Home » What is Resilience?
Especially in the land trust community, ecological resilience often describes the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to a disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly without shifting to an alternative state or losing function or services. Resilience is important everywhere because all communities and ecosystems face hazards such as drought and flooding – risks which are exacerbated by our changing climate. Resilience can be seen as a factor influencing adaptive capacity, which in turn is an element of the vulnerability of a system. More resilient systems are able to absorb larger shocks without changing in fundamental ways, while less resilient systems are less capable of adapting to change and more vulnerable to harmful impacts. Vulnerability is defined by determining the exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity of a system. By planning to preserve and enhance resilience, land trusts can work to increase the adaptive capacities of the lands they manage.
There is growing sentiment in that conservation community that it is no longer sufficient to protect the places where plants and animals live today because those places are changing. Rivers and streams, for example, may be warmer now than they were a decade ago, disrupting the reproductive cycles of fish dependent on cold, clean waters. The habitat ranges are also shifting for other wildlife—birds, reptiles and mammals alike— as they too must move northward and to higher ground to escape warmer temperatures. As the planet warms and the natural world is forced to rearrange itself, land trusts need to permanently protect a network of resilient habitats that will support a full range of biological diversity under changing conditions. Learn more about defining these terms to build resilience here.
As the Open Space Institute relates, new research can help land managers identify the places to protect today that will likely support a variety of plants and animals tomorrow. This approach to resilience, studied for more than a decade by scientists at The Nature Conservancy, has found that to protect diversity we must focus on three elements: the complexity of landforms, the connectivity of natural systems, and a variety of geology types. In other words, we must preserve lands that are diverse both above and below ground and connected to other protected lands. This means prioritizing conservation efforts by focusing on unfragmented, natural areas with a variety of land formations such as slopes, cliffs, valleys and ravines, and different soil types offer diversity of ecosystems and microclimates that can support biodiversity and system resilience where different forms of life can thrive.
Many land trusts have traditionally focused on conservation objectives that can enhance resilience. For example, groups with missions that include protecting habitat for keystone species have often identified migration corridors and transitional ecosystems that support many life-cycle stages for species such as salmon, bears, and migratory birds. Such conservation work can be done at large or small scales – for example, in Vermont, the Vermont Land Trust targeted a small parcel connecting the Green Mountains and the Taconic ranges to support safe black bear migration, a small step that can make a big difference for this large migratory mammal. In Maine, the Downeast Lakes Land Trust is engaged in carbon offset projects on their working forestlands, and implements “focus-species forestry” to enhance biodiversity and protect critical habitat. In Louisiana the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation‘s watershed-wide management plan focuses on restoring critical habitats that can offer increased resilience to ecosystems and human communities that depend on these coastal areas for the natural resources and storm protection benefits they provide.
To achieve enhanced resilience in the built environment, land trusts and conservation partners are working to ensure healthy and intact natural areas. When these areas coexist with the built environment, they are often known as “green infrastructure.” These areas can protect communities and the environments they depend on from impacts such as storm surge and flooding – benefits which are often referred to as “ecosystem services.”
How resilience is achieved varies, but in general, incorporating principles of “Smart Growth” and Strategic Conservation Planning into land management planning can support resilience objectives. To sustain and amplify storm and sea level rise protection benefits in coastal areas, land managers are working to identify and protect healthy natural ecosystems, as well as restore and enhance impacted systems to increase their resilience to change. Increasingly, green infrastructure protection, restoration, and enhancement strategies are being emphasized as land management tools to support resiliency in the built environment by leveraging natural ecosystem services.
Communities are also working to incorporate conservation of natural areas and other green infrastructure-related strategies into management and adaptation plans. For example, the Trust for Public Land has partnered with cities across the country to identify and deploy restoration projects that “connect,” “cool,” “absorb,” and “protect” surrounding environments – goals that provide numerous benefits to people and ecosystems.
In practice, resilience planning can reduce vulnerabilities in order to allow ecological systems and the communities that depend on and live in these systems to persist despite change and impacts such as increased sea level rise, more extensive flooding, and storms.
Networks (also called regional flow or regional connectivity)
The term networks refers to connectivity that facilitates movement across a landscape. Land trusts have been helping to build regional connectivity for more than a decade and have been very successful at connecting cores or blocks of forest through patient work, landowner by landowner.
To facilitate the movements that allow diverse plants and wildlife to survive, individual land parcels need to be seen as puzzle pieces in a larger, integrated, and readily accessible landscape. Land trusts are uniquely positioned to act as connectors that can piece together these links, often making even the most local conservation protections regionally significant.
Resilience is a widely used term and has several meanings. In the context of climate change, it refers to ecological resilience, or the ability of a natural system to rebound after a disturbance. Resilience refers to the ability of a system (such as an ecosystem) to take advantage of resources or cope with consequences. Based on a few inherent characteristics, which we describe below, any ecosystem has more or less capacity to return to a functioning state. Because we are expecting a great many environmental changes as the world warms, the resilience of an ecosystem is highly relevant as land trusts consider which places to protect.
Resilience and its opposite, vulnerability, are measured along a spectrum. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines vulnerability as “the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes.” (You may be familiar with the vulnerability assessments that have been done for some states and regions. These are useful if you are managing land for a specific species, but less so if you are trying to protect one play that will remain relevant as change occurs.)
The three most desirable traits for climate resilience are:
Full range of biological diversity (also called stratification or representation)
Scientific research has shown that species diversity is directly related to the diversity of habitats, which in turn is driven by the diversity of geology at different elevations. So if we protect the full range of geologies (such as limestone, granite and shale) at all elevations (high, medium and low), we can be pretty sure to capture the full range of habitat types that support the full range of biological diversity. This emphasis on the broad qualities of a landscape itself, rather than on the needs of individual species, is generally called a ‘course filter’ approach to conservation of biological diversity.
Of course, it is also important to recognize that some unique species might need more attention or a strategy tailored to protecting them. Threatened species such as salmon and the piping plover or species that need large ranges to migrate and reproduce such as black bear have already been the focus of successful conservation campaigns across the nation. Species-by-species approach to conservation is often referred to as a ‘fine filter’ approach.
These considerations –networks, resilience, and the full range of biodiversity -- point to a critical role for land trusts in protecting landscapes most likely to be climate resilient.
Land trusts are working in a variety of ways to build resilience. Learn more.