The Ecological “Restoration” Industry: Follow the money

Matt Chew is one of many professional academics that criticize invasion biology.  Unlike most, he emphasizes explaining the weaknesses of eco-nativism using scientific, historical, and philosophical methods, depending on the issue.  This has made him a useful collaborator and resource for like-minded but primarily science-oriented colleagues. Million Trees is deeply grateful for his willingness to speak publically about the fallacies of invasion biology, including the generous gift of his time in writing this guest post for us.

Dr. Chew is a faculty member of Arizona State University’s Center for Biology and Society and an instructor in the ASU School of Life Sciences.  He teaches courses including the History of Biology, Biology and Society, and a senior conservation biology course in “novel ecosystems,” described HERE on the university’s “ASU Now” news website.

He was also a speaker at the 2013 annual conference of Beyond Pesticides.  A video of his presentation is available HERE (go to 24:40).  He says that “invasive” plants are convenient scapegoats that are presenting a marketing opportunity for the manufacturers of pesticides. Invasion biology is at the core of the greening of pesticides.

In his guest post, Matt helps us to understand how he chose to pursue a multidisciplinary critique of one topic rather than adopting a single disciplinary approach and identity. He began his professional career as a practicing conservation biologist, experiencing firsthand the sometimes startling disconnects between laws, policies, aspirations, public expectations, and realities “on the ground.” 

We celebrate April Fool’s Day with Matt Chew’s article.  When we waste our money on ecological “restorations” the joke is on us!

Million Trees

Matt Chew with his class in novel ecosystems

Those familiar with my academic work know I invest most of my efforts documenting and explaining the flaws and foibles of “invasion biology.” But I got into this messy business as a practical conservation biologist, a natural resources planner “coordinating” the Arizona State Natural Areas Program during the late 1990s. I found the toxic nativism of natural areas proponents morbidly fascinating, and the practical politics of natural areas acquisition and management morbidly galling. I chose to follow my fascination. But as “Death of a Million Trees” marks the end of its seventh year as a WordPress blog, and in light of recent decisions by Bay Area authorities, it’s time for a galling reminder:  Follow the money.

Authorities responsible for suburban fire suppression and recovery necessarily view stands of living trees as liabilities. They can’t see the forest for the fuels. The prospect of eliminating them merely drives their value further into the negative. That it must be subsidized is ironic because eucalyptus and Monterey pine are plantation grown in many countries for timber or pulp. But they aren’t traditional sources of California wood products and a glut of more familiar drought-killed trees awaits salvage far from finicky neighbors.

So condemned trees can’t just be disappeared by pointing them out to eager loggers. “Concept planning” can be fairly vague, but “action planning” must be very specific. A job this big requires both general and sub-contracting. It requires hiring and training and supervising. Capital equipment will be acquired, maintained and repaired. Affected areas must be surveyed and material volumes estimated. Before trees can be felled, access routes must be surveyed and created. After trees are felled they must be sectioned, staged, loaded and hauled away for disposal. More often they are shredded in place. At every step, someone pays and someone profits.

Where “ecological restoration” is the objective, stumps must be pulled or blasted and roots must be excavated. The eucalyptus seed bank will need to be eliminated or rendered inert. Perhaps even a century’s accumulation of organic topsoil will need amending, or removing and replacing to reconstitute prehistoric substrates. Seed suppliers and nurseries will be contracted to provide plant “native” materials. After the armies of tree-fellers and stump-blasters will come waves of laborers, tractors, diggers, spreaders, and planters in an endless relay of trucks. Ecological restoration is farming, all the more so in proximity to a cityscape arrayed in exotic plants. If all goes well and the rain falls in judicious quantities at auspicious times, planting will be followed by perpetual weeding. At every step, someone pays and someone profits.

