The Science of Open Spaces: Theory and Practice for Conserving Large Complex Systems by Charles G. Curtin (review)
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The Science of Open Spaces: Theory and Practice for Conserving Large Complex Systems.
Charles G. Curtin. 2015. Washington, DC: Island Press: $80.00 hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-597-26992-6. $40.00 acid-free paper. ISBN 978-1-597-26993-3. $39.99 e-book. ISBN: 978-1-610-91205-1. 272 pages.

In The Science of Open spaces: Theory and Practice for Conserving Large Complex Systems, landscape ecologist Charles Curtin lays out the compelling argument that conventional ecology and conservation techniques, while empirically designed, ignore the socio-cultural environment in which they are being applied. He makes five key points in this book: 1) that the distinction between theory and practice is artificial, and an integrated approach essential to develop a robust toolkit to solve conservation problems; 2) an interdisciplinary approach is most effective to sustain large-scale science and policy; 3) science needs to be re-scaled to address large and complex problems; 4) a place-based perspective is essential to build trust and social capital and address complex challenges; and 5) large, complex ecosystems are dynamic and filled with uncertainty. Curtin uses the term "open spaces" to refer to physical scale, of course, but also to scales involving time, ecology, and socio-cultural elements.

Curtin calls for an integrative approach called "post-normal science", which links scientific process and public engagement, particularly to address wicked problems (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1994). He then uses the concepts of resiliency and complexity to connect the science of open spaces to post-normal science (Walker et al. 2004). After laying out this strong theoretical framework, he suggests that it's possible to examine how restoration results from the particular characteristics and properties of landscapes and seascapes.

The book contains five chapters. Chapter 1 presents the theoretical concepts behind taking a landscape-scale approach to restoring complex ecosystems, illustrating this with narratives from Curtin's research in Kenya at the Santa Fe Insitute. Chapters 2 and 3 present case studies from his work in the American Southwest with the Malpais Institute, and coastal Maine. Chapters 4 and 5 delve into the ecological and sociological aspects of landscape-scale restoration. The final chapter discusses the practical aspects of maintaining open spaces.

As a working community ecologist who undertakes landscape-scale ecological restoration involving fire, wolves, and bison in large, open landscapes that include ranching and hunting communities, I found this book fascinating. When I read about Curtin's breakthroughs in dealing with stakeholders and his frustrations in dealing with agencies, I found myself frequently nodding my head in agreement. The author's refreshing candor about challenges is unusual for an ecological restoration book. [End Page 276] Indeed, many ecological restoration texts report strategies and successes, but rarely such clear, full disclosure of social challenges.

This book provides a useful resource for students and practitioners, particularly those wanting a strong dose of theory. However, this volume would have been far stronger had Curtin done a better job of grounding the theory in specifics about practice. He uses a broad-brush to describe ecological restoration strategies, and I wanted to know far more about some of his collaborative restoration efforts. This could have been rectified easily by describing the science in more detail, furnishing names of the scientists involved, and citations to the journal articles produced. In other cases, he simply needed to give more of the full picture. For example, he describes the restoration work on the Malpais Borderlands Project, in which fires were allowed to run their course, thereby restoring native grasses and eliminating encroaching shrubs, but fails to mention that in Southwestern grasslands, fire also stimulates growth of the non-native, invasive grasses that typically prevail, and that this is a critical problem practitioners face in using fire to restore such systems. He explains that on a variety of ranches, fire and grazing intensity were treatments applied in an experimental research design with great success. Yet he does not describe more about how these treatments were applied and what they found, other than in very general terms, via a systems model. A table offering some detail on the restoration design would have been useful to better link...