The author of Wild by Design, Laura J. Martin, is a professor of environmental history at Williams College.(1) She has written a comprehensive history of ecological restoration in the US that is consistent with my own observations of the restoration industry in the past 25 years. It’s a story of the gradual transition from a conservation ethic to a preservation ethic and finally to the restoration ethic that we see today. The story is punctuated by milestone federal laws and actions that facilitated the transition. Environmental non-profits and academic ecologists used those laws to professionalize and monetize the restoration industry that exists today.
By the end of the 19th Century, the public began to react to the environmental degradation caused by unregulated resource extraction. In 1902, a survey of naturalists around the country determined there were 1,143 bison left in the country; virtually all were in captivity. The American Bison Society was founded in 1905 in reaction to the disappearance of bison in America. Their activism led to the creation of federal game reserves on former Indian reservations where captive bison were introduced. The game reserves were the model for the National Wildlife Refuge system that was greatly expanded by President Teddy Roosevelt.
A photograph from 1892 of a pile of American bison skulls in Detroit, Michigan waiting to be ground for fertilizer or charcoal. (Photo Wikimedia Commons)
The creation of the Wild Flower Preservation Society (WFPS) in 1901 was modeled on the successful campaign of the Audubon Society to save birds killed to serve as ornaments on fancy hats. It was as much a campaign to shame women into abandoning the fashion fad as it was an effort to legally ban the practice. Likewise, the Wildflower Preservation Society applied social pressure. They were critical of organized excursions to visit wildflowers because they picked and trampled the wildflowers. WFPS said that “Weddings are a new menace to our native plants” because of their use of wild flowers. Their criticism was initially aimed at their own community, but “it moved toward policing the behavior of so-called new immigrants to the United States—especially children.” The moralistic scolding by these early native plant advocates was a preview of the finger-wagging now aimed at those who choose to plant a diverse garden.
These advocacy organizations are precursors to the many environmental non-governmental organizations that are influential in pressuring government to invest in ecological restorations today.
Conservation and Preservation
The goals of conservation and preservation are similar, but some differences were observable in the past 200 years. Both ethics are committed to protecting the environment, but conservation allows the sustainable use of natural resources while preservation protects nature from use. The presidencies of both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt were committed to conservation.
Teddy Roosevelt created the US Forest Service based on the premise that government can and should regulate public lands to manage natural resources. Franklin Roosevelt’s conservation programs were based on the same principle, but were motivated by the economic emergency of the depression as well as the environmental disaster of the Dust Bowl in the Midwest. The Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) was created to provide jobs as well as to plant a “shelter belt” of trees across the Midwest of the country as a windbreak to stop dust storms (and many other projects). Ecologists were critical of CCC projects because they expanded recreational opportunities and put “a stamp of man’s interference on every natural area they invade.” They preferred to exclude humans and their activities from nature. This is another early indicator of the conflicts between preservation and conservation that persist to the present day.
Government investment in ecological research
Ecological research in the United States was fundamentally altered after World War II, which ended with the beginning of the atomic era. Atomic bombs were dropped on Japan to end the war without much thought given to the consequences. After WWII, the federal government made big investments in science, creating the Atomic Energy Commission and the National Science Foundation, which funded ecological research to study the impact of radiation on the environment and those who live in it. Conservation Sense and Nonsense published an article about those studies and the impact they had on ecological research.
These studies legitimatized destruction of ecosystems to study effects of the destruction and the concept was expanded from radiation to pesticides in the 1960s. They also provided funding to the academic profession of ecology that was small and is now enormous. The dependence of ecological studies on government funding remains to this day and government funding of ecological projects has created the restoration industry that now extends far beyond academia. Destruction of existing habitat is still considered the prerequisite to restoring a historical landscape. Often, destruction is the first and only stage of the project because of the persistent fantasy that the native landscape will regenerate without further help.
In the late 1960s Daniel Simberloff tented and fumigated 6 mangrove islands off the eastern short of Florida with methyl bromide to kill all life on the islands. The objective of the project was to study how long it would take to repopulate the islands with insects.
From Conservation to Restoration
The post-war economic boom of the 50s and 60s greatly increased the impact of human activities on the environment. The federal government built a vast highway system that fragmented and disrupted ecosystems. We built huge dams, and channeled riparian ecosystems. Open space was rapidly covered by housing and industrial development. Wetlands were drained and filled with rubble to create more land.