It’s hardly surprising that FEMA has no intention of underwriting restoration on that scale. Their plans envision minimally spreading shredded wood, leaving a layer up to two feet deep to gradually decompose, and hoping whatever oaks and other present understory plants they haven’t accidentally fractured or flattened will thrive in the sudden absence of big trees. Two feet of material will gradually compact, but assurances that it will rot into organic soil within a few years are pretty optimistic. Whether and when it will support anything resembling a native plant assemblage is dubious. Meanwhile, some viable stumps will require recurring treatment with the herbicide du jour and occasional supplemental felling. It’s not a reset-and-forget strategy. It’s just the first step of a long and contentious cycle of interventions. And of course, at every step, someone pays and someone profits.

Whenever public property and expenditure is concerned there should be an open procurement process with a clear data trail. A call for proposals is written and published, bids are received, contracts awarded, and work commences. But we can be certain that by the time the prospect of deforesting the Bay Area was openly discussed by policymakers, potential bidders were positioning themselves to influence the shape of the emerging policy and take advantage of it. And various interest groups who saw deforesting the hillsides as a means to their ends became a de facto coalition of advocates. Some acted more openly than others, and some to greater effect. But prominent nonprofit organizations expect returns on their investments. Nothing happens unless someone pays and someone profits.

Some of the premises underlying the logic of the program will inevitably be faulty. Should it falter at any step due to unforeseen events (e.g., meteorological, horticultural, ecological, economic or political), contingencies will be implemented… if funds are available. There are only three certainties. Firstly, no action occurs unless someone pays and someone profits. Secondly, nature, within which I include all aspects of human society, is complex and capricious. No one can predict with much certainty how a post-deforestation landscape will look or function. Finally, a coalition of the discontented will emerge and agitate for improvements that require someone to pay, and allow someone to profit.  As Nancy Pelosi recently reminded us, “we’re capitalist and that’s just the way it is.”   

Matt Chew



16 thoughts on “The Ecological “Restoration” Industry: Follow the money”

  1. This spring where our volunteer crew cleared Amur Honeysuckle shrubs from a nature park we’ve been rewarded with a plethora of spring ephemeral wildflowers! There’s a hillside of Dutchman’s Breeches now in bloom, a colony larger than I’ve seen anywhere. A veritable sea of Trout Lily colonies carpets another hillside. And Bloodroot, Trillium, Rue Anemone, Wood Sorrel, Virginia Bluebells, Bellwort, Blue-Eyed Mary, Wild Geranium and more!

    Our reasons and methods for clearing invasive, exotic honeysuckle shrubs are validated with this wonderful display, a delight to all who visit the park, including early pollinators. No one was paid to do this work and nothing was planted. Our volunteer crew wasn’t recruited by any profit entity. Being public land it required parks department permission, but our work was entirely of our own volition.

    I’d encourage others out there to get to work! Clearing invasive exotics is THE best exercise, as you are outdoors in nature, no fees for a gym or exercise classes and you’re doing something to benefit biodiversity. Every one of our regular volunteer crew is over 60 years old and have been further rewarded with whittled waistlines, strong muscles and backs. It’s a win/win all around…….for nature, for volunteers, for the community.

    Next weekend there will be a Wildflower Walk at the park for the public, an educational opportunity led by local botany clubs. I wish you could be there!

    1. Dr. Matt Chew’s excellent post describes the reality of what we are dealing with here in the S.F. Bay Area–destruction and poisoning of our beautiful urban forests, done for profit and justified by illogical and unscientific arguments. The results are not fields of flowers, but wastelands of poisoned stumps, gutted eroded land, destroyed wildlife habitats, sick and dead animals, more illness among human residents, and loss of the refreshing refuges of our parks and wilderness areas. Thank you to Dr. Chew and to milliontrees for this post.

      1. Diana, adult Amur honeysuckle shrubs tend to be 12 – 20 feet tall, often multi-stemmed, with branches that go on and on in search of light. They are veritable light hogs, creating a dense under-story canopy that prevents light, air, water from reaching the ground. Other vegetation have a tough time surviving such conditions.

        We use handsaws or loppers to cut them down at the base. For all the ecological damage they do, they’re surprisingly easy to cut. Then we use plastic nalgene drip bottles (like contact lens solution bottles) to deliver a dose of roundup concentrate around the cambium, the outer one-third of the stump, which is the plant’s circulatory system. If you don’t treat the stump immediately, it will resprout like a hydra within weeks. For most one treatment is enough.

