January 2016

An Unprecedented Future


Courtney White


Some years ago, Craig Allen, an old friend, stopped by the office to catch up. He’s a forest ecologist stationed in the Jémez Mountains of northern New Mexico, and his career mirrors how ecological research has changed, as well as its likely future trajectory.

When I first met Craig more than 20 years ago, his focus was on the interlocking variables of ecological function, historical use and plant and animal community dynamics, in order to understand more clearly the condition of the region’s forests. And what he discovered was worrisome. Specifically, he worried about forest “thickening” due to decades of fire suppression, overgrazing and other activities. In 1998, Craig summarized his concern in an article for the Quivira Coalition titled “Where Have All the Grasslands Gone?” His research revealed that open, grassy areas were shrinking, due to tree encroachment, at the alarming rate of 1 percent per year. What was missing was fire.

Most forests in northern New Mexico evolved with frequent, low-intensity fires,” he wrote. “The removal of the natural process of fire by human suppression has disrupted these ecosystems in many ways; [these areas] need to be restored to more open conditions to protect both ecological values and human communities.”

In the next phase of his career, Craig “walked the talk” of forest restoration by implementing innovative experiments, becoming an enthusiastic advocate of adaptive management in the process. As a result of this fieldwork, Craig joined a chorus of forest ecologists advocating proactive policies and practices aimed at returning ecosystems to health in the Southwest, principally by restoring natural fire cycles.

Today, Craig is focused on the threat posed to forests by global warming. He thinks the dangers have the potential to be catastrophic, not only for trees but also for the animal communities that depend on them, including us. His goal is resilience—figuring out ways to keep a forest healthy in the face of a changing climate. His research, however, says things don’t look rosy under business-as-usual scenarios.

But it was something that Craig said at the end of our meeting that set me to thinking. He had been asked to speak to a gathering of federal land managers about the climate crisis. They were looking for options on how to meet that challenge. “What they told me,” Craig said, “was that nothing in their education or experience had prepared them for what was coming down the road in terms of climate. Their training was for a stable climate, they said, not one that was changing. They literally had no idea what to do. They were facing an unprecedented future for which they were not prepared.”

His words stuck in my mind: an unprecedented future.

For most of his career, Craig focused on a traditional goal of the conservation movement: fighting scarcity. Unhealthy forests, disappearing meadows, eroding topsoils, too few “cool,” natural fires, too many “hot,” catastrophic fires, and not enough grass are all indicators of scarcity at work—the scarcity of properly functioning ecosystems. His restoration work aimed at reversing such declines, at replacing scarcity with health and abundance.

Today, however, Craig is working beyond scarcity. He is confronting the specter of loss. Craig and his colleagues predict that the pine forests of New Mexico, as a result of repeated fires, will likely transition to shrublands over the next century. Hotter and drier conditions under climate change are already feeding record fire seasons across the West and Alaska. When trees burn up and seedlings can’t get established as a consequence of repeated scorching, forests die. In a recent interview for The New York Times, Craig said, “The future in a lot of places is looking shrubbier.”

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on your perspective, I suppose. Either way, it’s clear that the unprecedented future has arrived. In response, I’ve come up with four principles for adapting to this new era that I’d like to share:

1) Get Used To It. The previous era is over and gone. Exactly what our unprecedented future has in store for us isn’t entirely clear yet, but we do know that our actions today will greatly influence tomorrow. We can’t implement those actions, however, if we continue to live in the past, which we’re still doing on many levels as a society.

2) Solutions Exist. Because we live in an era of big problems, we tend to spend our time thinking of big solutions. Instead, let’s concentrate on the wide variety of low-cost, practical solutions available right now. There are many innovative practices, for example, that soak up carbon dioxide in soils, reduce energy use, sustainably intensify food production and increase water quality and quantity. Pick one that motivates you.

3) Explore and Share. Despite the daily cascade of dire predictions, sobering studies and gloomy headlines, it’s still a beautiful, diverse, amazing world. Go see as much as of it as you can, starting in your own backyard. Share what you find with others. Share research, create art, give a lecture, write a book, post a photo, call a friend—whatever you like to do, big or small, to communicate what it means to be alive today.

4) Focus on the Little Normals. These are things that have persisted over the millennia, such as the way water moves across the land or the love a parent feels for a child. We need food to live. We need a sense of community; we like to belong. We like to live in proximity to other people. We feel a deep affection for animals. We are moved by spiritual concerns. All of these things persist and can form the foundation for our actions.


Courtney White cofounded the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists and others around practices that improve economic and ecological resilience in western working landscapes. He is the author of Revolution on the Range; Grass, Soil, Hope;The Indelible West, a collection of black-and-white photographs with a foreword by Wallace Stegner; and the recently released Two Percent Solutions for the Planet.


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