The Open Space Council Blog


Landscape Resilience

August 17, 2017


Landscape resilience was the theme of one of our panel discussions at the 2017 Open Space Conference. We circled back around to Nicole Heller and Robin Grossinger, two of our panelists at the conference, to continue the conversation. Read on to hear how they define landscape resilience, how it is beginning to shape decisions within the land conservation community, and where to learn more. 

The following exchange has been edited for clarity.


Open Space Council: What is resiliency?

Nicole Heller: My definition of resiliency relates to the capacity of the system – whether it is the built environment, a natural area, or the two considered together – to absorb changes and re-organize to persist in core functions and attributes. For example, a resilient grassland system would adapt and transform in species composition over time, but it would continue to host native species in a diverse, complex, productive trophic web. Similarly, a resilient city would be designed to have the capacity to absorb changes in population size and climate without major disasters or sacrifice of quality of life.

What is tricky about resilience is that it is applied to both transformation and persistence, two concepts that seem incompatible. They are incompatible if the system is defined without flexibility in function and attributes. In this case, all changes (even if adaptive) will be viewed as a lack of resilience. If alternatively, a system is defined with flexibility, then some changes can be fully compatible with resilience. And indeed transformation can be good. Some questions that one needs to grapple with in considering resilience are: What are the essential forms and functions for a system that you want to persist? And are those essential forms and functions sustainable in the face of projected changes? Is the system being managed toward self-organization and adaptive learning?

Open Space Council: Robin, do you have any ‘ah-ha’ moments to share that helped you begin seeing the landscape with ‘resilience vision?’

Robin Grossinger: For me, the ‘ah-ha’ moment was seeing how resilient our ecosystems and landscapes have been to the tremendous modifications of the past two centuries. Seeing that persistence and recovery, under such challenging conditions, shows there are inherent mechanisms of resilience that we can draw on. We can learn those mechanisms and do our best to support them.

Open Space Council: It seems like most recommendations focus on the preserving and strengthening of the foundational elements of life support systems: diverse options for plant communities, keeping water around, keeping dynamic zones like riparian areas and coastlines free and clear to allow natural processes to occur. And this is because the fate of the “stuff on the surface” (the plants and animals we cherish) may be uncertain and thus we need to instead preserve the space and capacity of the landscape to host some semblance of biodiversity. But those plants and animals and their complex interactions got us into this work to begin with. That’s what we fell in love with. Nicole, do you see this as a barrier to transitioning to landscape resilience thinking and decision-making?

Nicole Heller: Interesting question. I think a shift away from species to processes may be a turn-off, but I don’t think it needs to be framed that way. There still will be many species that benefit from process work, and we can still talk about those specific species and how the work will benefit them. And there will still be lots of places that need to be stewarded for particular species, especially where resilience is projected to be high for that species. Furthermore, if we want native species to persist and even expand in the landscape, we have to seed on the landscape (e.g. plants, butterflies, ants) so they can find new sites to colonize and compete effectively with non-native species.

Personally, I am less concerned that the shift from species to processes will be limited by the emotional resonance of the task, but rather it will be challenged by the legal and policy tools. The Endangered Species Act is the strongest regulatory tool available and often funds are only available to manage endangered and threatened species in places where they currently exist even if those places are not projected to be optimal for the long-term. Managers may find themselves interested in other targets, but bound to continue business as usual.

Open Space Council: Robin, what are some of the simple steps that folks who are just getting started on landscape resilience can take, right away?

Robin Grossinger: While it certainly can be an overwhelming topic, I think the first step is simply starting to get information and then initiating new conversations. Managing for resilience emphasizes some of the bigger challenges of our work: implementing at the right (often large) spatial scale, supporting the key physical and ecological processes that create and maintain resilience, creating connectivity across multiple jurisdictions, etc. The Landscape Resilience Framework that we developed recently with a bunch of other scientists is a quite accessible entry point for identifying what’s important to be thinking about in these regards and starting to get a common language for climate resilience actions. Then we have to initiate the longer-term relationships and projects with multiple partners that will be required to make these improvements. But, as always, it starts with small conversations among concerned parties about what’s needed and how to get there.

