What is the Historical Ecology Program?
Historical Ecology synthesizes diverse historical records to learn how habitats were distributed and ecological functions were maintained within the native California landscape. Understanding how streams, wetlands, and woodlands were organized along physical gradients helps scientists and managers develop new strategies for more integrated and functional landscape management.
Understanding the Changing Landscape
Given the dramatic changes to California landscapes during the past two centuries, we often have only rudimentary understanding of the systems we seek to protect and enhance. In fact, there is a growing recognition that restoration efforts have often misinterpreted earlier conditions, resulting in missed opportunities and, in some cases, failed projects. However, the development of accurate, reliable, and broadly-supported pictures of historical condition and change can help correctly identify the causes of current challenges, and reveal previously unrecognized management options. Historical reconstructions also educate and engage the public imagination, increasing public will for local and regional landscape stewardship.
History and Restoration in a Changing Climate
Researchers are increasingly recognizing that restoration and conservation strategies have often been misguided (and unsuccessful) because of a lack of understanding of historical conditions (e.g. Hamilton 1997, Kondolf et al. 2001, Foster and Motzkin 2003, Merritts and Walter 2008). This is particularly true in California, where our cultural memory is short and we have tended to impose concepts appropriate to more humid regions to our Mediterranean and semiarid landscapes (which will become only more so).
In fact, the natural climatic diversity of the region provides a framework for understanding the adaptation of local ecosystems across a surprisingly broad climatic gradient. Historical ecology reveals a landscape well-designed for extreme seasonal and interannual climatic variability and controlled by fundamental geologic controls that remain intact -- the "dry side of the ecological palette" that has been largely overlooked in conservation planning.
History shows how human efforts have tended to ignore these Mediterranean characteristics and reshaped the landscape according to different, imported conceptions. But it also reveals successful early adaptations (e.g., native land management, towns in the shade of oak groves, early dry farming and oyster farming, creeks as "sediment hoses") that can inspire creative, locally-calibrated management strategies. Climate change increases the need to understand and manage ecosystem functions adaptively along broad topographic, hydrological, and climatic gradients within the context of evolving cultural landscapes, rather than focusing on narrow, project-specific targets.
Applying Historical Ecology
SFEI's historical ecology studies have contributed to numerous restoration projects in the Bay Area and coastal California. Projects are carried out in collaboration with local partners and with a team of regional and local science advisers, with results made broadly available through website, publication, and presentation. SFEI's innovative approaches have been featured in New Scientist Magazine, Landscape Journal, The Living Landscape: An Ecological Approach to Landscape Planning, the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, and the Historical Ecology Handbook, as well as general audience science programs such as KQED’s QUEST and the Saving the Bay documentary.
More About Historical Ecology
- Egan, D and EA Howell. 2005. The Historical Ecology Handbook: A Restorationist's Guide to Reference Ecosystems. Island Press. Washington DC.
- Montgomery, DR, 2008. Dreams of Natural Streams. Science 319(5861):291-292.
- Sauer , CO. 1930. Historical Geography and the Western Frontier. In Land and Life: A Selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer. UC Press 1969.
- Swetnam, TW, CD Allen, and JL Betancourt. 1999. Applied Historical Ecology: Using the Past to Manage for the Future. Ecological Applications 9(4):1189-1206.