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Nature’s Secrets

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International ecologists offer plan for next 100 years

By Meg Lowman

Teach your children well.

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The year 2013 marks the 100th birthday of the British Ecological Society, so the International Congress of Ecology recently met in London to mark this auspicious occasion. Like many scientific professionals, ecologists reluctantly come away from their field sites or computer screens to exchange expertise on new tools, best practices and future priorities. But centennial conferences are once-in-a-lifetime events. What were the concerns of 3,000-plus global ecologists, as they spent a week discussing priorities for the next 100 years?

In her keynote address, BES president Georgina Mace, professor at University College of London, summarized the changing links between humans and their environments, explaining how past generations focused solely on preserving species and beautiful landscapes. Only more recently are ecologists beginning to view conservation with an economic lens, defining the dollar values of fresh water, minerals, plant-based medicines, and carbon storage as part of conservation planning. These products are called ecosystem services, whereby healthy natural landscapes provide benefits to humans. She explained how we need to acknowledge that conservation is directly tied to humans, and increasingly, environmental solutions need to be human-driven.

In addition to the pervading consensus that ecology needs human drivers to promote sound decision-making, three other major priorities took center stage at the conference. One was the announcement of a new manifesto for forest conservation. Acknowledging that past efforts to conserve tropical forests has not succeeded, 50 global forest ecologists co-authored a white paper declaring a new forest management paradigm – that leadership should be placed in the hands of local communities to minimize continued degradation of global forests. The manifesto also prioritized placing new technologies into the hands of local leaders for effective solutions.

Another priority for the next 100 years of ecology is citizen science, whereby nonscientists collect information for larger-scale environmental monitoring. Emerging mobile technologies have made citizen science one of the fastest-growing, most innovative aspects of ecology, and ecologists are capitalizing on its popularity.

Perhaps most important for ecology’s future, a third priority was recognizing the next generation of scientists. A newly launched group called the International Network of Next-Generation Ecologists provided inspiration, energy and enthusiasm for the future of the discipline. As one of a handful of North Carolinians at this meeting, I believe the future is in good hands.

Meg Lowman, Ph.D., a forest canopy expert, is senior scientist at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and research professor at N.C. State University.
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