What is land management? John Tirpak, previous Mianus River Gorge (MRG) land manager and current US Fish and Wildlife scientist, said, “Land management is to ecology as engineering is to physics.” Where physics attempts to understand the very nature of matter and energy, the engineer uses this understanding to build, create, and innovate, designing new devices or constructing better materials. Ecology is the study of the interaction of living creatures with one another and the physical world they inhabit. The land manager takes what ecologists have discovered and uses this knowledge to bring about some desired result, such as protecting biodiversity, endangered species, and maintaining ecosystem services.
Land management is a tricky thing. First, it relies on ecology, a young science (relative to chemistry and physics) with a lot of unanswered questions. Ecology is also a science of immensely complicated interactions operating on many spatial (from microscopic to global) and temporal scales (from hourly to evolutionary). You can’t look at an ecological phenomenon (or problem) in a vacuum: ecology is interaction!
Why manage the Gorge?
One strategy for land management is a “hands-off-policy,” e.g., letting nature do what it will do, free of human interference. For the first 50 years of our history, this has been the predominant policy of the MRG (and many other institutions). We protected our forests through gifts of land, direct purchase, and conservation easements, and limited human use of the Preserve to hiking in order to better protect the old-growth forest, and its many denizens. This philosophy was one of seeing humans as external from the natural world and that the best way to protect “nature” was to remove man from the equation. We prohibited hunting, extraction of forest resources, did not intervene as exotic plants became established or as native plants declined in abundance.
In reality, removing man from the equation is not possible. Even if we limit use of the Gorge to hiking, the ecology of the Mianus River Gorge is shaped by a multitude of human-related activities we can’t control. The last 50 years have seen an explosion in urban development around NYC (more pressure on the MRG watershed), the rise of globalization (more exotic species introduced), and global climate change (changes in temperature and altered water and nutrient cycles). Colonists and early Americans cleared much of our forests for pasture which altered soil characteristics. Even hundreds of years later these changes play a role in how the forest is currently growing back and functioning. We are learning more about sophisticated land management strategies of the Native Americans, such as prescribed burns which encouraged oak trees to produce more acorns. The land management strategy of doing nothing simply allows everything else humans do to shape the Gorge in an uncontrolled manner. Humans are part of nature – for better or worse.