        When you see a cleared area, the difference is dramatic. And disturbing, as you see almost no new tree seedlings or saplings since the time of initial infestation. There denuded landscape is a necessary stage for renewed growth. We’ve seen spring wildflowers thriving where honeysuckle has been removed. Since I wrote, colonies of Blue-Eyed Marys came into bloom, a carpet of tiny blue-and-white flowers, and we’ve seen more Wild Geranium than ever. In the uplands, the ridge is currently adorned with Wild Hyacinth, Hoary Pucoon and Rose Verbena, and the Dogwoods are more resplendent than I’ve ever seen! It has been the most beautiful and biodiversity spring I’ve ever seen at the nature park, and an honor and privilege to be able to be a volunteer in its restoration!

        1. A word about the cut-stump treatment to prevent resprouts. The way this method works is that if done promptly when the cambium layer (between dead wood of the trunk and the bark, which delivers moisture and nutrients from the soil to the tree canopy) is still operable, the herbicide is delivered to the roots of the tree or shrub. The tree or shrub is prevented from resprouting if and when the roots are killed. In other words, the herbicide is delivered deep into the soil, where it damages the soil and the surrounding vegetation. RoundUp is known to kill microbes in the soil which are essential to the health of the soil. The roots of the vegetation that remains are interconnected with the roots of the plant being destroyed. Therefore, depending upon the proximity of the remaining vegetation, it is often damaged as well. We have seen this happen in our local projects. Vegetation under trees is sprayed and the trees are then damaged by the herbicide.

          1. GW describes a project in Missouri. I am unfamiliar with those projects. Wildflowers do not “thrive” after plants and trees are eradicated here in the San Francisco Bay Area. The bare ground is eventually occupied by weeds such as poison hemlock and thistles. The weeds are then sprayed with herbicides. The weeds return the following year and are sprayed again with herbicides.

            GW does not know the projects or the plants in the Bay Area. Yet, she presumes to opine.

          2. And by the way, we are dealing with millions of these invasive shrubs. If you actually saw the situation you would laugh at the idea that anyone could possibly go back and cut the same shrubs again again. We are careful with glyphosate application. We do not spray. From all evidence our methods are a resounding success. If you want proof, I invite you to come to St. Louis next spring and see for yourself!

          3. I hear that Roundup has just been declared a carcinogen. I don’t support the use of chemicals. We don’t know enough to ensure its safety.

            Cutting may take more effort, but it is 100% effective. Resprouts are always small and easy to cut. Since plants get their energy only through their leaves (and other green parts), cutting those off will always kill the plant. Each year the work gets easier and easier.

          4. Glyphosate was classified as a “probable human carcinogen” and an animal carcinogen by the World Health Organization in 2015. The recent decision was that the State of California will require glyphosate products be labelled as carcinogens after prevailing in a lawsuit filed by Monsanto. Monsanto has appealed that decision, so there is still some uncertainty that California will implement that policy decision.

  2. Thank you so much, Matt Chew and Milliontrees. What a timely article, as we are now facing businesses hired by the city of Oakland to theoretically prevent fire, but which, since they must justify their reason for being paid, are likely to present the same plans nativists promote that will lead to more fire, as is already explained here in other posts.

    I agree, Linda G!

    That sounds ideal, GW, but will not work here. Our climate, which has a dry season with no rain for five months or more (except for what seems like rain when the lovely Eucalyptus, Monterey Pines, etc. provide fog drip to nourish the plants under them) does not make it easy for native wildflowers to just appear. Plus our probable continuing drought conditions means that only the toughest plants are likely to survive and spread in the dry months.

