Wild by Design: A history of ecological restoration in the U.S.

“This is a superb book. Laura Martin’s research takes us where no restoration literature has gone before, asking, ‘Who gets to decide where and how wildlife management occurs?’ Martin tackles this question with unmatched clarity and insight, illuminating the crucial discussions we must have to secure a future with thriving natural species and spaces.”—Peter Kareiva, President and CEO, Aquarium of the Pacific

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.

Sharp Park, Pacifica, CA. Photo by Erica Reder, SF Public Press

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.

Restoration Goals

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.

The founding error of American environmentalism

The Sierra Club, like many American institutions, is trying to come to grips with systemic racism.  The Club was founded in 1892 under the leadership of John Muir who “…made derogatory comments about Black and Indigenous peoples that drew deeply on harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life,” according to Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune in his letter of July 2020 to Club members (available HERE).

John Muir is the founder of the Sierra Club.

Author and activist, Rebecca Solnit, follows up on the roots of racism in the American environmental movement in the most recent edition of Sierra Magazine, the national magazine for Club members.  Her telling of events reveals the founding error of the native plant movement that was based on the mistaken assumption that European settlers were entering a pristine landscape that had been unaltered by humans.  The goal of the native plant movement has therefore been to replicate the pre-settlement landscape, presumed to be the ideal landscape.

Early settlers were well aware that they were entering occupied land.  After all, the settlers had to dispossess Native Americans to occupy the land.  But that reality was quickly forgotten, enabling “the lovers of the beauty of the American landscape who reimagined the whole continent before 1492 as an empty place where, as the Wilderness Act of 1964 puts it, ‘the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.’” (1)

John Muir’s lack of respect for Indigenous culture prevented him from understanding that he was looking at the results of Indigenous land management when he admired Yosemite Valley:  “The word garden occurs over and over in the young John Muir’s rapturous account of his summer in the Sierra Nevada in 1869. ‘More beautiful, better kept gardens cannot be imagined,’ he declared. When he saw Yosemite Valley from the north rim, he noted, ‘the level bottom seemed to be dressed like a garden.’ He assumed he knew who was the gardener in the valley and the heights, the meadows and the groves: ‘So trim and tasteful are these silvery, spiry groves one would fancy they must have been placed in position by some master landscape gardener. . . . But Nature is the only gardener able to do work so fine.’” (1)

In fact, Yosemite Valley looked like a garden to John Muir, because it was a garden, the garden tended by Native Americans for thousands of years:

“Native Americans as hunters, gatherers, agriculturalists and horticulturalists, users of fire as a land-management technique, and makers of routes across the continent played a profound role in creating the magnificent North American landscape that Europeans invaded. Their use of fire helped maintain plants and spaces that benefited these first human inhabitants—including increasing animal populations, causing plants to put forth new growth in the form of straight shoots suitable for arrow making and basket making, and keeping forests open and underbrush down. In Yosemite Valley, burning encouraged oak trees and grasslands to flourish; conifers have since overtaken many meadows and deciduous groves. The recent fires across the West are most of all a result of climate change—but more than a century of fire suppression by a society that could only imagine fire as destructive contributed meaningfully.” (1)

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

Solnit correctly describes the consequences of this founding error on the development of environmentalism:  “Had he been able to recognize and convey that the places he admired so enthusiastically looked like gardens because they were gardens, the plants in them encouraged, the forests managed by the areas’ Native people, the history of the American environmental movement might have been different.”  (1)

Solnit believes there are three significant losses to American society and the environmental movement because of the initial lack of respect for Native Americans and their cultural practices.  The first was the greatest loss to Native Americans because disrespect for them as people and a functioning society made it easier to justify dispossessing and marginalizing them.  The second was the loss to American society that would have benefitted from understanding and emulating their accomplishments.  And the third loss was the founding error of American conservation policy that is based on the mistaken assumption that the pre-settlement landscape is the ideal landscape because it was unchanged by humans.

Several recent scientific studies have found that lands occupied by indigenous people in Australia, Brazil, and Canada have much more biodiversity than lands that have been designated as “protected areas” by governments.  Typically, indigenous people have been forced out of the protected areas, based on the assumption of traditional conservation that humans harm the environment.  As the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin explains in a recent article in New York Times, “If you’re going to save only the insects and the animals and not the Indigenous people, there’s a big contradiction [because] we’re one ecosystem.”

