Unscripted: Science and Engineering Research

Landscape Management in the Spotlight

By guest blogger Audrey Mayer | Published

Many people hear “landscape” and think of a well-manicured lawn with tidy flowerbeds. To Audrey Mayer, an ecologist who studies natural resources, a landscape is bigger than that. In her guest blog, Mayer lays out what “landscape” means in ecology and land management.

Landscape ecologists look at landscapes much like a quilt. There are obvious patterns in colors and textures, and each cloth patch is more or less connected to other patches of the same color and texture (this determines how well animals can move around a landscape, for example). At a smaller scale, variations in stitch strength and type may dictate how well two cloth patches will stay mended, and in the aggregate, the stitching determines the overall durability of the quilt. And all quilts have a history, reflecting the traditions and training of the quilt-maker and former uses of the different kinds of cloth. The quilt we see is thus a combination of the cloth patterns and stitchwork as much as it is the outcome of the training of the quiltmaker and history of the cloth.

In essence, landscapes incorporate both time and space, and the dynamics of ecological and social processes operating across them. In our most recent BioScience article, we explain how landscape management uses many kinds of data and methods to understand how the patterns we see in landscapes are shaped by ecological processes such as disturbances, nutrient cycling, climate, and human activities.

Bringing Scale to the Table

Landscape ecology began first in Europe and then spread to North America in the 1980s; the US chapter of the International Association for Landscape Ecology (US-IALE) was inaugurated in 1986.

Two years ago, the policy committee of US-IALE asked our members to identify the most important challenges to which our discipline could contribute knowledge and expertise. They identified climate change, land use change and urbanization as issues to which landscape ecologists could contribute. We can offer a unique perspective on what is happening and why, and through our perspective improve the design and implementation of policies to address these challenges and their consequences.

"Scale is the common thread weaving these challenges together—from flooded neighborhoods to global shifts in rainfall patterns—and often the drivers of these challenges are connected across scales."Audrey Mayer

Land Use, Climate Change, Urbanization

Land use change involves the conversion of one type of land cover to another, such as a forest stand cleared for a pasture. Urbanization is one of the strongest drivers of land use change right now, either directly through urban sprawl, or indirectly through the conversion of natural habitats to agricultural or transportation land uses to support a growing city. Many landscape ecologists work on the factors which determine the patterns of these land use transitions, and the impact of these transitions on the surrounding ecosystems and the ecological services these ecosystems can provide to local communities.

Landscape ecologists are also actively engaged in climate change research, particularly focused on the feedbacks and time lags that characterize the ways that ecological communities adapt to warmer temperatures and altered precipitation regimes.

We have some idea of how communities will move across landscapes and continents due to community adaptations to previous climate events. However, invasive species and the speed of current climate change means that we are operating in a “no analog” system (i.e., current conditions are unprecedented). Geologists have recently defined this as The Anthropocene.

NASA's Earth Lights
In this satellite image from NASA, the impact of humans is readily seen in swaths of light.

These three challenges are intertwined. For example, land use changes such as deforestation and desertification influence climate change by altering the albedo of the planet, and are also driven by climate through longer, more persistent droughts. These “teleconnections” have policy implications, because it means that our attempts to solve one problem may have unintended, negative consequences elsewhere or in the future.

What We Can Do About It

In our BioScience paper, we looked at one example: how landscape ecologists investigate bioenergy crops grown in ways that reduce the impact on local biodiversity. Then, the crops’ impact reduces the likelihood of negative social and environmental impacts elsewhere.

Jatrohpa for Bioenergy
Audrey Mayer and her colleagues seek common ground to balance people's energy needs and ecosystem health. Photo Credit: Helmut van Brendenstein


We believe that landscape ecology can guide the management of large, socially and ecologically complex areas in the same way that the field of conservation biology did for designing protected areas for endangered species. As land use and climate impacts are felt across larger areas, across political boundaries, and with longer-lasting impacts, landscape ecology provides the scientific underpinning for many large conservation and restoration initiatives. Some of the best examples in the United States are the Yellowstone To Yukon (or Y2Y) bioplanning region and the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives network.

Indeed, the most recent issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment provides a wonderful collection of papers that go over the advantages and challenges a of “network governance” approach to bring many government agencies and stakeholders together to manage very large ecological systems. Reed et al. (in press) have also just published an excellent review, which summarizes the “landscape approach” to management in tropical areas. They explain that a landscape approach requires that landscape ecologists work with multiple stakeholders to minimize trade-offs and unforeseen effects.

Collectively, this recent pulse of publications emphasizes the critical need for prioritizing large scale approaches to ecosystem and natural resource management. Landscape ecologists are well-positioned to be a foundational partner in these efforts. In a nutshell: to take good care or repair our landscape quilts, we need to understand how the different kinds of cloth and thread work together to lend resilience to the quilt.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries around the world. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our beautiful campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.