“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

                                                ~ Wayne Gretzky

My mail, email and Facebook feed are deluged this season with fundraising requests from a variety of environmental and social groups showing endangered species and abused animals that need my money to be saved. Obviously, my name made the permanent address list when I donated in the past, and I’m sure I will eternally receive these communications. (My brother who lived with me thirty-five years ago still receives junk mail at this address.)

However, I have become more discriminating as I’ve gotten older. I still make contributions to various causes, but I am less responsive to environmental or social wrongdoing, and more likely to support corrective and preventative measures. How do we prevent endangerment or abuse, rather than just correcting past events?

Well, we need to look beyond the past and the present and look to the future. The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Matthew L. Miller and Alix Pentecost Farren addressed this concept in a recent article, “Conservation has traditionally focused on where the wild things are. (Want to protect spotted owls? Preserve a stand of old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest.) But it’s increasingly becoming clear that to protect biodiversity in the face of climate change, conservationists need to focus on where the wild things are going to be.”

The world is changing, and in many ways changing rapidly. All my inherent optimism aside, we’re not going to slow global warming much in the near future. We’ve not going to eliminate plastic pollution in the oceans in the next few decades. The secret is not to save the spotted owl, but to save the environment that the owl, and related plant and animal species require to survive and thrive.

The TNC authors continue, “Instead of predicting how high temperatures will rise, how much precipitation will fall or how soon snow packs will melt, a cohort of more than 150 TNC scientists led by Anderson identified a spectrum of habitats best equipped to support species through climate shifts.” 

Diversity and biodiversity support resiliency. As climates change, ecosystems change and the diversity of places offers greater ability of a system to adapt gradually. Diverse systems allow for successful shifts with fewer losses. They continued, “One strong indicator is the availability of local habitats with varying topography, soil composition and elevation, which offer a range of climates for flora and fauna.”

“And protecting climate-resilient land is a boon for more than just biodiversity. These lands are also vital for people. The network of climate-resilient lands mapped in the eastern United States contains 75% of the sources of clean drinking water in the region, produces oxygen for 1.8 billion people and supports a multibillion-dollar outdoor recreation industry … identifying and conserving these places may still be our best shot at protecting the bulk of North America’s rich natural heritage for the long haul: ‘Nature is changing and we can’t hold it steady,’ says Anderson, ’So we have to find a way to protect it while it shifts.”’

Where I grew up in Texas, the rivers, like the Mississippi, generally ran to the south. Thus, the higher ground was always considered to be to the north, towards Colorado and Canada, but I later learned that wasn’t universally true. When, right out of grad school, I moved to Alaska, we invited my parents to come for a visit, but my mother insistently refused. You see, she had health issues and the “increased elevation” so far north scared her. (The truth is, that the elevation in Fairbanks, where I lived is a mere 446 ft. above sea level. In Fort Worth, where she lived, it is a lofty 653 ft.)

Just like most critters, she wanted to stay within her comfort zone of elevation and habitat. Animals can move more quickly than an ecosystem can evolve due to change.

As earth’s climate warms, species will migrate, if they can, to ecosystems that meet their requisite needs. The more mobile species will have a better chance of survival, so the places where they will move to need to be preserved, and the interconnections between suitable habitats need to be preserved or created.

“Many of the world’s species are already on the move. In North America, species have shifted their ranges approximately 11 miles north and 36 feet in elevation each decade. Some species are approaching the limit of where they can go to find hospitable climates — and some can’t move as fast as they need to … But if wildlife has to traverse highways and developments to reach it, it’s less of a refuge and more of a risk. To be resilient, a landscape needs to be connected to others like it.”

So, the bigger picture tells us to work towards a changing future, and build solutions that support diversity and resiliency. For example, designing and building wildlife overpasses so animals can safely walk over highways will help to maintain these interconnections and allow safe transition to new, more hospitable locations.

Maybe we just need to listen to what Mother Nature is telling us.

Additional Information:

Matthew L. Miller and Alix Pentecost Farren, Road Map to Refuge, November 09, 2020, Nature Conservancy Magazine Winter 2020

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