Natureserve’s Conservation Conference 2010
Bob Jenkins—NatureServe Conservation Award Speech
Part 3 of 5
On April 26, 2010, NatureServe presented Robert E. Jenkins, Ph.D., with the first-ever NatureServe Conservation Award. As the founder of natural heritage methodology and what has become the NatureServe network, Jenkins spearheaded our innovative approach to conservation. In accepting the award, Jenkins shared stories of the process and people he engaged to bring it all about.
Download the full transcript in PDF format (209 KB)
Armed with this knowledge, we got rolling. New programs started up quickly in MS, OR, TN, and WV. Through an odd twist, the one in WV led to the most transformative breakthrough in Heritage history—my second eureka moment.
This breakthrough came about because of the nature of the still-primitive computer systems. If a given natural area record listed a Bald Eagle nest as an importance factor, the logical next question was, “So what?” Well, we really didn’t know anything about bald eagles, just the conventional belief that they were rare, apparently declining, and needed help. All we could additionally learn from our natural area records was whether anyone had thought to assert that they existed on any of the other areas in our system. Unfortunately, that data was stored on tape and submitting a query to search for other alleged Bald Eagles would trigger a sequential read of the whole thing. Processing for this cost roughly $25, a significant amount of money from a 2-year, $100,000 budget (again, that number), and we would have wanted to run such queries all day long.
Our West Virginia coordinator, Frank Pelurie, complained bitterly that using our system would quickly break his budget. Stewing over this problem, I had a sudden thought, “I know,” I said, “we’ll invert the files.” My initial inspiration was just that by organizing our information differently, we could get away with reading only part of the tape and thus save money. In the very next moment though, it was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes. In a single instant I saw the total stupidity and futility of the approach we had been taking—that I, and everyone else, had always had everything upside down.
Within half an hour of this revelation I had defined and named the Element, the Element Occurrence, the Site, the Tract, and the Managed Area records—still the backbone of Heritage inventory methodology to this day. I soon began calling my resulting diagram the data salamander from the way I always drew it wiggling across the page—it wiggled across my whiteboard for many years. Within a few days I had created first drafts of the formats for these record types, had added the Source (of Information) Abstract, and had Helmut beginning to program our third generation of data management systems.
Of course vast complexities lay ahead; more on that in a minute, but now in one stroke our entire business was transformed. We were going to be gathering actual data, from any source, about Bald Eagles themselves, and the rest of what I immediately called the Elements of Natural Diversity—and about their localities or Occurrences. From this accumulating information we would decide which Sites were significant targets for conservation. Before, we had always been asking people to identify the significant natural areas as the starting point, using some vague and indefinable instinct. As our data accumulated we gradually discovered that from a biodiversity perspective the instincts of the experts had always been terribly incomplete, and aside from the occasional Savage Gulf or Pascagoula Hardwoods, very frequently just plain wrong.
But enough said—you do this every day, I hope, and you’re thinking, “Of course, how else would you do it?” But no one had ever looked at it this way before and at my moment of insight I thought I would burst with it. And I guarantee you, without that single eureka moment, the whole Heritage undertaking would have died a well-deserved natural death and you wouldn’t be here having this conference.
I’d been thinking for years about all kinds of things that now came together. For instance, my “coarse filter ??? fine filter” approach was inherent in that first eureka moment—community types as the coarse filter, rare species as the fine filter. Do you still speak of it that way? My thinking was that if you came up with a classification of recognizable community types for a state, and then found good Occurrences of each, collectively they would capture a large proportion of all of the biological and geophysical diversity of the state—say 80%. To do better, you might subdivide the community types by making finer distinctions, say into twice as many, and their Occurrences would likely increase the statistical capture of everything else—maybe to 85%. But diminishing returns would already have set in, so I thought that an efficient way to capture the remainder was to jump to the other end of the abundance spectrum, focusing on Occurrences of the rarest species (or subspecies, or even populations). These, because of their rarity, probably because they occupy narrow ecological niches, are most likely to fall through the coarse community filter. Moreover, I reasoned, since many such species are probably micro-habitat specialists, they are likely to co-occupy areas with other unknown or un-inventoried species that are thereby captured as well, along with the peculiar physical, edaphic, or other abiotic landscape features found there. There are a host of specifics about the evolution of these ideas, but no time for them here—besides, I hope you’ve gone well beyond. I still believe the coarse filter/fine filter approach was the best and most efficient for conservation inventory and planning, although we eventually augmented it with many other techniques.
