Designing Field Studies for Biodiversity Conservation. 2001 . Island Press , Washington, D.C . 212 pp. $22.00 (paperback). ISBN 1-55963-878-8 .
Every field ecologist and natural-lands manager interested in the conservation of biological diversity should read this book. And then each one should keep it in some easily accessible location. This book does more than guide one through the process of designing field experiments for conservation outcomes. It empowers and motivates the reader to mesh ecological meaning with conservation strategies through scientific research. This volume provides answers to a common question of land managers: how do we manage when we know so little? It also offers insights into a question central to an increasing number of field ecologists: how can our research have relevance for conservation?
The initiative for the book was launched by The Nature Conservancy, and this conservation organization chose the author well. Peter Feinsinger's extensive practical experience with the biologically and culturally diverse tropics is the bedrock upon which the book is built. And Feinsinger is such a good writer that I found myself imagining I was conversing with him trailside, rather than reading a book.
The volume is well structured, with 10 chapters that flow together naturally and many internal references that create a coherent whole. Feinsinger begins in the first chapter by suggesting “what science has to do with it,” and clarifies that the quip is not rhetorical, even for seasoned field ecologists. The second and third chapters describe the processes of scientific inquiry and suggest a framework for formulating research questions. The author illustrates the elements of the scientific method as they relate to human inquiry in general and then tweaks these elements to yield a more precise methodology for conservation management and field research. He also provides an engaging exercise in framing research questions that are potentially valuable for conservation applications. In these initial chapters, as well as throughout the book, Feinsinger offers numerous enlightening examples.
After an excellent overview of ecological variation, the fourth chapter contains a step-by-step methodology for designing conservation experiments. After reading this section, a colleague who was inexperienced at field experimentation felt adequately equipped for this stage of ecological inquiry. The fifth chapter, on statistics, serves as an excellent introduction for the neophyte. It also aids the more experienced reader by conceptualizing statistical inference within real conservation dilemmas. Chapters 6 and 7 contain lessons on the importance of temporal and spatial scale in the design of ecological experiments and the interpretation of results. Here, Feinsinger clarifies that science-based conservation work depends on familiarity with the natural history of study areas. There are compelling questions juxtaposing our “local knowledge” with what we explore through experimentation and scientific inquiry. We are reminded that natural systems are increasingly affected by agricultural or urban/human dominated systems. Feinsinger invites us to explore the interaction between these two types of systems.
Chapter 8 addresses the perennial issue of ecological indicators. This discussion is a necessary part of the text, and, while critiquing a number of oft-used indicators, ultimately serves to caution against their use, especially when they are relied upon singly. A great deal has been written about indicators of ecological health, and much of the more important and relevant modern work is cited in either the text or footnotes.
The ninth chapter focuses on the study and practice of the conservation of species diversity. Feinsinger critiques most measures of species diversity and seriously questions the value of such measures for conservation. Although primarily critical, both chapters 8 and 9 serve to challenge readers who rely on currently accepted methods of ecological assessment. Feinsinger tells ecologists what we all know but don't want to admit: relative and absolute species diversity depend on the specific situation. The danger with this message is that land managers may be paralyzed by indecision as a result of problems extrapolating research results from other areas and ongoing problems with the time and expense of extensive project monitoring. On the other hand, this approach creates an opportunity to broaden one's experience with the land while considering the use of ecological indices.
The first nine chapters serve as a rite of passage for conservation field researchers and land managers. I found little to dispute here and suggest that this information has the strong potential to advance conservation efforts to a new level. The final chapter introduces the concept of involving amateurs in data collection as the next major step in conservation work. Many readers will not have yet considered the possibility of involving schoolchildren, park guards, and tourists in conservation research. But, as Feinsinger points out, we have much to gain from being teachers to and students of these groups. This kind of grassroots activism by conservation managers is increasing, but it is largely without precedent for research scientists. Perhaps if more researchers lived closer to their study systems this kind of interchange ( as well as increased familiarity with natural history ) would be less problematic.
Designing Field Studies for Biodiversity Conservation is a timely and widely applicable book of great importance. Although originally conceived in the New World tropics, Feinsinger invites readers to apply their own experiences from various ecosystems. Based on my own work in California, I found that the book had clear relevance for public lands managers and researchers. And the challenges here, as elsewhere, are equally evident. Few managers are trained adequately to grasp some of the basic statistics Feinsinger presents, let alone operate the suggested statistics packages and interpret their results. And, with researchers and land managers alike, there is the disturbing issue of people's increasing disconnection from natural processes. To follow the book's suggestion of becoming familiar with local natural history, one must first have experience being in and observing nature as it is. Opportunities for these experiences in current educational institutions are increasingly infrequent. Perhaps the final suggestion of the book—engagement with people living near research sites—will help rebuild this experience. Or perhaps conservation biologists themselves must advocate the importance of field studies for young students. Once people are drawn to research or management, they will then be fortunate to have in one text technical answers balanced with cautionary wisdom. Referencing this book from time to time, they will be reminded to infuse their work with ecological meaning and conservation relevance.