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JRBP’s mission clearly is to preserve something, but the dynamic nature of the world around us can make it hard to figure out exactly what that something should be. It’s not that the Jasper Ridge mission isn’t clear. Our focus on research, conservation, and education has served us well, opening doors to fundamental research and inspirational education. Still, the question of what we are trying to preserve is complicated. It’s worth reflecting on the alignment between the Jasper Ridge mission and the concept of preservation. preserve what?

The core problem is that nature is always changing. On the long time scale, we know that the California Current created our Mediterranean-type climate about three thousand years ago, and humans undoubtedly started changing Jasper Ridge soon after. Those changes accelerated with the arrival of Europeans. On a shorter time scale, Jasper Ridge was home to the recreational “Searsville Park” through the summer of 1975. Over the following four decades, there have been truly consequential changes, both positive, such as the rebound in puma numbers, and negative, such as the dramatic decline in the serpentine grassland’s spring wildflowers and the invasive spread of yellow star-thistle and French broom. Some changes represent entirely new challenges, such as the arrival of muskrats and wild turkeys. All of this is taking place alongside rapid changes in the climate and the composition of the atmosphere.

So how do we define preservation? There are many potential preservation goals. Each is very different. Each presents advantages and disadvantages. And most are at least partly incompatible with the others. Here are four visions of what to preserve.

PRESERVE INDIVIDUAL SPECIES.  Preserving the components of ecosystems could be a means of preserving many other aspects, including ecosystem functions, services, and aesthetics. But this is a challenging objective because many species are present on the preserve only part of the time. When they are off the preserve they are beyond our ability to provide protection. Second, a large fraction of species, including many that may be critical for ecosystem functions, are microscopic and may have never been described. In addition, it’s hard to know whether a collection of species really represents an ecosystem. Clearly, a box of watch parts isn’t the same as a watch.

PRESERVE ECOSYSTEMS.  This might entail identifying each of the major existing types at Jasper Ridge, figuring out which components are essential, and determining what kinds of replacements and reshufflings could be allowed without sacrificing essential features. A problem with this objective is that it is exceedingly difficult to define the key features of an ecosystem and the boundaries at which an ecosystem transitions to something fundamentally different. Observers who focus on appearance, biological diversity, ecosystem function, or resilience would set that boundary in different places.

PRESERVE KEY FUNCTIONS OR SERVICES.  For some key functions, it might be feasible to identify ranges of allowable flexibility. For example, different mixes of grassland species might yield comparable primary production, food resources for small mammals, or wildfire risk. But it’s very difficult to know whether an ecosystem designed to provide a given set of functions or services would provide others that might be equally important. Could we manage Jasper Ridge at least partly for compelling visitor experiences? Is that possible, if the essence is a perception of wildness?

PRESERVE NATURAL DYNAMICS.  If we had a clear picture of the rate of ecosystem change, we might manage Jasper Ridge so that it changes at some kind of “natural” rate. But if we alter the dynamics, might one argue that every study of ecosystem dynamics at Jasper Ridge is simply looking at the consequences of management decisions?

None of the options is clearly “right,” and none is clearly feasible. This leaves us in a real-life situation of needing to work with goals that are somewhat ill-defined and with criteria that look different from different perspectives.

How should we guide management without crisp big-picture objectives? The Jasper Ridge philosophy has four components. The first is to manage with the lightest touch possible, respecting the path that nature determines. Second, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to learn by doing. In our everyday management decisions, we continuously face the question of whether to remove an invasive species, exclude an animal, or mow here rather than there. Docents and staff have managed to keep up with removal of certain invasive plants (e.g., stinkwort, pampas grass, tree-of-heaven), and are making inroads against others (e.g., French broom, yellow star-thistle). We continue to debate an experimental return to cattle grazing as a management tool.

Third, we can learn from others, building on the rich diversity of approaches and outcomes that we see in nearby preserves and parks. Our mission is unique, but wisdom depends on openness to shared knowledge.

Fourth, much of the management of Jasper Ridge is grounded in expert judgment. In some ways, our philosophy may be a bit eclectic, based more on a sense of what is possible than on systematic pursuit of defined goals, but it is based on many decades of collective experience by leading ecologists. The criteria and objectives may not always have the sharpest focus, but they always have a rich “feel” for the system.

The future of Jasper Ridge is in the hands and expert judgment of people who not only care deeply about it but also know that there is no single right definition of “preserve.” Our highest mission needs to be assuring that future generations of scientists, conservationists, and students continue to benefit from this unique and complex place.