'Balance of nature' as a myth - Analyst call spending on preservation of endangered species 'downright stupid'
Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado
April 12, 2006
COLORADO SPRINGS - The assumption that there's a "balance of nature" at stake in the raging debate over endangered species is a myth, Randy T. Simmons said Monday.
"Nature is chaos and change," said Simmons, director of the Institute of Political Economy at Utah State University. "Disturbance and change are the only constants in nature."
Simmons tackled the thorny subject of biodiversity and conservation during the State of the Rockies conference at Colorado College.
As a result of this 'balance' mythology, Simmons said, money spent on species conservation has been misdirected, misguided and downright "stupid."
Simmons, who also has worked as a policy analyst for the U.S. Department of Interior, said the government has spread its money around instead of focusing on species that really matter.
It's a crucial question in Colorado's High Country, where land-use decisions are sometimes made based on effects to species like Canada lynx and the boreal toad, neither of which are so-called "keystone" species with known significant effects on the broader ecosystem.
In other words, the absence of lynx and toads in their native habitat don't necessarily mean the ecosystem is near catastrophic collapse.
To bolster his arguments, Simmons delved back into the natural history of North America during pre-European settlement times. He said some of the best research on the topic indicates that Native American hunting and fire-making had a far greater impact on the landscape and natural resources than is generally acknowledged.
The assumption of a pre-European Garden of Eden may be false, and if it is, then policies and management based on them are unlikely to create conditions that protect species and "may even create harmful conditions," Simmons said.
According to Simmons, if Native Americans were the "ultimate keystone species and ultimate predators," then land management and species conservation policies should be structured to mimic what happened before Europeans settled the continent.
Based on what can only be called a revisionist view of conservation science, Simmons took a critical look at the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction program, questioning whether the predators were ever present in that region in great numbers.
He cited studies of historic journals as evidence for his position, suggesting there may have only been a couple of resident packs in the area in historic times.
"As paradoxical as it may sound, nature has to be managed," Simmons said.
Setting aside wilderness areas to protect species will not preserve some remnant of the past, but will lead to conditions that have not existed for the past 10,000 years, he added.
Advocating for changes to the Endangered Species Act, Simmons said the law should be revamped to take into account the natural variability in nature.
"A new (law) would recognize that a balance of nature, or nature undisturbed is an impossible goal," he said. "It would also shift the finger of blame from what we have done or have not done since 1491 to more serious questions about managing for change, risk and complexity."