A new conservation ethic

Our conservation goals require a major revision to right this wrong.  New goals must acknowledge that humans have altered every place on the planet for thousands of years.  New goals will acknowledge that nature is dynamic, that changes in nature are usually impossible to reverse, and that they have both positive and negative impacts. New goals will be adapted to the current environment, such as higher temperatures and drought.  New land management strategies can be informed by those used by Native Americans, but replicating the landscapes of 500 years ago will remain out of reach because underlying conditions have been fundamentally altered by evolution and the activities of modern society.

A new conservation ethic can honor the traditions of Native Americans as well as the sovereignty of nature.  We must stop damaging nature in the futile effort to replicate a landscape that was as much a human creation as the landscape of the Anthropocene era. 

(1) “Unfinished Business:  John Muir in Native America,” Rebecca Solnit, Sierra Magazine, March/April 2021

Finding the middle ground between competing conservation strategies

Today Million Trees strays off its well-worn path of informing readers of specific projects in the San Francisco Bay Area that destroy our urban forest and spray our public lands with herbicides.  Under the guidance of Charles C. Mann’s latest book, The Wizard and the Prophet (1), we’ll take a detour into the philosophical tenets of conservation.  There are competing visions of the future of humans on Earth and they are instrumental in producing different conservation strategies.

We begin by introducing Charles C. Mann because his previous books are essential to our understanding of ecology.  His 1491 informed us that the New World “discovered” by Columbus was not the pristine landscape that modern-day native plant advocates are attempting to re-create.  Rather it was a land that had been radically altered by indigenous people who had lived in the Western Hemisphere for over 10,000 years.  The landscape had been extensively gardened for food production.  The large animals had been hunted to extinction.  The landscape in the West and Midwest was dominated by open grassland because it had been regularly burned, preventing natural succession to shrubs and trees.

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

Early explorers carried diseases to the New World to which they were immune, but the native people were not.  By the time settlers arrived two hundred years after early explorers, most of the native people had died of the diseases introduced by the explorers.  Populations of bison and other grazing animals exploded when those who hunted them were killed by disease.  The grazing animals maintained the open grassland that had been created by the fires of the hunters.  Archaeological research has only recently revealed the extent of native populations throughout the New World.

Charles Mann’s second book, 1493, reported the global exchange of plants and animals between the New and the Old Worlds that fundamentally altered both worlds.  The extent and long history of that exchange makes it impossible for us to see those introduced plants, animals, objects as foreigners who “don’t belong here.”

Different visions of the future

Million Trees is indebted to Charles Mann for the books that are the foundation of our cosmopolitan viewpoint of the world.  Mann’s new book, The Wizard and The Prophet is equally important because it helps us understand the interminable debate about conservation.  There is a dark view of the future of the environment that predicts nothing but doom and gloom.  Extinctions dominate their predictions of the future and humans are seen as the destroyers of nature.  The more optimistic view of conservation predicts that the Earth will survive the changes made by humans because humans are capable of innovating to avoid the doom predicted by the pessimists.

Mann describes these contrasting views through the lives of two 20th Century men whom he calls the prophet and the wizard.  The prophet is William Vogt, who believed that the growing population of humans threatened the future of the Earth.  The wizard is Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Prize in 1970 for developing more productive agricultural crops, collectively called the “Green Revolution.”

The prophet believed that the resources needed to sustain life on Earth are finite and the human population was quickly reaching the point at which sources of food, energy, and water would soon be exhausted, threatening all life with extinction.  The wizard devoted his life to expanding food resources to feed the growing human population.  These viewpoints are inherently contradictory because making more food available enables more people to survive and increase human populations.  Vogt tried to cut off the sources of funding for the agricultural projects of Borlaug.

Different conservation methods:  Food

Mann applies these different viewpoints to each major resource issue to explain why the pros and cons of different approaches to conservation are debated, beginning with food production.  The Green Revolution occurred in the 1960s when subsistence crops such as wheat, corn, and rice were improved using breeding techniques.  Borlaug developed a variety of wheat that was both resistant to stem rust, its most persistent enemy, and produced more wheat for harvest.  Working in a desperately poor part of Mexico, with inadequate resources, Borlaug spent 15 years combining thousands of different varieties of wheat to find the winning combination.  His work was done prior to our knowledge of DNA and molecular analysis, so it was a process of trial and error.  It is a heart-wrenching story of brute labor in extreme conditions.  The story is important to our understanding of genetic modification because it reminds us that genetic modification is as old as agriculture itself, although it was called “breeding” until we learned what we now know about DNA.

