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Range of Variability in Southern Coastal Plain Forests: Its Historical, Contemporary, and Future Role in Sustaining Biodiversity

Robert J. Mitchell, Jones Ecological Research Center
Sally L. Duncan, Oregon State University

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Abstract

Historical range of variation (HRV) has been used as a conceptual tool to determine appropriate management actions to sustain or restore diversity of ecological systems. This concept has come into question for both biological and social considerations, and the southeastern United States is a good model system to test its utility. Southeastern Coastal Plain upland pine savannas and woodlands and their associated wetlands are among the most diverse communities in temperate North America, having both high levels of species richness and large numbers of endemic flora and fauna. However, this diversity is intimately linked with disturbance regimes. Maintaining frequent fire, varied in season based on changing management objectives through time, is the most important management tool for sustaining biodiversity. Moreover, the landscape has been molded by a long history of intense land use that has altered both the biological and the social landscape in which management occurs, and threatens the native diversity. Management must anticipate likely trends and adopt strategies that provide flexibility for managers to deal with the future, both socially and ecologically. In the Southeast, the most dominant trend is associated with urbanization and forest fragmentation, which results from urban sprawl. This issue joins others—fire and smoke, logging, access, in-holdings, and the uncertainty of scientific models, for example—as matters of major concern to the public. Ultimately, it is the public that eventually grants or withholds social permission to manage. We explore, here, the potential and the limitations for how history can inform future management. Rather than being used as a specific management tool, we find that one purpose for which HRV may be well suited is serving as a broad communication framework to help diverse publics understand the concept of landscape dynamics. This approach would provide the fundamental background material for stakeholders to understand how ecological conditions and social acceptability interact through time to mold and constrain future possible ranges of variability.

Key words

disturbances; fire regimes; historical, social, and future ranges of variability; legacies; rareness; social acceptability; species richness
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087