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Most often used in environmental and natural resource policy discourse, natural regulation is generally understood to mean environmental conditions not directly altered by humans. Often, the term is used to contrast areas with minimal direct human influence, such as congressionally designated wilderness areas on federal lands in the United States, with directly managed areas such as commercial forest land used to produce timber for lumber and paper.
Within the context of natural resource management, natural regulation is based on the rationale that nature knows best, and will therefore achieve an ideal state if left alone. The concept is fueled by the belief that an ecosystem is in need of repair because man has used it too intensively for self-gain (or sustenance) for reasons such as logging, mining, hunting, and urban development. Other contributing factors are outmoded management policies such as fire suppression, wolf extermination, and elimination of woody debris from streams that have proved to cause more problems than they solved because of man’s ignorance of nature’s complexities.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary makes natural regulation sound like an oxymoron, when “natural is based on an inherent sense of right and wrong, not artificial, and untouched by the influence of civilization and society,” while “regulation implies a prescription by authority in order to control an organization or system.” Connecting such words reveals a teleological notion that is unscientific according to contemporary ecological science, as it contradicts the current chaos paradigm that has largely overturned the related concept of balance of nature. Depending on the spatial and temporal scales at which nonhuman-controlled environments are studied, nature appears anything but regulated (for example, consider natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the series of tsunamis from the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake). As some scholars of natural resource management policy have suggested, there tends to be a confusion of the term natural regulation to describe an empirically verified state of nature, when in fact it delineates a human value preference for what should or should not be done to an environment.
Frederic Wagner of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis suggests that “much of the debate on natural regulation fails to distinguish between the [management] policy and [scientific] hypothesis” that make up the term. Part of the problem can be traced to junk science, blamed for simplifying and distorting scientific claims for personal motivations, whether it be as innocuous as a reporter complying with a word count limit for a newspaper article, or as deliberate as a lawyer constructing a case to win a lawsuit.
An applied policy example of natural regulation is in the western United States in Yellowstone National Park (YNP) by the National Park Service (NPS) on the recommendation of a 1963 report by the National Academy of Sciences to return the area to what it was like before Euro-American settlement. A founder in the development of our understanding of ecology, V.C. Wynne-Edwards, brought some of the supporting concepts for natural regulation to the forefront in 1962 with the book Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behavior, suggesting that certain species thrive by regulating their own populations via group selection to use their resources sustainably. Three and a half decades later, ecologist Mark Boyce supports natural regulation policy based on the belief that humans can learn from environments in which they are not involved, and are likely to mess them up if they become involved.
In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences put out a review of the natural regulation in YNP in recognition of it being one of the most contentious management issues in the park since its inception. Alston Chase’s 1985 book Playing God in Yellowstone is a commonly cited source of criticism that sparked considerable backlash from the NPS. Other well-known critics are political scientist Charles Kay and Richard Keigley of the U.S. Geological Survey, who both have associated natural regulation more with politics than science. Biogeographer Amy Hessl illustrates the inevitable limitations of applying natural regulation in that political boundaries such as land ownership don’t coincide with ecological processes operating at different spatial scales. However, she implicates support for such an evolution in policy at YNP when she calls attention to management actions connected with declines in aspen populations, identified as the most important indicator species of biological diversity there.
Given that ecosystem boundaries don’t correspond with legal boundaries, a policy of natural regulation may actually threaten the ecological values inside of a protected area. Although fire suppression is blamed for wiping out aspen cover in some areas, permitting prairie fires and unlimited wild ungulate grazing can also drastically reduce biodiversity. And as pointed out in the May 1998 UNESCO Courier, natural regulation does not absolve managers (or policy makers) from setting objectives, because change is going to take place regardless of their decision to intervene. The quandary becomes one between biocentric and utilitarian goals, and if humans can be a part of ecological sustainability.
Another aspect to take into account with natural regulation implementation is its feasibility, when arguably nothing left on the earth is untouched by humans. If everything is connected, then some human-related development can eventually be found to have initiated a domino effect on what was even thought to still be natural. Many wilderness designations, which the Wilderness Act of 1964 describes as lands to be protected in their “natural condition, untrammeled by man,” have been made after (and contingent upon) the destruction of historic buildings.
Discussion of natural regulation also highlights dramatic differences in what people view as acceptable ecological conditions based on what initiated the changes that shaped the character of a place. For example, a lightning-caused wildfire that burns 500 acres of marketable timber would be beneficial according to an environmentalist, but a tragedy to a logger. But if arson were identified as bringing about the same result, the two would likely agree it was a crime. Similarly, the appropriate response to such an incident could range from nothing, to harvesting any salvageable trees that remain.
Environmental philosopher Ernest Partridge speaks to such distinctions in his analysis of what he calls the old and new ecologies. In his successful 1998 proposal to the National Science Foundation on “Implications of Disequilibrium Ecology for Environmental Ethics and Policy,” Partridge cites Aldo Leopold’s belief, published in 1949, that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity and stability and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise” as an example of the traditional view, and Daniel Botkin’s assertion that although this standpoint forms the basis of federal and state environmental laws and international agreements, it is inaccurate as an example of the current paradigm. New ecology contends that the environment is in constant change, and therefore there is nothing to preserve. Petitions for wilderness restoration are thus left with unfounded assumptions about what condition they are advocating.
Partridge’s main contribution to this exploration of natural regulation lies in his rebuttal to the new ecologists about ecosystems being better or worse (that is, healthy versus degraded) than others, as correlated with their being natural or cultivated by human societies. His argument is based on the belief that undisturbed nature manages itself, which to him basically means remaining as is. He does not deny the new ecology claim that all is flux, but tempers it with the qualification that change within natural ecosystems is slow and self-healing, while anthropogenic effects are abrupt and damaging. Such reasoning, however, ignores cataclysmic natural events such as volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, fires, and asteroid impacts. Like most theories, there are some instructive points that remain in both old and new ecology concepts, even after considering their criticisms.
Within the natural regulation context, scientists need to be cautious about mixing science with their personal pBibliography: when making formal recommendations on resource management. Which returns to Frederic Wagner’s observation about the shortcomings of using the term natural regulation, in that it inextricably links questions of scientific fact that are subject to tests of evidence with sociopolitical value and policy questions: Specifically whether humans are a part of nature, and if so, what their role should be in shaping it.
- E. Duff and J.D. Varley, “Natural Regulation in Yellowstone National Park’s Northern Range,” Ecological Applications (v.9, 1998);
- Greg Hanscom, “Is Nature Running Too Wild in Yellowstone?” High Country News (v.29, 1997);
- Karl Hess, “Ecological Threats to the Parks,” Different Drummer (1995);
- Amy Hessl, “Aspen, Elk, and Fire: The Effects of Human Institutions on Ecosystem Processes,” BioScience (v. 52, 2002);
- Noss, L. Westra, and D. Pimentel, eds., Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation, and Health (Island Press, 2000);
- Frederic Wagner, “Perspective: Frederic H. Wagner, National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis,” Yellowstone Science (Summer, 1999).