File:Wheat yields in Least Developed Countries.svg

Mann visits some of the many modern methods of genetic engineering, such as the attempt to “revise” photosynthesis to enable plants to store more carbon, use less water, and tolerate higher temperatures.   These projects are controversial with the public, who are deeply suspicious of all genetic engineering.  In 1999, about one-quarter of Americans considered genetically modified organisms unsafe.  Sixteen years later, 57% of Americans said GMOs are dangerous.

The debate about the value or risks of GMOs is an example of the competing visions of conservation.  The prophets see risk and the wizards see opportunities.  Surely, there ARE risks, but do they outweigh opportunities?  That is the middle ground in the debate.  Mann departs from his neutral stance to take a position on GMOs.  He quotes many scientific sources in support of his opinion that there is far more opportunity than risk in genetic engineering.  My personal opinion is that GMOs are being unfairly judged because of the development of seeds that enable the indiscriminate use of pesticides.  The pesticides are damaging the environment, not the genetically modified seeds.

Update:  I sent this article to Charles Mann to thank him for his work and invite him to correct any errors I may have made.  He has offered this “tiny clarification:”

I was actually trying to do something very slightly different. The argument about GMOs is frequently posed in terms of health risks–are they safe to eat? In my view, the evidence to date is overwhelming that there is no particular reason to think that GMO crops pose more dangers to human health than crops developed by conventional breeding. At the same time, there are a host of reasons to think that the now-conventional industrial-style agriculture brought to us by the Green Revolution has problems: fertilizer runoff, soil depletion, the destruction of rural communities, etc. GMOs are often said by advocates of industrial ag to be the only way to keep this system going so that we can feed everyone in the world of 10 billion. If you already think that industrial ag is a big problem, then of course you would oppose a technology that is supposed to keep it going. That seems to me a better, more fruitful ground to argue.”  Charles C. Mann

I agree that “industrial ag is a big problem,” and I am grateful for this clarification.

Different conservation methods:  Water

The availability of adequate water is a limitation for agriculture that provides another example of competing approaches to conservation.  The wizards want dams to control available water and maximize its use for agriculture by storing water during rainy periods and using it during dry periods.  They also want desalination plants to convert salt water to fresh water.  97.5% of all water on Earth is salt water.  It is not useful for agriculture and it is not drinking water for humans.

Prophets want to tear down existing dams to make more water available for non-human inhabitants of the Earth.  They also object to desalination plants because they kill marine life, discharge pollutants, and use a lot of energy.  Water conservation is the preferred solution to water shortages according to prophets.

Hetch Hetchy canyon was dammed nearly 100 years ago. The dam is the primary source of water for the City of San Francisco and many surrounding communities. The dam generates the electricity that runs San Francisco’s transportation system without using fossil fuels. Sierra Club and other environmental organizations have sued several times to tear down the dam.   Inklein English Wikipedia photo

Different conservation methods:  Energy

Energy is required for every human enterprise:  heat, cooking, transportation, light, industrial production, etc.  Wood was the primary source of energy for thousands of years until coal began to be used in China around 3,400 B.C.  Although coal is still used, petroleum began to replace it as the primary source of fuel in the 19th century.  The supply of coal and petroleum was considered finite until recently.  Thanks to the wizards, extraction methods have been continuously developed such that the supply is now considered effectively infinite as long as increasingly more destructive methods are used, such as fracking and strip mining.

The prophets want to replace fossil fuels as the primary source of energy because of concerns about climate change and pollution.  Although they are supportive of developing renewable sources of energy, they often object to specific projects with side-effects.  They object to wind turbines because they sometimes kill birds.  They object to large solar farms because they displace wildlife.  Their preferred approach to energy is conservation.  They want us to learn to live with less energy.

