opened and my jacket fought the water bravely initially, but eventually gave up. Apart from one site were ditches had been blocked and trees cut, most of the forested peatland had too low water level. It is generally a warning-sign when you have to go down into the bottom of a 3 m ditch to find typical mire species. In one area the ditches had been blocked, and the trees had been cut, and this was the only site that looked like a nicely restored peatland. An odd sight in the middle of the peatland-forest was an old peat-excavator that had been left as a museum of old times. Since the peat excavation was still going on adjacent to the site, it felt as if perhaps it was not correct to refer to it as a period of degradation that now finally was over.

After the Peatland-complex route I did my best to find a place for the jacket to dry before it was time to head off to the guided tour of Budweiser Budvar brewery. My jacket had not dried, but a brewery is after all a building were people work indoors I thought (which says everything of my lack of visits to breweries). For some reason I had managed to get a booklet about restoration of Finnish boreal forests with me to the brewery that I walked around with. At least half of the guided tour was outdoors, and yes, the sky opened again. Realizing that I had the nice booklet about Finnish restoration of boreal forests, I used it as a desperate rain protection. I don´t know exactly how high the odds would be that the person in front of me would happen to be the author off the booklet, but this was one of those days, and when I heard him call out “No, it´s not supposed to be used like that”, I had stopped being surprised. Finns are nice people, and he allowed me to keep ruining his publication. Having only eaten an excursion sandwich at 11, I was quite hungry when it was time for the treat of beer in the cozy 2 degrees “warm” beer cellar. The tour finished with having a look at the bottling process were 40 000 beers were bottled every hour, and it was nice to see the recycling of bottles working first-hand. 

The tour was over, and at 21:00 I was back at the hotel, ready to eat an entire boar If I saw one. Finally, close to 22:00 I eventually got something to eat before it was time to rehearse the presentation I was going to give the day after.

ECER 2012: Recap of day 2

Recap of Day 2

Kozub held a presentation on the different impact of the two common fen restoration methods rewetting and top-soil removal on the release of methane and the concentration of inorganic nitrogen and phosphorous. The rewetted sites had a higher concentrations of inorganic nitrogen and inorganic phosphorous than the top-soil removal sites had. Interestingly the methane release from the top-soil removal sites was not only lower than the rewetted sites, but also lower than the reference site, and comparable to the degraded control site.

Bishoff held a very thought-provoking presentation based on his research on local adaptation of plants. Theory suggests that if local adaptations really exist, than local plants should have higher fitness and perform better on their home field, compared to other plants that are brought in. The fitness of species should also decrease with increasing distance from their source population. Bischoff´s long distance transplant-experiments between different countries in Europe showed however that although local plants performed better in two cases, the third case did not show this at all. There were large differences between the provenances in fitness in the transplant experiment, but there is no general proof that local genotypes are superior. He stressed that the lack of clear evidence for local adaptation is not an argument against using local donor-sites in restoration, since the opposite (superior aliens), can be detrimental to the local populations in the long term as well.

Scott from the organization Lifeland held a presentation on how Lifeland produces seeds for the creation of meadows on abandoned land in the UK, and how the local community is involved in everything from initially wanting the meadow, to helping with the sowing and seed collection. It was a great example on how thinking outside the box, can lead to great education, community involvement and appreciation of nature in urban areas without very high investments.

Monday, September 10, 2012

ECER 2012: Day 1

European Conference on Ecological Restoration 2012, Budejovice, Czech Republic
The first day of ECER 2012 was filled with only plenary talks. Richard Hobbs who co-authored the Davies et al 2011 paper “Don´t judge species based on their origin” defended their paper that received a lot of criticism among people who did not like the approach of accepting novel ecosystems with invasive species as the new normal. My general reflection of this paper is that I don´t understand what is so controversial about it. The paper basically states that invasive species should not be eradicated, unless they are a problem, in which case they should be eradicated. Professor Hobbs warned about what he saw as a trend that the sound-bite society with polarized camps on most debates, with few taking a middle ground is moving from the mainstream media to the scientific debate. He stated that he does not mean that we should give up on invasive species, but if we are struggling with getting rid of the species and e.g. repeatedly use pesticides, we should ask ourselves “What are we doing?”. One person in the audience commented that his ideas are not controversial among managers who are the ones who have to do the work. Professor Hobbs agreed, and said that the problems are the academics.

Professor James Aronson spoke about Natural capital and Ecosystem services.
Natural capital is the stock e.g. natural and near natural ecosystems and their biodiversity. The ecosystem services represent the dividend (flux) that flow from Natural capital. Although I generally like the concept of Ecosystem services, and agree with that we need to put a price tag on nature to be able to explain what the loss of an ecosystem service would cost, I see a big problem with this. No matter how high the value of an ecosystem service is (climate regulation from wetlands by carbon storage), this value is still fictional as long as someone can destroy the asset without having to pay for it. If I break your computer, I will have to pay for it. If I start a coal-power plant, I will not have to pay for changing the climate or the contribution to premature deaths nearby the power-plant, no matter how valuable clean air is. That is, polluters don´t pay.

Rudy van Diggelen finished the day with a fiery talk, where he asked where SER Europe is now that big changes are occurring in EU Nature legislation. He mentioned the EU 2020 biodiversity targets that include a statement that 15% of the degraded areas should be restored. This is a remarkable statement, if one thinks like I do, that most of Europe is a degraded ecosystem he continued. He was also worried about the focus on the hyped term resilience that is gaining foothold in EU nature legislation. This concept, although not new, has gotten a lot of attention recently, and there is for example a research institute in Stockholm that focuses on resilience science. The host, Karel Prach strongly urged people to not use the term resilience, and Professor Hobbs has stated that resilience risks leading to conceptual mudding without providing an operational utility. Rudy named an example were EU environmental subsidies had gone to transform a potato-field into a golf-course, and the argument given has been that “Well, a golf-course is a much more resilient ecosystem than a potato-field. We need, to have answers to this, otherwise we will just be standing on the sideline only being able to later say “I told you so”. I personally do not see the term resilience as a threat, and I think Elmqvist et al´s (2003) paper shows clearly how the concept of resilience is useful.

The day finished with a welcoming dinner, and a mandatory Budweiser Budvar.