Novel Ecosystems and Natural Resource Management: For Whom? Lesson, Part 2

A photo of an elk with a lake and mountains in the background

The fields of restoration ecology and conservation have undergone dramatic changes over the last 50 years. For both, there is wide recognition that humans have always modified nature, in some cases intentionally to meet their needs, and in other cases unintentionally in ways that degrade the environment and negatively impact people. It is within this broad context that the concept of novel ecosystems has emerged. Novel ecosystems are combinations of species, associated with humans’ influence on nature, which differ from those that existed historically at that site; these species also tend to “self-organize” (i.e., not require human maintenance).

Novel ecosystems have become a topic of great debate. Given the pace of global change—including an increase in the movement of materials and people, rapid changes in land use, and a changing climate—some argue that novel ecosystems will be the norm and that we must embrace the concept. Others argue that accepting novel ecosystems as inevitable phenomena may divert our attention from protecting and restoring nature; some also argue that the science underpinning novel ecosystems is flawed. In this lesson, participants consider disciplinary and sector perspectives on decision making related to managing ecosystems that have been or are about to experience dramatic changes due to human activities.

This is a two-part lesson. The first session, available here, requires 75 minutes, and the second, below, requires 50 minutes. Both require work on the part of participants prior to the session. 

Assumed Prior Knowledge
Appropriate for all levels from undergraduates to advanced learners.
Learning Objectives
  • Explore the concept of novel ecosystems from a scientific, management, ethical, and personal perspective.
  • Explore the challenges and nuances associated with natural resource management decisions.
  • Design, articulate, and revise a specific management plan based on the agenda of a stakeholder group.
  • Consider who is included in management decisions and processes that may open doors to those who are typically left out.
Key Terms/Concepts
novel ecosystem; ecological threshold; resilience; self-organize; evolutionary rescue; precautionary principle; hybrid vs. historic ecological ecosystem
Teaching Assignments

Session 2.  Group Presentations and Discussions

Using a shared drive Google Doc or class e-board, have each participant upload their revised plan and list of the additional resources they used in revising their plan. Times indicated suggest a 50-min session, but the discussions could easily be extended to take up 75 min.

  1. (5 min.) Let each group assemble to organize themselves and prepare their 5-min presentation on their revised plan. 

  2. (15 min.) Each group should give their presentation. They should go over the additional resources (or prior class presentations/discussion) that influenced their decisions to revise.

  3. (10 min.) After all groups have presented, have an open discussion on how final plans differed (or not) and what factors were most influential. Then open the discussion by further asking each group to respond to the following:

    • Who was left out of their plans and what perspectives may have been left out of the planning process—particularly with respect to issues of unequal access based on socio-economic status, race, gender, or ability? The instructor should note (if participants don’t) that those with money, transportation, time, and social privilege/power are typically disproportionately represented in decision making.

    • If their plan was implemented, who would most benefit? Who would most “lose”? How might this change if participation had been broadened and individuals who are often left out of the room had a voice in the decisions? The instructor should note (if participants don’t) that groups may want to consider access to the open spaces for those with disabilities or some of the limitations listed in the last bullet.

  4. (15 min) The instructor should read or have participants read an excerpt from a paper by McKelvey et al. after first giving them the following background. 

    Background. There is evidence that the efficacy and uptake of management decisions are improved when people who are likely to be influenced by, or care about the decision, are engaged in the decision-making process. This is an implicit assumption underlying articles like the one we will read an excerpt from; however, the main focus of the McKelvey article is on the importance of broadening engagement when uncertainty about the outcome or the future is high i.e., as in the case of rapidly changing or novel ecosystems. 

    Engage all the participants in the following questions, opening each up to discussion:

    • What is an example of decision making (e.g., in your life) that involved high levels of uncertainty and also would affect people other than you? How did you make a decision? 

    • In the Colorado management scenario, what were the sources of uncertainty? The instructor should note (if participants don’t) that while uncertainty surely arises in association with future states of the environment (e.g., as in climate change), uncertainty is also associated with social change (e.g., changing attitudes, populations,  and economic pressures). But most importantly, it comes from the interaction between social change and environmental change. Those two sources of uncertainty are not additive; feedbacks between the two can lead to dramatic and unexpected outcomes. In other words, uncertainty is not just about lack of knowledge—when it comes to socio-environmental and other complex systems like the global economy, uncertainty will always be important. The best that can be done in terms of uncertainty is to predict patterns or outcomes in probabilistic ways.

    • Given unavoidable uncertainty in the future of socio-environmental systems, what are some ways to avoid being paralyzed by indecision? The instructor should note (if participants don’t) that McKelvey emphasizes that scenarios that we posed (novel ecosystems and how to proceed) involve value-laden decisions. Because people have different views, values, and perspectives, the best and most equitable path is to involve as many people/groups in the decision-making process as possible. The range of socio-environmental solutions depends on what stakeholders have a voice in the conversation. All options are value laden.

  5. (~ 5 min) Return to the task that was assigned in the hook— i.e., participants free writing on: Should the concept of novel ecosystems be fundamental to decisions that natural resource managers make? Why or why not? What is your personal view on the concept of novel ecosystems? Which of the arguments most closely resonated with your own feelings about the environment?

    • Ask the participants to consider what they first wrote and how they feel about the issue now. Did their opinions/views change? Why? 

Background Information for the Instructor
  1. Origin of the Concept of Novel Ecosystems 

    • This essay reviews basic ideas on the existence and value of novel ecosystems.  It discusses the evolution of the concept and presents a framework relying heavily on human agency as a foundational attribute of novelty.  It also discusses what constitutes a novel ecosystem from the perspective of the authors and provides examples. 

    • Mascaro, J., Harris, J.A., Lach, L. et al. (2013). Origins of the Novel Ecosystems Concept. In R.J. Hobbs, E.S. Higgs, C.M. Hall (Eds.), Novel Ecosystems: Intervening in the New Ecological World Order

  2.  What’s wrong with novel ecosystems, really?

    • This article discusses the various scientific controversies around novel ecosystems, particularly problems associated with criteria associated with irreversible thresholds, non-native species, and the hybrid state.  The authors also try to integrate novel ecosystems with other ecological perspectives and argue that novel ecosystems are a useful concept.  

    • Miller, J.R., & Bestelmeyer, B.T. (2016). What's wrong with novel ecosystems, really? Restoration Ecology, 24(5), 577-582. 

  3. A simplified approach to stakeholder engagement in natural resource management: The Five-Feature Framework

    • This article discusses the importance of stakeholder engagement and presents what they consider the five key elements of engagement. Their framework outlines the steps that are needed for effective engagement and apply it to a case study. This is meant to be a very practical paper to grow collaborative decision-making, including with citizens.

    • Talley, J.L.,  Schneider, J., & Lindquist, E. (2016). A simplified approach to stakeholder engagement in natural resource management: the Five-Feature Framework. Ecology and Society 21(4):38.