The Inexperienced Eye: Viewing Conservation Anew

by Sallie Carter, Communications and Outreach Manager

What does good conservation look like? If a natural area looks ugly, does that mean it’s ecologically bad?  If you’re like many people, you may picture a healthy, sustainable landscape to look something like this:

© The Nature Conservancy (Devan King)
Bad Branch State Nature Preserve © The Nature Conservancy (Devan King)

Now imagine what you might think if you came across an area that looked like this:

©The Nature Conservancy
©The Nature Conservancy

Or this:

©The Nature Conservancy
©The Nature Conservancy

Recently, I joined a group of scientists and conservation practitioners for a two-day meeting of the Central Appalachians Fire Learning Network. This meeting was a chance for representatives from multiple land-management agencies to share their knowledge and lessons learned for habitat restoration and maintenance through the use of fire. For me, this was a great opportunity to learn more about an aspect of conservation that I was fairly ignorant about.

As a part of the meeting, we visited sites in and around the Daniel Boone National Forest where management techniques such as mastication and prescribed fire are being used.  On the second day, as we approached our first stop, I walked over to my colleague Chris Minor, who manages the fire program for The Nature Conservancy in Kentucky. With a sweeping gesture, I lowered my voice and asked, “Do you want me to take pictures of all this ugly stuff?”

Chris stopped, gave me a look of pity, and said, “Ah, that’s the eye of inexperience!  This is beautiful!”

In nature, different visual information is available to people with different experience, knowledge, and paradigms. To my untrained eye, seeing so many cut trees looked like a sort of brutal plant massacre. To an experienced land manager, this area looked like the intermediate stages of an oak savannah restoration project – one which would benefit certain species of plants, birds, bats, and other wildlife that are currently being squeezed out of their shrinking habitat. Felling some trees thinned the forest canopy to the extent needed for the native grasses and flowers lying dormant in the soil to answer the beckon of the sun.

Many people think of a healthy forest, savannah, or other natural area mainly in terms of aesthetics.  When a conservationist thinks about a healthy forest, she sees so much more than the trees before her.  She sees the thickness of the understory vegetation, the condition of the soil, and the microclimate of the particular location. Her experienced eye can help her assess not only the current state of the land, but will also look for clues to what may have been there before, and what possibilities there are for the future.  She will not use aesthetics as the basis on which to implement conservation strategies, but rather good science.

In nature, ugly stages of habitat restoration are often a necessary prerequisite for later beauty and vitality.

©Susan Mihalo
©Susan Mihalo

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