?icts among conservationists, the meeting in California raised
new questions. What if assisted migration is used to justify new
habitat destruction? Who decides which species are moved, and
who moves them? Isn’t “assisted colonization” a more appropriate name than “assisted migration,” which reminds people of
birds on the wing?
Some researchers also worry that continued discussion about
the strategy—which most agree is a last resort, likely too expensive and complicated for widespread use—distracts from the
more prosaic, immediate duties of conservation and restoration.
Brown University ecologist Dov Sax, an invasive-species
researcher working on assisted migration, has grander hopes for
the conversation. “Conservation has really been built around a
static view of the world,” he says. “Given that climate change is
going to happen, we need a whole new suite of strategies that
could complement the old ones. This could get more people
thinking about the other strategies we need.”
Discussions of climate change always seem to end with a
dreary litany of required sacri>ces, uncomfortable changes that
will be demanded of the penitent. There is no doubt that stabilizing the climate will require deep, societywide reforms, some
of them costly. But as climate change delivers its inconvenient
truths, it also asks us to chuck a persistent and not-very-useful
notion: the idea that conservation, and by extension restoration,
is about gilt-framed landscapes.
Commitment to particular places and their histories has taken
conservation a long way. It gives conservationists ground to stand
on, in ways that range from the literal to the spiritual to the political. And restoring these beloved places to past states can restart
ecological processes still relevant to the present day. But this sort
of restoration works only when the climate is more or less stable—when the past supplies a reasonable facsimile of the future.
Restoration ecologists remind us that the most e=ective restoration focuses not on a given point in the past, but on the revival of
clogged or absent natural processes. When climate change makes
historical analogues irrelevant, it’s these processes that will help
species and systems survive in a new world.
Don Falk, an ecologist at the University of Arizona and the
>rst executive director of the Society for Ecological Restoration,
argues that assisted migration is simply another way to impersonate the process of dispersal: its adherents intend to transport
species from places humans have made uninhabitable, through
places humans have made impassable. Despite its undeniable
risks, it may not be as radical as it >rst seems. It may be just
another step in the evolution of conservation.
The job is no longer—if it ever was—to fence o= surviving
shards of landscape or to try to put everything back the way it
used to be. Climate change requires conservationists to husband
not a >xed image of a place, but instead the >res, ?oods, and
behaviors that create it, in order to help species and natural systems respond to a host of changes we’re only beginning to understand. Assisted migration is certainly not the right strategy for all
species—and given its myriad possible pitfalls, it may not be the
right choice for any species. Yet the idea of it, and the discussion
it provokes, point toward the future.
Mark Schwartz, for his part, still holds out hope for the
recovery of the Florida torreya in Florida, for a small but
healthy population of trees in the shady steephead ravines. But
each time he visits the Panhandle, he says, he sees fewer and
fewer Torreya taxifolia. a
Join a conversation with conservationists and biologists about
assisted migration at www.orionmagazine.org.
Not Necessarily at Rest
Rocks stacked at corners of a squatter’s camp,
colored bottles hanging from a tree.
Broken oyster shells
lining a dirt walkway to match the hems
of clouds trundling their gossip
over open-air markets toward the sea.
How can they not be flattered
at our puny attempts at beauty—the gods
who look down, the dead
who sometimes look up? Yearning works
through us, whiskers to tail, the way
a yawning cat converts stretching into praise.