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Climate & Energy
Prioritizing Conservation for Ecological Resilience
Amanda Stanley
Program Officer, Conservation Science, The Wilburforce Foundation

“Landscapes and seascapes are changing rapidly... altering some regions so much that their mix of plant and animal life will become almost unrecognizable.” Despite this blunt appraisal from the National Climate Assessment, many of us still have trouble grasping just how much things have changed, and will continue to change, even if we successfully tackle our societies’ addiction to fossil fuels.

AGolden eye and showy daisy on Abajo Peak, Manti-La Sal National Forest. Credit Al Schneider/USDA CC BY-SA 2.0 bout ten years ago, the Wilburforce Foundation recognized that our purpose, to preserve the North American West’s irreplaceable diversity of wildlife, land and water, was fundamentally at risk from a changing climate. We realized we needed to shift where we worked and how we worked in order to ensure that conservation gains were resilient in the face of ongoing change.

The Wilburforce Foundation has focused on two avenues in the realm of climate adaptation. First, we support conservation groups and partners to act on what we know now. Groups like EcoAdapt excel at helping groups think through how their goals are vulnerable to climate change, and what actions they can take.

Second, we invest in science to improve our understanding of how rapidly and significantly ecosystems are changing, and where and how we can best mitigate that change. Better information on where to prioritize conservation efforts to maximize resilience is one of the most common requests for assistance we receive. To address this key need, we support AdaptWest (adaptwest.databasin.org), a climate adaptation conservation planning database for western North America. The AdaptWest team is conducting a comprehensive comparison and synthesis of the many available approaches to adaptation, applying those approaches to the majority of western North America, and developing a spatial database from the results of these analyses.

Change can carry with it a sense of loss. One of my favorite childhood places, the hike up to Jack Meadow in the Oregon Cascades, was transformed by a severe fire, exacerbated by drought. It was hard the year following the fire to see the forest I’d loved as a child and the pond where my cousins and I chased tadpoles now a landscape of charred trunks and blackened soil. In my more recent visits to Jack Meadow, I’ve seen the bear grass flowering in swaths of white as the burned areas are recolonized by wildflowers, insects, and birds. Natural systems have an amazing capacity for adaptation, as seen in the unexpectedly rapid ecological recovery following the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens, or the historical ebb and flow of species tracking glacial expansion and retreat.

While a natural reaction to the scale and scope of climate impacts is hopelessness, it is important to remember that “action is the antidote to despair.” I am continually inspired by the work of Wilburforce’s grantees and partners, who are tackling these problems with passion, dedication, and innovation. It is incredibly transformative for us all to realize how much we can do, even given the scope of the changes ahead, with the tools we have to hand already.
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