US-IALE 2008 – Summary

A brief and belated summary of the 23rd annual US-IALE symposium in Madison, Wisconsin.

The theme of the meeting was the understanding of patterns, causes, and consequences of spatial heterogeneity for ecosystem function. The three keynote lectures were given by Gary Lovett, Kimberly With and John Foley. I found John Foley’s lecture the most interesting and enjoyable of the three – he’s a great speaker and spoke on a broader topic than the the others; Agriculture, Land Use and the Changing Biosphere. Real wide-ranging, global sustainability stuff. He highlighted the difficulties of studying agricultural landscapes because of the human cultural and institutional factors, but also stressed the importance of tackling these tricky issues because ‘agriculture is the largest disturbance the biosphere has ever seen’ and because of its large contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

Presentations I was particularly interested in were mainly in the ‘Landscape Patterns and Ecosystem Processes: The Role of Human Societies’, ‘Challenges in Modeling Forest Landscapes under Climate Change’ and ‘Cross-boundary Challenges to the Creation of Multifunctional Agricultural Landscapes’ sessions.

In the ‘human societies’ session, Richard Aspinall discussed the importance of considering human decision-making at a range of scales and Dan Brown again highlighted the importance of human agency in spatial landscape process models. In particular, with regards modelling these systems using agent-based approaches he discussed the difficulty of model calibration at the agent level and stressed that work is still needed on the justification and evaluation phases of agent-based modelling.

The ‘modeling forest landscapes’ session was focused largely around use of the LANDIS and HARVEST models that were developed in and around Wisconsin. In fact, I don’t think I saw any mention of the USFS FVS at the meeting whilst I was there, largely because (I think) FVS has large data demands and is not inherently spatial. LANDIS and HARVEST work at more coarse levels of forest representation (grid cell compared to FVS’ individual tree) allowing them to be spatially explicit and to run over large time and space extents. We’re confident we’ll be able to use FVS in a spatially explicit manner for our study area though, capitalising on the ability of FVS to directly simulate specific timber harvest and economic scenarios.

The ‘multifunctional agricultural landscapes’ session had an interesting talk by Joan Nassauer on stakeholder science and the challenges it presents. Specific issues she highlighted were:
1. the need for a precise, operational definition of ‘stakeholder’
2. ambiguous goals for the use of stakeholders
3. the lack of a canon of replicable methods
4. ambivalence toward the quantification of stakeholder results

Other interesting presentations were given by Richards Hobbs and Carys Swanwick. Richard spoke about the difficulties of ‘integrated research’ and the importance of science and policy in natural resource management. He suggested that policy-makers ‘don’t get’ systems thinking or modelling, and that some of this may be down to the psychological profiles of the types of people that go into policy making. Such a conclusion suggests scientists need to work harder to bridge the gap to policy makers and do a better job of explaining the emergent properties of the complex systems they study. Carys Swanwick talked about the landscape character assessment, which was interesting for me having moved from the UK to the US about a year ago. Whilst ‘wilderness’ is an almost alien concept in the UK (and Europe as a whole), landscape character is something that is distinctly absent in the new world agricultural landscapes. Carys talked about the use of landscape character as a tool for conservation and management (in Europe) and the European Landscape Convention. It was a refreshing change from many of the other presentations about agricultural landscape (possibly just because I enjoyed seeing a few pictures of Blighty!).

Unfortunately the weather during the conference was wet which meant that I didn’t get out to see as much of Madison as I would have liked. Despite the rain we did go on the Biking Fieldtrip. And yes, we did get soaked. It was also pretty miserable weather for the other fieldtrip to and International Crane Foundation center and the Aldo Leopold Foundation (more on that in a future blog), but interesting nevertheless.

Other highlights of the conference for me were meeting the former members of CSIS and eating dinner one night with Monica Turner. I also got to meet up with Don McKenzie and some of the other ‘fire guys’, and a couple of people from the Great Basin Landscape Ecology lab where I visited previously. And now I’m already looking forward to the meeting next year in Snowbird, Utah (where I enjoyed the snow this winter).

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