Lindsay Jackman is a postgraduate student who wrote this article as part of her Euroleague for Life Sciences course work at Lincoln University.
Growing up in the prairies of Canada, I had rarely heard of, let along seen in practice, the idea of conservation. Then again, the prairie ecosystem is hard to get excited about compared to the surrounding lakes, mountains and forests. It’s been almost thirty years and I still can barely conjure up some artificially infused enthusiasm when someone’s asks where I’m from. Sure it’s a beautiful landscape, but definitely not exhilarating by any means. There were only two areas of conservation I knew of while I was young. A 13-hectare Living Prairie Museum that we passed on the way to the mall, it was always empty, though I heard rumors that some elementary schools took field trips there. The other project was called The Fort Whyte Centre , a handful of hectares donated by the bordering cement factory as an act of goodwill. Everyone knew it well, but rarely had any reason to visit. I went to summer camp there, complete with canoes, butterflies, and the two deer we always had our eyes open for and might be lucky enough to see within the fenced reserve. Today the reserve is a whopping 250 hectares and firmly established in the community, with programs for children, seniors, gardening classes and over 7km of trails. I am astonished and excited to see the success it has gained.
I had never given much thought to Canada’s conservation efforts. I always knew for such a big country it always took a lengthy drive to find wilderness to enjoy. It’s a big country, everything is a drive, but 2 hours made the natural environment seem pretty inaccessible. It wasn’t until I came to Canterbury, New Zealand for the first time that I really began to think about Canada’s efforts and strategy. Politics aside, I quickly realized how lazy our strategy was. It is an all or nothing approach. Land is either strictly dedicated to protection, such as a massive national park a few hours away, or land is used economically (in my province that means agriculture, further west it would be oil). There is so much land there is little need for analysis or strategy, it was just about finding the balance, or in many cases, economics. In Canterbury I was exposed to projects aimed at creating or maintaining areas of conservation and the processes required. I immediately became fascinated with the SLOSS debate – whether a single large or several small reserves were more effective in conservation, the former seemingly being the strategy I was most familiar with and more commonly accepted opinion. The impacts the design a reserve has on the interior and edge habitats are what intrigued me most.
After 50 years the debate still goes undecided, but it is clear that ecologists take the debate seriously. Reading through literature it quickly came to light that science was not what shone through the data, but the personal vendetta’s of scientists in many of the published articles. I was also surprised to find myself in support of small reserves over large ones; an idea that I had been taught was the lesser option and a belief I had carried unto this day. Yes it is easy to find data condemning edges as detrimental to biodiversity for a number of reasons, but it is equally as easy to find studies where edges offer ecological benefits, such as the case for New Zealand’s mistletoe Peraxilla tetrapetala. My experiences in Canterbury highlighted the benefits of smaller reserves largely through offering more outlets to connecting with and involving locals, convincing me further of their benefits. I witnessed this first hand in a reserve filled with pig droppings after a local farmer let his sounder of pigs roam through the enclosure. These are the most important people for conservation, the ones who do not understand or have not been exposed to its importance and functions, something that can easily be forgotten when constantly surrounded by scientific people and those involved ‘in the cause’. The fact is that there are many people who don’t respect the fencing and institution of reserves, largely due to lack of education and experience. A number of smaller reserves essentially puts conservation in our back yards. Communities can watch the changes and benefits to the local environment and understand why it is so important, creating incentive and engagement. In the end any reserve will have a trying time without the respect and support from the surrounding community, this is why it is the locals who will ensure the future success of a reserve and maintenance of its integrity.
In the end both large and smaller reserves serve a purpose equally, it is a matter of the situation that dictates which is appropriate under specific circumstances. Although I still believe more nature is always better, smaller reserves should not be discredited as quickly and easily as the many involved in the SLOSS debate have dictated. After all, community support and involvement through exposure to the small reserve is what has made Fort Whyte into the huge success it is today.