Aug 172010

The controversial practice of “reconciliation ecology” tries not to restore old habitats, but to create new ones–by bringing nature back into human spaces. Its proponents think innovative software may help people get along with their new neighbors. Capstone, anyone?


The project’s roots extend back to 1995, when [University of Arizona ecologist Michael] Rosenzweig wrote a textbook on island biogeography, a field of research describing ecological dynamics on ocean islands. Over the last several decades, the research had been applied to terrestrial islands formed by human development. The findings were discouraging. Ecologists predicted the loss of 40 to 50 percent of all species. After reviewing the literature, Rosenzweig thought they were optimistic. He put the figure at 90 percent.

More island-like preserves and parks wouldn’t fix this, he reasoned. It required a “reconciliation” with nature inside human-dominated biomes that were largely ignored by conservationists, and cover almost every piece of non-tundra, non-desert land….

“The attitude we’ve had for 100 years is, let’s save habitats. We’ll have remnant patches and call them national parks and wildlife refuges. That slows extinction down, but it doesn’t change the endpoint,” he said. Mass extinctions won’t be avoided “unless we turn our attention to the habitats we haven’t paid attention to, that we haven’t even called habitats.”

In Tucson, those ignored habitats are backyards, schoolyards and the mosaic of neighborhoods and businesses typical of America’s suburban sprawl. Rosenzweig wants to arrange their habitats with a program built on a database of life-history characteristics on 300 local plant species, plus natural history records gathered from a century of research on Tumamoc Hill, an 870-acre island of relatively undisturbed desert west of downtown.

People can decide what species they want to have. The algorithms tell them what other species they’ll need. “It calculates what the relationships are, and which need to be maintained in order for species of interest to live,” said Rosenzweig. Calculations are modified according to local soil type and topography.