    We are lucky to have any urban wildflowers, so I deeply appreciate when I see the magnificent but hated oxalis from South Africa (their native pink cousin is accepted, although much harder to grow and rarely fills desolate areas), as well as the beautiful broom, mustard, yellow star thistle, and your hated honeysuckle, so like our native except ours has no evocative scent. These plants bloom in the disturbed earth after trees have been killed. I will never understand why anyone would rather have the alternative, which are dry, flammable non-native grasses, poison hemlock, etc.

    Your list of wildflowers sound lovely, but you realize if any of them appeared here, the nativists would frantically organize volunteers to kill them? (By the way, after being a gardener for over forty years, I do not recommend killing plant as a healthy exercise since it’s very hard on backs, knees, hands, etc.)

    What I’m most amazed why with the nativists is how little they seem to know about both native and non-native species, including how killing some of the small blue Forget-Me-Nots at delicate little Huckleberry Trail will likely cause landslides, destroying that special trail build along a canyon.

    At the recent meeting with the city of Oakland, one nature hater actually referred to a group of plants as looking like a garbage pile (they included native species in this, so I’m guessing they don’t even know what is native.) I’ve heard other nativists, this time as group leading a Soap plant wildflower walk, who didn’t know basics about that species, and they referred to the only flowers en mass blooming on a brown dry hillside as “trash.”

    So there are the fanatics on one hand, and on the other, those who are just in it for the money.

    This wonderful article reminds me of what those recommending killing our parks never say, which is that the devastation from the heavy machinery, chainsaws, trucks, people, etc. will leave severely damaged land that makes it even harder for anything to grow. Not to mention the poison evaporating into the air, bleeding into the creeks, reservoirs, ground water, etc. Another version of “alternative facts” is where the proponents of clear-cutting and poisoning pretend to care about the endangered Alameda Whip Snake, but know full well that if they get their way, countless snakes and other species will be crushed and killed. (Just look at the aftermath when the fire trails in the EBRPD are “maintained” with heavy machinery and see the dead bodies of wild animals. That was one of the only times I’ve seen a Kingsnake in our parks, but she was cut to pieces.)

    But who cares when a few will make a lot of money. This reminds me of the horrifying election where some people hoped for one thing and have gotten the opposite.

    Save money by leaving our parks and forests alone! The native animals will be relieved too.

    1. Bev Jo, I don’t know a thing about the plants and conditions of your area, so I can’t comment, but I must take issue with the statement that restoration work is not great exercise. It strengthens my back, tones up my arms and thighs, and whittles my waistline. There’s also the cardio-vascular of hiking in and out. Usually working 4 hours, we do the equivalent of hundreds of squats and lunges without even thinking about it, because we’re devoted to a task, not counting reps. For the life of me, I can’t understand why people pay good money to work out in gyms and take exercise classes when they could get just as good exercise outdoors, in free air, listening to bird songs and helping restore a nature area! And every volunteer in our regular group is over 60. If we can do it, surely most others could, too.

      I should also mention the camaraderie that has developed in our little tribe of honeysuckle warriors. We’ve become dear friends who socialize beyond our volunteer work. Each is very knowledgable about botany, birding, insects and local ecology. They’re funny, trustworthy, down-to-earth, the finest people I know.

  3. Thank you very much !!!!

    Catherine Robyns

    On Sat, Apr 1, 2017 at 5:12 AM, Death of a Million Trees wrote:

    > milliontrees posted: “Matt Chew is one of many professional academics that > criticize invasion biology. Unlike most, he emphasizes explaining the > weaknesses of eco-nativism using scientific, historical, and philosophical > methods, depending on the issue. This has made him a us” >

  4. I am fighting a stream “restoration” that will take down many mature trees for little benefit. Invasives are also part of rationale. I would like to reprint this article. Can anyone help me? Also, are there any like-minded folks who can help me in the Arlington, VA area?

    1. You have my permission to reprint this article. I have forwarded your question to a few people I know in the Washington DC area. They will contact you if they can help you. I will also post your comment and you should watch for replies.

      I advise you to determine if the project will use herbicides to destroy the existing landscape. In my experience, the use of herbicides by these projects is the most effective argument against them. It is also the most effective means of recruiting others to oppose the projects.

      Good luck.

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