Introducing the Baselines Project

The Baselines Project is an attempt to assemble evocative side-by-side depictions of ‘baseline’ and ‘degraded natural’ ecosystems. Acknowledging that ecosystems are never static entities, ‘baseline’ means ‘before significant human impact.’ A ‘degraded natural’ ecosystem is one which is no longer baseline, but which is isn’t currently an anthropogenic landscape category. Urban areas, agriculture, parks, etc are not ‘degraded natural.’ A second-growth forest is. So is a stream downstream from a dam. The key to the distinction is that ‘degraded natural’ ecosystems will appear to be ‘nature’ to untrained observers, because a) there aren’t obvious signs of current human activity, and b) they will likely be unaware of what it was once like.

Many readers will realize that ‘degraded natural’ ecosystems are the source of what Daniel Pauley called shifting baselines. If you don’t know that there was an original (‘baseline’) ecosystem, then you will assume that the degraded natural area is representative. The example that motivated him was coral reefs, and the observation that tourists visiting even a reef which is a shadow of its former self enjoy their experience of nature without realizing what the reef should look like. Shifting baselines can affect even professionals, and create challenges such as the setting of appropriate restoration goals. But the Baselines Project is concerned with educating the public on what nature was, and potentially could be again. The coral reef example illustrates the problem. The reef visitor enjoys their visit, and maybe leaves with a desire to help preserve coral ecosystems, but at the same time perhaps thinks that things are still ok. After all, they saw some corals, and some brightly-colored fish.

So, the goal is to find examples of current ‘degraded natural’ ecosystems where there are compelling descriptions of an earlier state. These descriptions could be old photographs or other imagery, or evocative written descriptions. If you have any suggestions, please get in touch. We are not looking for hard data: this site is aimed at a lay audience. To kick it off and illustrate the goal, the first posted example will be Twenty Hill Hollow near Yosemite National Park in the US, which was memorably described by John Muir.

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