The importance of lessons learned

A “culture of science” is critical for the conservation of our forests, wildlife, and other natural resources in an ever-changing world. However, science is a human endeavor and therefore imperfect.

But the products of the scientific process (e.g., peer-reviewed papers that guide the development of textbooks) are inherently improved upon by the process through which all science is done; the strength of science is its adherence to critical review by those with quantifiable achievements willing to challenge dogma and rhetoric. However, promoting a culture of science is increasingly difficult in a society that either avoids conflict, ignores defensible (peer-reviewed) evidence, or desires for political expediency.

If science is imperfect, forest and wildlife management are even more so. A common adage is that everything we do should be called a working hypothesis. Nothing is an absolute and even the “best available science” used to guide our work is incomplete.

While mistakes and poor decisions will continue to happen in forest and wildlife management, our primary aims are to transparently and explicitly use defensible knowledge in our management and use past mistakes as opportunities in lessons learned. Only with a culture that welcomes continued learning do these occur.

The promotion of a number of invasive exotic (non-native) plant species provides useful models of some of our past mistakes. Exotic invasive species displace native species and can alter how ecosystems function, further complicating the conservation of forests and wildlife. In a series of papers in the journal Conservation Biology (2003), multiple authors characterized exotic species as one of the more significant challenges for ecosystem conservation and restoration.

In northeastern Lower Michigan many exotic species were purposely introduced by natural resource professionals. Examples include Tartarian honeysuckle, multiflora rose, autumn olive, and Scots (Scotch) pine. Many of these species were promoted as relatively quick fixes to perceived societal needs.

Autumn olive, for instance, was promoted as wildlife food. This plant species has now taken over many sites with our best soils and even some sites with poorer soils. As far as I am aware, the wildlife species for which autumn olive was to feed do not seem as abundant as this invasive species. In short: for few wildlife species does food alone limit populations and this invasive plant did not solve any wildlife problem.

Reducing the dominance of autumn olive is difficult. Plants produce large seed crops. The seed can then be stored in the “seed bank” for years, only to germinate when the proper environmental conditions arise. Autumn olive also has an exceptional ability to resprout after being cut.

Scots pine was introduced for an entirely different reason. It was introduced primarily as a quick fix for timber production. In its native range across northern Europe, Scots pine (and the Norway spruce we also plant) are important in forest ecosystems and as forest products. It was thought that Scots pine in Michigan would therefore be a boon to the timber industry.

Again, as far as I am aware, this has not proven true. On many sites in northeastern Lower Michigan, Scots pine is now an invasive species that crowds out native conifers such as eastern white pine, white spruce, red pine, and others species. Fortunately, Scots pine can be cut and seedlings simply pulled up.

So, what are our lessons learned?

First, forests are complex, natural systems with intricate interactions that need to be taken into account. Introducing a non-native species can have drastic, unplanned consequences. Second, there are rarely quick fixes. Third, viewing forests as a means to achieve overly specific outputs can be problematic. The more we focus on outputs in our forests the more we reduce forest complexity and the ability of a forest to adapt to a changing world.

What can landowners do?

Landowners must first understand that our knowledge of the natural world, and the natural world itself, have changed and will continue to change. Next, while we should always be skeptical of new information, we must also be skeptical when old information is used in a world undergoing unprecedented change. Do not expect to do the same thing to your land that you once did and achieve the same response. Challenge your thinking and learn from the wealth of information available from credible resources. And, expect professionals, and their leaders, to defend statements and management recommendations using science and logic. Above else, encourage natural resource agencies to employ scientists that conduct peer-reviewed, applied research. The only way to truly promote a culture of science is by producing a work environment with a meritocracy in which active scientists are included.

Greg Corace is the forester for the Alpena-Montmorency Conservation District. For more information, including sources used in this article, Greg can be contacted via email (greg.corace@macd.org) or phone (989-356-3596 x102).


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