Lending Ecosystems a Helping Hand

May 20, 2021
Mark Schwartz headshot

This profile is a part of our consortium profile series, highlighting the people that make up the SW CASC—what inspires them, makes them passionate about their research, and gives them hope for the future. For this profile, Bryson Mineart (SW CASC communications student assistant and undergraduate student in the University of Arizona Computer Science program) interviewed SW CASC co-principal investigator, Mark Schwartz, a conservation biologist at University of California, Davis.

Mark Schwartz began his climate adaptation journey as a plant ecologist, but later became concerned with extinction and has since been working as a conservation scientist. Mark has placed his interest primarily in forest ecology and climate change, with a focus on an emerging area of research known as assisted migration. Assisted migration is the deliberate relocation of a species who is at risk of extinction due to climate change. While this idea sounds fascinating, Mark has expressed concern of the risk such actions could have on an ecosystem and has focused his research on the evaluation and assessment of such drastic measures.

As a child, Mark grew up fascinated with birds and nature. This interest continued to grow along with his education. A pivotal point in Mark’s education occurred at the University of Minnesota during his graduate studies. Margaret Davis, a Regents Professor of Ecology at the school, was Mark’s mentor. Together they examined historical climate change and used this information to perform analyses on more current climate change data by examining plant pollen. After his graduate studies, Mark went on to receive his Ph.D. at Florida State University where he became enamored with the Torreya taxifolia, commonly known as Florida Torreya, a tree on the endangered species list. This is what led Mark to be interested in extinction risk, which has been fueling a large portion of his career.

Throughout his career, Mark has been very collaborative both inside and outside academia. In fact, Mark gives credit to several individuals and colleagues outside academia for spurring his interest in forest ecology and climate change. At the federal level, Mark has worked primarily with the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. With these groups, Mark has performed vulnerability and risk assessments and is currently working with the National Park System on a proposal for a project assessing risk of assisted migration. By working with natural resource management groups, Mark has also become interested in socio-ecological decision making and has begun to investigate how people make decisions based on risk assessments and evaluations.

When asked what continues to stir his passion for his work, Mark simply stated that he has a profound enjoyment of the environment around him. Mark has found that he finds joy in conducting research in partnership with management groups with the aim to benefit people and nature in the region. By conducting this research, and getting the information into the right hands, Mark can inform decisions about how we use and manage resources to preserve a brighter future. Examples of this can be sometimes surprising, as Mark learned, years after the fact, that one of his research papers informed the way that Nigeria structured their forest conservation strategies!

When it comes to promising emerging areas of research, Mark believes that novel management actions, such as assisted migration or genetic modification of species, have the power to do great things for endangered species. However, he also serves as a voice of concern regarding these novel management actions that we are having to consider. Simply put, just because we can do something, does not mean that we need to, or should be, doing it. Mark believes that we often underestimate nature’s ability to survive. Nature has a way of persevering through even the harshest of conditions. Assessing risks and creating clear, intelligent plans on when actions need to be implemented is a large responsibility. He feels that the areas of risk assessment and planning are gaining more respect as increased action is being required.

Mark has been an unwavering voice in the need for increased conservation efforts and he shows no signs of slowing down. Throughout his career, Mark has been involved in many projects and as a result has made several connections in the climate world. His drive to view policy and management from all points of view is crucial in making sure that the changes we make are beneficial to ecosystems, rather than harmful.

Mark was recently featured in an article in YaleEnvironment360. Read the article here.