Open Space Council: Nicole, what does it mean to monitor for resilience? What measurements or monitoring approaches do you recommend, or recommend against? How do you keep informed about the health trends of a landscape?

Nicole Heller: With resiliency, you always need to ask resiliency of what, to what? Because as I pointed out earlier, there is an inherent tension between transformation and persistence in the concept of resiliency. Resilient systems cannot be expected to remain static in all ways, some aspects have to change and some have to persist.

Once you have defined what are the essential aspects of resilience for your system, then that can set metrics for monitoring. In my work, I have considered the concept of general resiliency to describe system-level attributes like diversity and complexity that provide conditions for evolution and transformation, versus specific resilience to describe the resilience for a particular species in a particular place. For example, general resilience might relate to a goal to maintain species richness and diversity, while specific resilience might be to maintain a redwood forest.

My hunch is that over time a focus on resilience is going to naturally lead managers to consider more aspects of general resilience than they may have before because it provides more flexibility in approach. One can think of it like an insurance policy. You don’t know exactly what is going to emerge from your actions, but you are confident that you have created more positive options and more capacity in the system for self-organization. For instance, a manager may want to manage for certain valuable ecological functions, ecosystem services, and processes that drive diversity and evolution (e.g. disturbance regimes, diversity of genotypes) rather than focusing on single species composition targets. Single species composition targets can be useful if used as indicators of function and health, and may be required by law in many management cases, but they can also be traps if they force managers to do maladaptive behaviors in order to keep particular species alive in particular places that may no longer be suitable.

Another important topic to consider in monitoring for resilience are the environmental characteristics of the landscape itself. We have many microclimates due to the topographic complexity of the mountains. Working with this complexity to meet goals is one of the most important tools we have in our resiliency toolbox. For example, it may be impossible to maintain a redwood forest across an entire park in the face of climate change, but there may be certain canyons and slopes that are suitable over the long term. Identifying places of projected resilience and vulnerability, and starting to monitor them now for growth, survival, and reproduction success can help guide our understanding of how ecological communities are responding to global changes and where we can best target management actions. The Adaptive Management Plan for Pepperwood Preserve illustrates a method for stratifying the landscape by climate and using that stratification for monitoring and management.  

Open Space Council: In your own work, what funding strategies have you used or seen used to make investments in ecosystem resilience?

Robin Grossinger: Since ecosystem resilience is one of the foundations of social and community resilience, there should be synergies — that’s where I’m seeing new funding leverage. For example, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the South Bay Salt Ponds Restoration Project have an ambitious project in development that is designed to improve sediment delivery from local streams to tidal marshes, to help the marshes be resilient to sea level rise. But it has a financial driver in reducing maintenance costs and flood risk for the District. I think we’ll see more of these opportunities to mesh ecosystem resilience with infrastructure resilience, if we’re creative and build bridges to those communities.

Nicole Heller: In my work, I have focused a lot on investments in connectivity as investments in ecosystem resilience because connectivity can sustain the ecological process of dispersal and movement across the landscape. Without a doubt ecosystems are going to change as new species arrive and die out in particular places and we cannot predict or control all those changes, but we can provide connectivity. And connectivity provides persistence in dispersal and movement, and transformation, in the face of those changes.

Many stewardship and restoration projects can also be framed as investments in ecosystem resilience. For example, restoring a connection of a river to a floodplain provides space for that river to re-organize in response to future storm events. I think it is our duty as a conservationists and land managers to make investments now in improving the health of our ecosystems and California native biodiversity to ensure resilience going forward. A stressed and species-poor system will likely degrade further under increased global changes rather than show positive resilience. In advocating for funding, we should be asking for support to take the actions now that we can take to increase the diversity, complexity, and productivity of an ecosystem, to restore natural processes and connections, as investments in ecological resilience.

Open Space Council: Last question, what resources have you found useful as you grow your understanding of landscape resilience? What is your recommended reading on this topic for the conservation community?

Robin and Nicole’s suggestions:


Other favorites from the Open Space Council: