Response to Kathryn Kennedy

Tom Mitchell
Sun, 18 Sep 2011 01:49:41 PDT
I realise that the conversation has moved on. Perhaps it is unnecessary to flog a dead horse but I think that Kathryn Kennedy's patronising email demands a response. 

Ms Kennedy says 'It's a delicate thing to engage the passionate who are convinced of their particular point of view. Sadly I think that we won't be able to convince many of the necessity for proceeding as we do in the short term.' Loosely translated: 'my passionate convictions are right; yours are wrong; and you lot are too ignorant to see it my way.' 

Time I think to take the gloves off, or at least to loosen the strings. Please just vote with your browser button and click onto the next post if this thread has outlived its welcome.

In the blue corner we have PBS members and participants in the online discussion it promotes, quietly collecting, propagating, distributing and recruiting new enthusiasts for fascinating, sometimes rare, occasionally endangered plants. In the red corner we have the self-appointed guardians of the gates to restoration ecological Eden urging the blues to back off and wait until the science is in. 

> It saddens me to think that our devoted conservation horticulturists who are
> so professional and work so hard to understand and recover these plants (so
> that we CAN make them more widely available someday) are so misunderstood.

I'm sorry you're sad, Kathryn, really I am, and I'm thrilled that you want to engage with grass roots conservationists. Can I humbly suggest, however, that if you aspire to: 

> be the bridge between horticultural research, popular
> horticulture, and conservation!

you really need to drop the patronising tone. Telling well-educated, extremely well-informed amateurs that they just don't understand how complicated all this is and please would they leave the science to the experts is not a rhetorical device destined to achieve your ends. Trust me on this. I'm a scientist.

> One thing we WANT
> to do is get everyone to see and enjoy these materials and identify with
> them in a way that does not harm them and helps the commercial sector and
> enthusiasts understand how delicate and rigorous restoration work actually
> is.  This education is so important before we could envision an army of
> effective amateur restorationists helping us in a widespread way.

For goodness' sake, we KNOW it's complicated and delicate. 'Amateur' does not equal stupid, ignorant or irresponsible. Nor does 'professional' always equal clever, informed and wise (Kudzu as soil stabiliser wasn't such a great idea, was it). Academic doesn't imply disinterested and commercial doesn't necessarily mean venal. Who exactly appointed yours as the organisation that gets to decide when 'everyone' gets to enjoy these 'materials'? What makes you think you are uniquely well placed to educate the rest of us? For a restoration ecologist to urge caution on anyone, chutzpah on a monumental scale is required. You can't even say what it is that you are attempting to reinstate - plant communities that existed before the industrial revolution; before Homo sapiens reached North America; before the Last Glacial Maximum? You brush under the carpet palynological evidence (published in journals by real scientists) that such communities bear the same relation to reality as the swin
 ging sixties or the golden age before rock n' roll ruined everything. You have only the faintest notion of how the structure of these communities will respond to changing climate and yet you rule out the idea of even asking the genuine experts in this field. Nurserymen are in an unrivalled position to understand how different plants perform in a wide range of habitats within and outside their current, transient native ranges because they sell plants to customers who garden in diverse conditions. Nurserymen - at least the minority who are doing their jobs for commercial reasons - want happy customers.  Does it not behove you to consider what you might learn from the 'army of amateurs' as well as what you think you can teach us?

> Commercialization does have real risks...including increasing the threat of
> irresponsible overcollection and damage in the wild of the few existing
> delicate sites remainng because of creating a wider market of interest in
> the plants, people deriving material in cultivation so that it no longer has
> the wild adapted traits desired and could present genetic risk to wild
> populations, etc., and compassionate enthusiasts with too low an
> understanding of the habitat specificity and considerations doing informal
> "jonny appleseed" reintroductions in areas where they can do harm to the
> target species or others in the area (and damage the reputation of
> horticulturists, gardeners, and serious botanical gardens everywhere with
> the state and federal resource agencies).  

Agreed! Creating demand without increasing supply is bound to cause tension. The USA learned the hard way during the Prohibition experiment that removing officially-sactioned supply has disastrous unintended consequences. Some of us are working very hard to create cultivated populations of threatened or potentially threatened plant genera such as Cyclamen, Galanthus and Trilium. These efforts would be far more valuable from a biodiversity conservation perspective if the plants were raised from wild-collected seed of known provenance. This would result in genetically varied cultivated populations available in future for reintroduction. Unfortunately, these efforts are hampered by treaties such as the CBD and CITES, laws made by 'compassionate enthusiasts with too low an understanding of' the counterproductive consequences? 

For example, most of the snowdrops in cultivation are selections made from a genetically narrow cross-section of two or three species introduced to the UK over the last few centuries. Efforts to collect and distribute seed of the highly variable G. nivalis are discouraged (though perfectly legal - Galanthus is listed in CITES appendix II) on the false basis that the species is rare in the wild and that seed collecting harms wild populations. On the contrary, G. nivalis is a common plant in the parts of its range not yet destroyed by development, tourism or agriculture but populations are small and recruitment by seed is low. As Darwin - an amateur by the way - realised 150 years ago, most seeds perish. It is easy to maintain in cultivation and collectors are motivated to preserve diversity - the very raison d'etre of collecting.

> The wariness of state and federal
> agencies of horticulturists getting involved in conservation has arisen
> directly from these experiences, not from elitism or over-control.  I myself
> have seen these very harmful practices and effects...every one of
> my work over the years.  So part of that "uptightness" is justifiable.   

If it weren't so alarming, your faith in state and federal agencies would be charmingly naive. Ever been to Illinois or the Amazon? That's what you get when you leave conservation in the hands of state and federal agencies. Driving around Illinois with a friend a few years ago was a surreal experience. The roads tunnelled through endless fields of corn two metres tall. The native vegetation was confined to a few swampy road intersections, a handful of sand prairies, the embankments of abandoned railroads and the sides of river gorges too steep to farm. Is the government waging a campaign to eradicate maize? Is it hell! Is it doing its level best to prevent herbicide drifting onto the few remaining patches of native flora. Nope. The government loves the farm lobby - it's rich and it's loud. The wariness of conservationists about getting state and federal agencies involved in conservation arises directly from these experiences. I myself have seen these very harmful practices an
 d effects, every one of them, in my work over the years.

> The concept that we could engage nurseries to get busy and grow lots of
> these things for repatriation is just not practical yet.  I wish it WERE
> easy enough to give out kits and provide instruction to good
> horticulturalists and good gardeners and garden clubs everywhere 

With respect, if anyone ought to be handing out kits and instructions on how to grow difficult plants well, it is surely good horticulturists and good gardeners. If anyone should be requesting those kits, it is you. As others have illustrated with the examples of Worsleya and Juno Iris, the most expert growers in the world are amateurs. Your scientists would certainly 'better understand what is involved in successful projects' if they tapped into the expertise already out there.

> Given the careful research and planning we have to do for each site related
> to placing these plants in the right place in terms of the plant community
> and security of restoration sites, the correct source material genetically
> for the greatest chance of success, the numbers and type of nursery stock
> for best results (liners? 2 in? gallon?), timing of planting, great care to
> avoid introducing pathogens to a wild site, how we move around in the site
> to prevent damage,etc. For most of these species this pilot work is ongoing
> and we aren't ready yet for more widespread multiplication of reintroduction
> efforts.

Your efforts remind me of Winnie-the-Pooh, who set out on an expedition to find the East Pole. Your destination, like his, doesn't exist. As others have pointed out, there are several scientifically incoherent points in the paragraph above, including your unqualified use of the term 'plant community', your concerns about genetic correctness and your fears about inadvertently introducing pathogens. These issues are certainly not negligible but we amateurs are not as poorly informed about them as you seem to believe. I dare say some of us are better informed than you appear to be.

> It's a delicate thing to engage the passionate who are convinced of their
> particular point of view.sadly I think that we won't be able to convince
> many of the necessity for proceeding as we do in the short term.  Only
> longer term education and information and demonstration will get us
> there.I've been dreaming about a video online where some of these points are
> made in the narration along with our scientists working away.

The first two sentences of your final paragraph are inarguably true. So what are you going to do about it? We'd like to have you on board. Conservationists face an uphill struggle in a world run by state and federal agencies, bureaucrats and (in their dreams) academics with delusions of grandeur. We need all the help we can get. So long as you remain determined to dictate terms of engagement to those best placed to help, however, you will remain part of the problem not part of the solution.



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