DoD Biodiversity Conservation Handbook
Chapters:Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11IntroductionCase StudiesAcknowledgements
Chapter 2: Understanding Conservation Science; By  Bob Unnasch

The cowman, who cleans his range of wolves, does not realize that he is taking over the wolf's job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Learning to Think Like a Mountain: Tools for Conservation Practitioners

Biodiversity conservation on military lands does not equate with outright preservation or the exclusion of military uses. Creatively using an ecosystem management approach, and working with the military community, have produced impressive results at many installations, several of which are chronicled in this manual. One key component is to use an adaptive approach to conservation planning and implementation. Definitions of adaptive management vary by context, but the commonalities include the appreciation that "Ecosystems are not more complex than we think, but more complex than we can think" (Egler 1977). Despite this, we cannot be stymied by a lack of understanding of all details; we can be very successful working within this uncertainty.

Adaptive management will be discussed in a later chapter. The basic premises are: We don't know enough to predict all outcomes. Changing management, and changing military activities, will undoubtedly result in unanticipated results, as will purely natural, but unpredictable, events. A key is to capture the learning from that experience, and build it into our understanding of the systems. Everything is an experiment; every project provides an opportunity to learn and improve. This doesn't mean that every activity needs to be designed as a rigorous scientific experiment. Rather, we must enter into every process with our eyes open, asking two questions up front: "If this doesn't work out as I expect, what do I want to know in order to do it better next time?" And, "If this does work out, what can I learn from this place that will allow me to carry that success to other situations?"

There is no simple protocol for implementing adaptive management. Managers from many agencies, and from many countries, have been experimenting and creating ways to make it more scientific and less of an art. The successful adaptive manager can call on a number of tools to assist in his or her job. One of these is the conceptual ecological model.

Developing a conceptual ecological model of the species, ecosystems and landscapes that are the focus of management activities can be a helpful tool. These models provide a framework for organizing information and thinking about the systems, their impacts and threats, and anticipated management responses.

An ecological model is a conceptual representation of a natural phenomenon. Ecological models are abstractions or simplifications of the real world that portray the dominant components and key processes. Typically, models define relationships among states (parts of the ecosystem) and transitions (processes that change the states). These relationships are the basis on which to predict changes in the targets of conservation work over time, depending upon trajectories of, or perturbations to, key ecological processes. Ecological models are excellent tools for generating questions about the behavior of our targeted biodiversity and guiding decision making for planning and management. These models are also key to documenting and recording major assumptions and current understanding (Maddox et al. 1999).

These ecological models, however, are not panaceas for solving every problem or answering every question. Models are a means of integrating data to comprehensively understand complex ecosystem dynamics. They are only as good as the information they are built upon. It would be unwise to think of models as answers in and of themselves. They are simply powerful tools for organizing and communicating ideas, synthesizing current understanding and data, discovering unknowns, and generating hypotheses. In the best of circumstances, they provide a peek into the future to help guide present decisions (Bestelmeyer et al. 2004).

The most useful models integrate the needs and input of many stakeholders with different perspectives and goals. This might require a suite of conceptual models, ranging from a landscape model, showing patterns of disturbance and connectivity, to forest stand level state-transition models that capture our understanding of ecosystem response to mechanical thinning and prescribed fire management.

Smoky Hills

The exceptionally rich prairie grasslands of the Smoky Hills National Guard Range, Kansas, are high in biological diversity. The range supports the largest agricultural outleasing program in the Air Force, generating nearly $400,000 annually to support Air Force natural resources programs. (Photo: Douglas Ripley)

One of the most powerful aspects of conceptual ecological models is that they create a valuable communication tool that can resonate with many audiences. Stakeholders who see their concerns integrated into a conceptual model will more readily see how those issues link to, and impact, others' concerns and issues.

During the past decade the conservation community has collaboratively developed standards and tools for designing, managing, monitoring and learning from conservation projects. This effort has resulted in the Conservation Action Planning (CAP) process and toolbox developed by The Nature Conservancy, and it has been implemented by conservation practitioners worldwide. The toolbox was originally programmed in Microsoft Excel, and its current version, and much supporting information, is available at

The CAP toolbox has been recently redesigned and reprogrammed by the Conservation Measures Partnership as the open source software package Miradi. The software is available at

Proceed to Next Section: Conservation Targets: Planning for Biodiversity

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About This Chapter's Author
Bob Unnasch is Senior Conservation Scientist, The Nature Conservancy

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