When severe droughts and overgrazing in the late 19th century brought livestock mortality, soil erosion, and loss of native forage plants to the western United States, the profession of rangeland science was born. While the original intention was to create sustainable rangelands for livestock production, today's world has additional needs. Rangeland science must progress to accommodate increasing demand for ecosystem services in changing environments.
A special issue of the journal Rangeland Ecology & Management, commemorating the centennial of the Jornada Experimental Range, looks at the past and the future of rangeland science. The Jornada was established in south-central New Mexico in 1912 to learn how Southwestern ecosystems could be sustainably managed for food and fiber production. Fifty-six rangeland researchers from seven countries have contributed to this special issue, seeking to define the direction for rangeland science and management in the coming century.
A hundred years ago, southwestern rangelands were seen as being suitable for only one purpose -- raising livestock. The first task of range science was the classification of rangelands according to appropriate livestock carrying capacities, amount and type of forage available, and climatic and other conditions that affect their value. While these ideas have formed the basis of the questions modern rangeland scientists ask, today's profession has very different perspectives.
Past science and policy assumed that if livestock were removed, ecosystems would revert to their original condition. This has not proved to be the case -- the effects of events and uses of 100 years ago are still evident on the land. Additionally, given the high variability of rangeland systems in terms of rainfall, droughts, and soil, scientists now recognize that a specific set of overarching principles for rangeland management cannot be universally applied.
Not only have the physical landscapes changed, the social landscape of stakeholders, policies, and markets has also changed. Rangelands are no longer viewed only as a source of livestock products. Other services, including wildlife, water, biodiversity, and renewable energy are increasingly important to society. What has become known as "resilience-based management" is now required to ensure the continued supply of different ecosystem services in an era of rapid and uncertain change.
In this special issue, the dominant themes of rangeland research are given new directions. Articles address global changes in climate and land use, international development, species loss and exotic introductions, the integration of new technologies, and the role of educational institutions. Finally, these themes are condensed into a set of challenges now facing the rangeland science profession.
Full text of the article, "Big Questions Emerging from a Century of Rangeland Science and Management," and other articles in this special issue of Rangeland Ecology & Management, Vol. 65, No. 6, 2012, are available at www.srmjournals.org.
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