Charles G. Curtin (PhD)Core Faculty
Department of Environmental Studies
My work revolves around the interaction of complexity, ecology, and policy design. Through a series of large-scale projects in what has been termed “action research” students and research collaborators are directly engaged in the conservation and science process where the project itself is part of a larger comparative experiment - the point being to develop more effective science and policy in the face of change. This approach results in three independent, but integrated conservation/research programs including: 1) Studies of the interaction of human action and climate in southwestern rangelands; 2) Integration of policy and ecology in near shore ecosystems on the coast of Maine; and 2) International and transboundary studies of collaborative approaches to conservation and resource management. In all cases there is an emphasis on large, open ecosystems with a focus on areas where the interplay of ecology and society are especially explicit. Where sustaining processes play out at large scales and much of the underlying challenge lies with matching the scale of the conservation and management with the scale of the processes that sustain the environment.
I established and have directed the Mckinney Flats Project that is the largest replicated ecological experiment on the continent. In this 8,800 ac study the interaction of climate, fire, and grazing (by cattle and prairie dogs) is studied at the desert/ grassland boundary to better understand how climate change interacts with land-use. Located on the Mexican border in southwest New Mexico, the project is located on the 750 sq. mile Diamond A ranch. The project is embedded in the context of a rancher-led collaborative called the Malpai Borderlands Group that has become internationally famous for linking science with place-based conservation. As such the work in the borderlands is frequently as much a social as an ecological process were we work to sustain a large-scale adaptive management experiment that includes Mckinney Flats as well as the entire million-acre Malpai planning area and adjacent areas in Mexico. The project has been designed as a platform for building collaborative studies with students and other researchers and institutions. Student projects have primarily focused on the interaction of climate and disturbance including studies of ants, grasshoppers, and the interactions between different guilds of grazers and the effectiveness of place-based conservation design.
Near Shore Marine Ecosystems
Oceans represent some of the last open commons left on the planet. Though there is much focus on off-shore fisheries. Relatively little work has occurred in near-shore waters, especially in the Northwest Atlantic in the Gulf of Maine. Here too, I pursue a focus on large open systems, and collaborative, place-based conservation, management, and design. I am currently initiating long-term studies of the restoration of near-shore waters through changes in fisheries and recovery of anadromous fishes. Studies are conducted on North Haven Island in Penobscot Bay off the coast of Maine. I also work with students on projects that address the wider implications of change in near shore ecosystems. Recent projects have included analysis of the impacts of sea level rise on seabirds, to how shifts in trawling influences the distribution of near shore marine resources, and policy analysis of area management of fisheries.
International and Transboundary Conservation Design
International facets of my research program occur through work with Maasai in the southern Rift Valley of Kenya and with transboundary conservation design in the Northern Rift Valley in the Middle East. Comparison of marine and terrestrial systems with collaborative conservation approaches build learning networks that generate more effective science and policy. The work in the Southern Rift includes design of community-led reserves in Kenya, and comparative studies between ranchers from the US and Maasai from Africa. We both learn from each other, the African experience of 40 years of collaborative conservation contrasted lessons from landscape fragmentation in North America and other regions in the world. In the Northern Rift, studies of collaborative conservation and policy design focus on the greater Jordan River Valley. Designing from the ground-up place-based conservation. These are experiments in policy design develop stewardship in a region where much of the formal conservation is relatively recent. The conservation serves a dual role of promoting environmental protection, as well as understanding between diverse communities and cultures. I have a Maasai student who is working on building collaborative conservation design in the Loita Hills and we are building projects with students in place-based conservation and education in Lebanon and other areas of the Middle East.
I encourage students to be engaged in all facets of our research programs. The unifying theme of diverse student projects is to understand how environmental change impacts landscapes, seascapes, communities and cultures and how to build resilience and adaptive capacity in the face of change — essentially how complexity and complex interactions lead to emergent properties and unexpected outcomes. Understanding the dynamics of human and natural systems is an emerging focus of ecology and policy design. But all the science jargon aside, the essential point is to design and implement sustainable conservation. In a world of increasingly rapid rates of change, understanding the implications of change and building adaptive approaches is important for developing more durable and relevant science and policy.