Rebecca Shaw, director of conservation science in California
Most people know that tropical rainforests are one of the most threatened habitat types on Earth. But a less well-known habitat type is even more threatened — mediterranean habitats.
Nature Conservancy scientists and conservation practitioners from California are spearheading efforts to protect and preserve mediterranean habitats. In March 2007, the Conservancy hosted a conference in Monterey, California, that gathered conservation leaders from around the world to discuss challenges and solutions for protecting mediterranean habitats.
The Conservancy’s Rebecca Shaw, director of conservation science in California, answers questions about what makes mediterranean habitats so special and what we can do to protect them.
nature.org: Why are mediterranean climates important?
Rebecca Shaw: Mediterranean climate regions cover only 2.2 percent of Earth’s land surface, yet they account for 20 percent of all known plant species. Only the tropical rainforests of the western hemisphere and southeast Asia have a greater density of plant species.
Mediterranean climates are found in only five places on Earth: California and northern Baja California, the basin of the Mediterranean Sea, southwestern Australia, the western cape of South Africa and the central coast of Chile.
nature.org: How are mediterranean climate regions similar?
Rebecca Shaw: They all share similar landscapes. Mediterranean climates are characterized by hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters. They’re beautiful places with wonderful weather, and people want to live in them. Consequently, they tend to face the same grave problems: habitat destruction and fragmentation due to urbanization and expanding agriculture.
nature.org: How threatened are mediterranean ecosystems?
Rebecca Shaw: Mediterranean ecosystems are among the most threatened on Earth. More than 41 percent of their land has been converted to farmland and urban uses. Worldwide, only 5 percent of their natural area is protected.
Most people understand the plight of tropical rainforests, where habitat loss exceeds habitat protection by 2 to 1. In other words, for every acre of rainforest saved, two have been lost to conversion or development. In mediterranean habitats, the disparity is much greater. For every acre of mediterranean habitat saved, eight acres have been permanently lost.
nature.org: What was the purpose of the March conference on global mediterranean habitats?
Rebecca Shaw: Nearly 70 scientists and conservation practitioners gathered in Monterey, California, to discuss challenges and solutions for protecting mediterranean habitats. Participants came from all over the world — Mexico, Australia, Chile, Italy, Morocco, Turkey, Israel, Spain, South Africa and California.
The goal of the conference was to share expertise and develop a coordinated plan of action for protecting mediterranean habitats. There is exciting and innovative conservation work taking place in all these regions of the world, but we need to work together in order to be as effective as possible at conserving the Earth’s mediterranean habitats.
nature.org: What is the Conservancy’s California Program doing to protect mediterranean habitats?
Rebecca Shaw: We’ve just finished an assessment of mediterranean regions around the world. This assessment is helping to identify the biggest gaps in conservation of mediterranean habitats. We’re working to bring global conservation leaders together, to share resources and goals. Our conference in March was the first meeting.
California and northern Baja California comprise the only region in North America with a mediterranean climate. Although California has the highest population density of the five mediterranean regions, it also has the most land and water in protection — a phenomenal achievement, considering the pressure here to develop and convert natural areas.
The Nature Conservancy has protected 1.2 million acres in California. Many of the conservation solutions we’ve pioneered or refined — such as conservation easements, land acquisition, restoration programs, policy work, partnerships and compatible economic development — may now help protect places similar to California around the globe. By working closely with scientists and practitioners in other mediterranean regions, we can increase the pace, scale and effectiveness of conservation of mediterranean habitats, both here in California and around the world.
Rebecca Shaw is director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy’s California Program, where she oversees an interdisciplinary team of scientific and technical experts. Prior to joining The Nature Conservancy, she conducted research at The Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University on the impacts of global change on plant communities, ecosystem processes and biodiversity. Dr. Shaw has published numerous articles, including several in the leading journals Science and Nature, and has won numerous fellowships for her research. She holds a B.A. in biology from UC Santa Barbara and an M.A. in environmental policy and a Ph.D. in ecology from UC Berkeley.