In a new study published by the journal Nature Sustainability, researchers call for a revised conservation paradigm that recognizes human and natural systems as inextricably intertwined and co-evolving and acknowledges the potentially positive roles that people play in generating ecosystem health through land stewardship. The researchers—representing Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Stanford University, and the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network—argue that revised conservation and sustainability science paradigms are integral to adapting to climate change and other anthropogenic stresses. Current frameworks—while recognizing the damaging impacts of society on nature and the positive contributions of nature to people’s wellbeing—gloss over people’s positive contributions to nature. This ignores the variability, complexity, and mutually constitutive states of culture, society, and ecologies. The researchers collaborated with the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network (SCMSN), located in a biodiversity “hot spot” and urban population center, as a case study assessment that incorporates land stewardship alongside other ecosystem health metrics and illuminates the challenges and opportunities for similar frameworks.
Historically, people lose access to land when it is set aside for conservation, ceasing land stewardship altogether due to the assumption that human activities can only diminish the biodiversity and health of wildlands. Recently, a return to diverse forms of stewardship—including using fire, harvesting timber, raising animals, and cultivating local food—has earned attention because of the benefits to managing ecosystem health in the face anthropogenic stresses, like invasive species and climate change. For example, in California, low-intensity grazing is useful for reducing invasive plants, while Indigenous cultural burning and restoration forestry are important tools for reducing the impacts of large, severe fires that are increasing with climate change. The researchers concede that challenges lie in identifying appropriate metrics to express stewardship geospatially and study its effects. Land stewardship is relationship-based, place-based, and dynamic. It is not easily classified, mapped, or quantified, and often occurs on private lands or in private contexts that are hard to study. Understanding and embracing the social-ecological complexities of land stewardship will prove critical for the future of conservation science.
“The threat and urgency of climate change and biodiversity loss is real, and as a society, we are not going to solve these problems without transformational shifts in our thinking and doing in all fields of practice.” said Dr. Nicole Heller, lead author and Associate Curator of Anthropocene Studies at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “For too long, conservation science has promoted a worldview that eschews people from nature, ignoring valuable knowledge and mutually beneficial relationships people have with land and other species. This injustice has especially been the case with Indigenous populations and others with long cultural histories of stewardship in a specific place. The emerging paradigm shift, recognizing the value of land stewardship to ecosystem health, raises many interdisciplinary research questions and indicates an opportunity for more investment in caring for land stewards and land stewardship as part of protecting Nature. Re-thinking people and their possibility to be in good relationships with the land could be a game changer for sustainability.”
The study reflects one of Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s strategic commitments: to align research and programming around the “We Are Nature” concept, recognizing that humans are an inextricable part of nature—a powerful yet fragile relationship that has evolved over thousands of years. The museum debuted the We Are Nature podcast in 2022—the first season of which focused on local and regional climate action, including land stewardship—as a follow-up and companion to We Are Nature visitor experiences in the museum in 2017 and 2021.
In addition to Dr. Heller, the paper’s authors include Dr. Kelly McManus Chauvin, Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve and Department of Biology, Stanford University; Dylan Skybrook, Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network; and Dr. Anthony Barnosky, Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, Stanford University and Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkley. Additional information about the study and SCMSN, including a conversation with the researchers, is available at Stanford News.
April 10, 2023
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Carnegie Museum of Natural History