Stefanie Krantz, Climate Adaptation Planner for the Nez Perce Tribe, will never try to convince you that climate change is real. Instead, she’ll tell you what the Tribal membership is already seeing in the landscape they’ve known intimately for thousands of years: salmon eggs scoured out of creeks by floods; ancient camas-collecting meadows gone dry; wildfire smoke settling in Lapwai earlier and earlier each year. Her job is not to explain the science of climate change. Her job is to assess the Tribe’s vulnerability to it and then draw up a roadmap for adaptation. “I’ll talk to anyone about climate change,” she says. The trick is to start the conversation five steps beyond the tired soundbites. Begin with: what are we going to do?
I had the pleasure of traveling with Stefanie last week to Sandpoint, Idaho for a wildlife connectivity conference put on by Yellowstone to Yukon, one of GHCC’s partner organizations. (Y2Y is an ambitious effort to preserve and restore wildlands connectivity along the northern Rockies in the U.S. and Canada). Stefanie had been invited to the conference to give a talk on the Nez Perce Tribe’s adaptation work; she and I connected a few weeks ago and decided, last-minute, to ride up to Sandpoint together. The “windshield time” gave us a chance to talk in detail about what climate change means for our lands and communities—not only “on the ground” but also culturally.
Stefanie is planning for resilience with an eye toward human-managed landscapes; GHCC is (generally) more focused on wild landscapes; my Wild Connections program is interested in the ease with which animals and plants move through landscapes (or fail to). Our nonhuman neighbors don’t care whether land is public or private. They seek water, shade, food, and reproductive opportunities. Their movement is constrained by roads, towns, weeds, poison, crop agriculture, fences, dams. As the planet warms and lands change, species, including humans, must change their habits or move. Who is free enough, nimble enough, robust enough to adapt?
Animals and plants are already on the move worldwide in response to climate variables like earlier springs, changing precipitation patterns, and rising water and land temperatures. Farmers, ranchers and other land managers are noticing these changes too. Tribal people, Stefanie says, have been noticing global warming for a long time, perhaps longer than anyone else, because their identities are inseparable from engagement with highly specific places in their ancestral territories: this meadow, this creek, these salmon, these roots.
I learned a lot at the conference in Sandpoint. I was inspired by partnerships like Bees to Bears that are doing climate-smart connectivity-oriented restoration for species at multiple scales. I was struck over the course of the two days, though, by a pervasive sense of helplessness when it came to global warming. Don’t get me wrong: everyone’s thinking about it, and nearly everyone is working on it, to one degree or another. The grizzly bear biologists are tracking changes in huckleberry distribution. The beaver enthusiasts are enthusing about that creature’s ability to cool down streams. The wetland restoration team is creating berms to produce shady micro-refugia for aquatic invertebrates (and frogs, and fish). Many, many good minds are tackling this problem.
But there’s a mostly unspoken feeling in the conservation world today—tied to the paucity of resources, the difficult political climate (no pun intended), and a deep awareness of the scale of the problem—that all we can really do is generate good conservation science (often based on our understanding of historical conditions that simply will never return), apply it as we can, keep our peers informed about the same, buckle our seatbelts, and brace ourselves.
I feel that way too sometimes. Yes, the scale of the problem is daunting. Scientists’ warnings can be overwhelming. It’s easy to slip into grief, and it’s even easier to compartmentalize our thinking, and our work, because the big picture is just too big and fast and complicated. Better to bite off what you can chew, pull the levers you can pull.
I’m a big believer in pulling the levers that you can pull, but I think it’s time for us to broaden our view a little and look for some new levers. Our physical habits on this planet must change, and they will, one way or another. And science should inform those changes, certainly. But another thing that needs to change is the conversation, our relationship to place, our story —and for that change, I think, we ought to look to front-line communities like the Nez Perce Tribe (and other indigenous people all over the world) who are adapting to climate change already, have adapted to huge (and brual) changes in their recent history, and whose perspective is informed by many centuries of attentiveness to the places they call home.
Stefanie and I got back to her home in Clarkston on Wednesday evening. As I drove back alone to Lostine, I thought about community resilience, about stories, about how to start the climate conversation five steps beyond the soundbites, about whose stories have sidestepped the soundbites entirely. As I descended the rattlesnake grade, dodging mule deer, I looked at the darkening canyons: the south slopes thawed and turning toward spring, the north slopes still snowy, the Grande Ronde River high. This place is facing massive changes, certainly, but it is full of niches, full of life, rich with adaptive possibility. Can we imagine those possibilities? Are we nimble enough, creative enough, attentive enough to adapt?