A word about community classification: I sweated blood over this, as have many others, partly because we all know that communities are not entities like biological species with coherent genomes, isolating mechanisms, etc., and the underlying fluidity is a constant cause of dissatisfaction. Aquatic and marine systems are the worst. If this troubles you as much as it always did me, you must set aside the idea of community classification for its own sake and console yourself, as I did, with the realization that as a coarse filter for conservation inventory, nearly any reasonable classification of discernibly different communities can work. You can continue to wrestle with classification forever, but in the meantime, inventory and conservation planning can go on.
This approach shows that the Heritage process is an attempt to model reality. Because of limited resources, it has to be an efficient model. I often recall a remark that Tom Kohlsaat, with his pithy dry wit, made about that SC natural resource computer system—you remember, the one that was supposed to have managed our Heritage data for us. A year or two later, we asked what was happening with it and he said he had low expectations, because in his view, that program, which had by then become an early GIS, was attempting to “create a roadmap of the state at a scale of one to one.” This is something that no one will ever be able to do, and wrong-headed on its face.
The coarse filter- fine filter business is just one of many efficiencies in Heritage methodology that contribute to the success of the enterprise. That one operates effectively at the level of the individual program but there are lots of others that result from the network of many programs using standardized methods. Each individual program contributes some partial support—I hope—to a central system group that is thereby able to develop vastly better and more sophisticated technologies than any individual program could afford on its own. The individual programs, in turn, collectively focus more critical thought on the shared methodology and generate ideas for enhancements. The subsequently enhanced system can then better serve not just the program that produced the given idea but all the others it hadn’t occurred to yet. And, with shared continuity of purpose, the system can just go on getting better and better
Standardization extends to well-defined common terminology that allows for reliable and efficient communication. This enabled us to amass data upward and redistribute it downward. I compared notes with Keith Carr and Larry Master on what we all agree was a vital step—our creation of the central databases. The original central databases were created to provide a taxonomic standard to relate all the rare species being tracked by local inventories—it would have drained vital resources from every program if they had to try to do this for themselves and the results would have been non-uniform, complicating efforts to share data. We started with pretty well-refined taxonomies for all vertebrates and vascular plants—thanks to John Kartesz for the latter—and gradually added many invertebrate groups and nonvascular plants. We also made attempts to track the community Elements where they overlap state boundaries, still not very successfully by the time I left—I hope you’ve done better. Range-wide element planning was what I was pushing just before I stumbled.
Of course the individual programs focused on their rarest species but because everything is rare somewhere, after awhile nearly every species was receiving some attention. We can make a conservation case for the value of this, in terms of evolution and differentiation occurring in isolated and peripheral populations. Regardless of that, from a network point of view this enabled us to break up the task of compiling element data among the many programs, everyone benefitting as the system expanded into Element Characterization Abstracts and beyond. We set up elaborate data exchange mechanisms to make this all possible.
I wonder how often you reflect on the power of all of this? It wasn’t something that came to me all it once, it was more of a dawning awareness of how different this was from how most people work. I’m out of touch with NatureServe and network operations these days but your main stock in trade must be the fact that all that continuity and networking makes it possible for you to answer questions that others can scarcely even frame. One thing that always frustrated me was the vast amount of resources wasted on start-ups and failures in our field, sometimes ongoing failures—by our competitors and even our cooperators—so many times greater than the amounts we were able to put to good use. This results partly from shear willfulness, but otherwise from the failure to understand this network model, continuity, the whole thing. I used to draw a complexity matrix to illustrate the point—I think I may have gotten it from John Gall’s wonderful little book, Systemantics. It shows databases on one axis and numbers of users on the other. It starts with a single flat file in one corner with a single user. Users increase on the one axis, database complexity on the other—the combination of the two compounds geometrically. The big complex data system employed by many users stage is hardly ever arrived at but the beguiling nature of that first flat file is the cause of so much waste. I once had several USDA summer interns conduct a survey to find out what the department was doing with information and systems that might be useful. I started them off with four not very good but related programs I knew about and they spent a month finding out about over 200 others—this is not a joke—that had been started and were still thought by someone to exist. They spent two more months finding out that every one of them had disappeared without a trace. Does this make USDA unusual? I’m afraid the answer is, “No, not at all.”
This brings me around to a couple personal points. Because Heritage is an attempt to model reality, I’m not convinced that I ever invented anything. Instead, everything always felt more like an act of discovery. Modeling reality forces you into narrow range of possibilities, among which you can only choose. I’ve always said that this amounts to a constant seeking after truth, but wiser people than me have often thought as much. Confucius taught that the beginning of wisdom was to call things by their right names, and Ghandi said, “I once thought god was truth and now I think truth is god” —hence India’s great national motto, “Truth alone triumphs.” I think this modeling the truth business forced me to become a perfectionist. The junk-yards of the world are filled with cars that were still 95% functional—for something to really work you have to get it almost exactly right. And the best approach to perfection, I believe, is incremental successive approximation—the Heritage concept in a nutshell.