People who cared about the environment began to react to the loss of nature and wildlife that lives in nature. Although Aldo Leopold is idolized by the native plant movement, his concern about the degradation of nature was primarily for wildlife. His interest in vegetation was as habitat for wildlife. He was opposed to government programs devoted to killing animals perceived as predators of game animals because he believed that wildlife is best served by expanding their habitat. In fact, he was opposed to the expansion of government’s role in conservation because “he believed restoration would be most efficient and effective if pursued by private citizens.” He did not prefer native plants because “Farmers had the opportunity to conserve plants such as ragweed and foxtail (an introduced grass), ones ‘on which game, fur, and feather depend for food.’” In other words, in the 1940s one of the icons of the native plant movement knew that wildlife is not dependent upon native plants for food. One wonders if native plant advocates have actually read Leopold’s treatise, A Sand County Almanac.
Aldo Leopold’s son, Starker Leopold, had as much impact on conservation in the United States as his father. In 1963, he published the Leopold Report that changed the direction of conservation in the National Park Service. The Leopold Report recommended a goal for national parks of maintaining historical conditions as closely as possible to those of “primitive America.” When the Leopold Report was adopted as official policy by the National Park Service in 1967, it committed NPS to restoring park lands to pre-settlement conditions. NPS officially changed this policy in 2021, but we don’t see any change locally in their projects because NPS is decentralized and local parks are autonomous.
Professor Martin says that “historical fidelity did not become a widespread restoration goal among ecologists and environmental organizations until the 1980s.” The arrival of Columbus in the new World in 1492 was arbitrarily selected as the date after which all new plant species were “deemed nonnative, unwanted reminders of human (colonist) presence and activity.” On the West Coast, 1769 is the equally arbitrary date to confer non-native status because it is the date of the first Spanish expedition to California.
Many now question the goal of replicating historical landscapes. After 40 years of effort, there is a growing recognition that it is not a realistic goal, especially in a rapidly changing climate. The Society for Ecological Restoration has changed its definition of ecological restoration from “the goal of intentionally altering a site to establish a defined, indigenous, historic ecosystem” in 1990 to “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed” in 2002. Try telling that to the restorationists on the ground who are still trying to eradicate naturalized non-native plants that have been here for nearly 200 years. Non-native annual grassland in California is a case in point. It has been repeatedly burned, mowed, plowed, and poisoned for 25 years without any visible progress toward native perennial grassland.
Blaming non-native species
Around the same time that historical fidelity was identified as the goal of “restorations,” land managers and ecologists decided that the existence of non-native species is the main threat to native species. I suppose the “logic” was that the main difference between historical landscapes and present landscapes is the existence of non-native species. Concern about non-native species spread among federal agencies such as the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) began aggressive campaigns to kill non-natives, “which were newly framed as the main threat to wild species…nativity would become a precondition to wildness—of plants and animals both.” TNC’s methods have become increasingly deadly and destructive: using fire and herbicides to kill plants, poisoning honeybees, aerial hunting of sheep, pigs, and goats. As a former donor to TNC, their methods finally became intolerable to me.
Professor Martin believes that the identification of non-native species as the scapegoat was not based on experimental evidence, but merely a description of the strategies used by public land managers, as well as The Nature Conservancy. Non-native species were a convenient scapegoat because they were easily identified and were an easy substitute for identifying and remediating the underlying conditions causing so-called “invasions.” “Although the role of invasive species in native species extinction has since been challenged by some ecologists, the influence of this fear on species management has been enormous…The US federal budget for invasive species management increased by $400 million between 2002 and 2005, for example.”
Endangered Species Act
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed in 1973, along with companion laws such as the National Environmental Protection Act and others. These federal laws created more funding opportunities for ecological projects as well as the legal justification for ecological restoration projects.
