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What is the goal of ecological “restorations?”

December 5, 2014

In the not-so-distant past, the goal of ecological “restoration” was usually described as the re-creation of an historical landscape that was believed to have been undamaged by humans, presumed to be “in balance” and therefore sustainable after “restoration” without further human management.  In North America, the pre-European landscape is usually selected as the ideal landscape to be replicated, based on the assumption it had not been radically altered by Native Americans.  New knowledge has overturned this model:

Native Americans setting grass fire, painting by Frederic Remington, 1908

Native Americans setting grass fire, painting by Frederic Remington, 1908

Oddly, many invasion biologists accept these new understandings of ecological science without changing their deep commitment to eradicating all non-native plants and animals.  Daniel Simberloff published an article about the current status of the concept of “balance of nature” simultaneously with the publication of his defense of invasion biology.  He described the current thinking about this concept: “…a widespread rejection of the idea of balance of nature by academic ecologists, who focus rather on a dynamic, often chaotic nature buffeted by constant disturbances.”

Invasion biologists have therefore revised their goal for ecological “restorations” to accommodate their new understanding of the dynamic nature of ecosystems.

The revised goal of ecological “restorations”

If the return to an equilibrium state is no longer the goal of ecological “restorations,” what is the new goal?  This is how invasion biologists writing in defense of their discipline described their goal: “…we should seek to reestablish – or emulate, insofar as possible – the historical trajectory of ecosystems, before they were deflected by human activity, and to allow the restored system to continue responding to various environmental changes…” (1)

In this post we will deconstruct this new definition of the goal of ecological “restorations.”  Our first problem with this new definition is that we don’t know the “historical trajectory” of a landscape because it is fundamentally unknowable.  We would have to reconstruct all the events and changes in the environment in the Bay Area in the past 250 years in the imagined absence of any Europeans.  Even if we knew what would have happened without our presence, we cannot then ensure the continuation of that imagined environment because, the fact is, WE ARE HERE AND WE AREN’T GOING AWAY!

Because we cannot reconstruct an imagined environment that has not been “deflected by human activity,” restorationists—who are the practitioners of invasion biology–focus on the one element in the environment of which there is sufficient historical knowledge, i.e., plants.  Most local restoration projects eradicate all non-native plants and trees, usually using herbicides to accomplish that task.  They rarely plant anything after this eradication attempt because they don’t have the resources to do so.  Those few projects that re-plant after non-natives are eradicated usually irrigate the new landscape for several years.  Here is an incomplete list of everything these projects do not do to replicate an historical landscape:

  • Soils are not restored for many reasons:
    • We have no way of knowing the composition of soil 250 years ago.
    • Soils have been altered by the plants that have been growing in them and by the herbicides used to kill those plants.
    • Urban soils have high nitrogen levels resulting from exposure to fossil fuel exhaust.
  • The atmosphere is not restored:
    • There are much higher levels of ozone and carbon dioxide than there were 250 years ago.
  • The climate is not restored:
    • The temperature is higher than it was 250 years ago.
    • The timing of seasons has therefore changed.
    • Precipitation and fog have changed in known and unknown ways.
  • The disturbance events that sustained historical landscapes or set them on another evolutionary course are not restored:
    • We cannot set fire to urban landscapes annually without polluting our air and endangering our lives.
    • We cannot allow our creeks and rivers to overflow in urban areas without damaging our properties.
  • Most occupants of the historical landscape are not reintroduced:
    • The grazing animals that helped to sustain grassland are gone and cannot be returned to urban landscapes.
    • The top predators such as bears and wolves that kept grazing and other animals in balance with available resources cannot be returned without threatening our safety in an urban setting.
    • Many insects that lived in these historical landscapes are unknown to us and some are extinct.
The El Cerrito Plaza with the Albany Hill in the background, centuries ago.  Oil painting by Laura Cunningham, with permission

Bears roamed the grasslands in the Bay Area, preventing over-population of grazing animals. The El Cerrito Plaza with the Albany Hill in the background, centuries ago. Oil painting by Laura Cunningham, with permission

In other words, destroying plants will not “restore” an historical landscape.  Nor will it return that landscape to its “historical trajectory” even if that trajectory were known or knowable.  Plants live in complex communities in which they are interacting with everything in the environment.  Local “restoration” projects do not “restore” an historical landscape because they do not and cannot change anything other than the plants that occupy the space.  Because most environmental variables have not been altered by these projects, the landscape will quickly return to its unrestored state unless it is intensively gardened.  In that case, the landscape will be continuously “deflected by human activity,” which violates the original goal of invasion biologists.

Misanthropic premise of invasion biology

The revised goal of invasion biology is unattainable because the absence of humans is a prerequisite for its attainment.  We cannot know and we cannot replicate a theoretical historical trajectory for ecosystems in which humans were not present.  And when we modify ecosystems in an attempt to do so, human activities will determine their future trajectory. The premise of invasion biology is that success of ecological “restorations” depends upon the absence of humans. Therefore, invasion biology has no practical application in the real world.   


 

  1. Carolina Murcia, James Aronson, Gustavo Kattan, David Moreno-Mateos, Kingsley Dixon, Daniel Simberloff, “A critique of the ‘novel ecosystem’ concept,”Trends in Ecology and Evolution, October 2014, Vol. 29, No. 10
6 Comments leave one →
  1. Eric Brooks permalink
    December 5, 2014 12:54 pm

    Excellent newsletter all, but your choice for your first example artwork is problematic because it is dominated by horses, which arrived in the America’s with Europeans…

    Eric Brooks

    • December 5, 2014 1:19 pm

      This response may be off-point because I’m not sure I understand your point. If so, my apologies.

      Horses lived in North America for millions of years. Between 10,000 and 7,600 years ago, the horse became extinct in North America. The reasons for its extinction in North America are not fully known, but one theory notes that extinction in North America paralleled human arrival and that North American megafauna became extinct around the same time. Which is to say that one theory is that horses and other megafauna were hunted to extinction by Native Americans.

      While it is true that horses returned to North America in the company of European explorers and settlers, it is also true that Native Americans regularly burned the grasslands long before Europeans arrived with their horses.

      In other words, the point of the painting is to illustrate the ways in which Native Americans practiced land management techniques that altered the landscape. That they were riding horses at the time this painting was done, is beside the point.

  2. December 6, 2014 3:05 am

    Really great post! We would have to be the only species ever to become fixated on an imaginary ecological past like some of us have. As you point out, disturbance and change are constants. It is fortunate that life on Earth has this wonderful capacity to adapt and move on and has been doing so for 3.6 billion years. Where would the biosphere be without change?

    “…invasion biology has no practical application in the real world.”

    I think that’s putting it very diplomatically!

    • December 6, 2014 8:24 am

      Yes, humans are the only animal species with consciousness of our history, let alone a nostalgic desire to revisit it. Nature never looks back.

  3. Peggy Murphy permalink
    December 8, 2014 9:44 am

    Excellent post!

Trackbacks

  1. New “Restoration” Goals Make Even Less Sense | San Francisco Forest Alliance

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