Federal laws permit the reintroduction of legally protected plant and animal species to places where they no longer exist. The ESA confers the same protections for reintroduced species as it does for naturally occurring species. Such reintroductions have become a tool for the restoration industry. I have seen that strategy used in the San Francisco Bay Area. If we had not been successful in preventing the reintroduction of a legally protected turtle, it would have justified the destruction of the non-native forest in my neighborhood park because the turtle requires unshaded nesting habitat within 500 feet of the water source in the park. The park remains largely forested because that is one of the few battles we have won in 25 years. Reintroduced, legally protected species are the Trojan horses of ecological restorations.
Compensatory mitigation is an equally powerful tool for the restoration industry. Federal law requires an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for projects that will have a significant impact on the environment, such as big developments like building Disney World in Florida. Disney World was built on an enormous wetland that was lost by the development of the park. The EIS for the project agreed that the impact would be great, but it “mitigated” the impact by requiring Disney to fund the creation of a new wetland in a distant location.
The funding generated to create fake wetlands built a new industry of commercial companies to design and build them. Academic restoration ecologists questioned the functional equivalency between created and natural wetlands: “’however accurate [the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan] is the restored community can never be authentic.’” The tension between commercial and academic restorationists continues today.
The Society for Ecological Restoration published findings that mitigation wetlands were not functionally equivalent to the wetlands they were meant to replace. In Florida only half of the promised mitigation projects were actually built. Those that were built were colonized by “undesirable plant species” such as cattail and melaleuca in 32 of 40 projects.
Projects that earn carbon credits are creating the same opportunities to generate funding for restoration projects in distant locations. The Nature Conservancy was successful in defining carbon offsets as an international market when the Kyoto Protocols were signed in 1997. They understood that a reforestation project would be cheaper in Costa Rica (for example) than a comparable energy efficiency project in the US. Such distant projects don’t benefit those in the US who now have a power plant in their backyard that is being offset by a forest in Costa Rica.
It’s a game for those who know how to play. I have witnessed local examples in the Bay Area. An oil spill in the bay generated millions of dollars of compensatory damages to fund unrelated “restoration” projects. How does planting eel grass compensate for hundreds of birds killed by the oil spill? When the San Francisco airport expanded runways, the airport had to pay compensatory mitigation that funded the restoration of native plants at India Basin in San Francisco that hardly compensates for the increased air traffic enabled by the new runway.
Professor Martin is surprisingly frank about the future of ecological restoration in America:
“Whatever paths restorationists choose, restorations must happen in tandem with other changes in human behavior. If we don’t reduce the ongoing harms of racism, fossil fuel burning, overconsumption by the wealthy, and toxic industrial chemicals, restoration will offer no more than a temporary repair, a way to move a problem to some other place or time.”
I would go one step further in my assessment of the restoration industry. I would say that the methods used by restorationists are directly contributing to environmental degradation.
Professor Martin asks the right questions in her concluding chapter: “Who benefits from restoration? Who is harmed?” Those who earn their living in the restoration industry are the primary beneficiaries. According to a 2015 study entitled “Estimating the Size and Impact of the Ecological Restoration Economy,” environmental regulation has created a $25 billion-per-year restoration industry that directly employs more people than coal mining, logging or steel production. Given recent investments in restoration projects of billions of dollars by California and federal infrastructure funding, this figure is undoubtedly an underestimate.
Who is harmed? Wildlife and humans are harmed by the destruction of useful habitat with herbicides. Harmless animals and plants are killed because they have been arbitrarily classified as “invasive.” And all Americans are harmed by the waste of public funds that could be used to benefit society and/or the environment.
(1) Laura J. Martin, Wild by Design: The rise of ecological restoration, Harvard University Press, 2022. All quotes are from this book.
3 thoughts on “Wild by Design: A history of ecological restoration in the U.S.”
Thank you for another brilliant article that explains the sleight of hand cons that falsely reassure people that the harm of the past is over and more recent devastation/accidents/deliberate environmental harm is being taken care of so we don’t need to question, worry, or get involved. As you continue to remind us, too much power and money are involved and some things just need to be stopped, like pesticide use.
Another thing that I continue to see are agencies in various parks and watershed areas doing “cleanup” that destroy food and habitat for to many birds and other animals. When I ask why on earth are they doing this, the answer is often that they got funding so they have to show “results.” And it’s impressive when they cut down everything in sight. The Birding Community know and laments this terrible destruction.
Well summarized, Millie!
Thanks, Matt. That suggests you’ve read it. It’s a MUST read!!!