The wizards focus on improving existing sources of energy with fewer impacts on the environment.  They envision a massive energy grid that can store and share the power generated by renewable sources so that energy is available to everyone at all times whether the wind blows or the sun shines.  The prophets object to such big projects.  They want energy to be produced locally and available locally.  The Sierra Club is opposed to a California Assembly bill that would create a regional power grid.

Different conservation methods:  Climate Change

All of these issues come together when climate change is debated.  Wizards are working on geo-engineering approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as burying carbon in the ground.  Their public policy approaches to the issue are also complex and on a large scale, such as cap-and-trade systems to create a profit-motive for reducing carbon emissions. 

Prophets are unwilling to take the risks associated with geo-engineering strategies and they are skeptical that cap-and-trade will be more than a means of avoiding the sacrifices needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The Sierra Club was instrumental in preventing the State of Washington from passing a revenue-neutral cap-and-trade law.  The Sierra Club also opposed the recent renewal of California’s cap-and-trade law.  Market-based approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions may not be the strongest policy tools, but they are the only tools available in the US because there is not sufficient political support for stronger policies.  Only 11 states have been able to enact market-based laws, such as cap-and-trade.  Sierra Club policies are often far removed from political realities.

Unintended consequences

Charles Mann does his best to avoid choosing a side in these debates and on the whole he succeeds.  He wants readers to understand that for every conservation method there is a cost and he dutifully tells us about the horrifying consequences of rigidly following one path rather the other.

Vogt, the prophet, firmly believed that the Earth and its human inhabitants would only survive if humans would voluntarily adopt public policies that would limit the growth of human population.  This goal was not popularized until The Population Bomb was written by Paul Ehrlich and published by the Sierra Club in 1968.  Mandatory population control became the official public policy in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia, and especially India.  In the 1970s and 80s millions of women were sterilized in India, often against their will.  In China the one-child policy adopted in 1980 forced tens of millions of abortions, many of which killed mothers.  Birth control was forced on women in Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, South Korea and the Philippines.

There is constant pressure within the Sierra Club to adopt an anti-immigration policy.  The Club had such a policy until 1996 and there have been several attempts since to reinstate that policy.  I digress to express my personal opinion that immigration is not a legitimate environmental issue because the environment is global.  The migration of people from Central America to North America does not fundamentally alter the impact on the environment.  If migrants have better access to birth control and education for women in North America, the size of their families would likely decrease.

The Sierra Club, like most mainstream environmental organizations, is firmly in the camp of the prophets.  They cast humans as the enemy of nature and their policies reflect their misanthropy.  They oppose every housing development project and all recreational access to public lands in California.

The Green Revolution and the way of the wizard carries its own baggage.  The new crops and the resources needed to produce them were not equitably distributed in the places where they were needed the most.  The richest farmers and biggest land owners in both India and Mexico were the primary beneficiaries of the improved agricultural methods.  But it wasn’t just inequitable distribution that did the most damage.  The poorest farmers owned the most marginal land.  Improved crops made their land more valuable.  It was suddenly worthwhile for land owners to dispossess their tenant farmers. The poorest farmers became the poorest homeless people in the huge cities of India and Mexico.

The Green Revolution also greatly increased the use of synthetic fertilizers that have caused nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from agricultural runoff.  And pesticides were another tool of the Green Revolution with their own suite of negative environmental consequences.

Both cases illustrate the important role that governments play in environmental policy.  Neither the extreme application of population control methods nor the inequitable distribution of agricultural resources were inevitable.  In the hands of competent, democratic government both methods had the potential to improve the well-being of humans without damaging the environment.

The Middle Ground:  All of the Above

I see Mann’s book about competing conservation strategies as an endorsement of the middle ground.  My own strong commitment to the middle ground probably influences my reaction to Mann’s book.  The concept of “population control” is as unappealing to me as some of the geo-engineering projects being developed to address climate change.

“Population control” is antithetical to a free society.  The middle ground is universal and free access to birth control, early sex education, and educating women in developing countries.  Educating women is the most effective method of reducing birth rates.

2014 UN Human Development Index. Human Development Index map. Darker is higher. Countries with a higher HDI usually have a lower birth rate, known as the fertility-income paradox.

The risks of geo-engineering solutions to climate change are too great to pursue without careful scientific analysis to fully understand the risks before they are implemented on a large scale.  Likewise, I am opposed to building new nuclear power plants until and unless we have a safe method of disposing of the nuclear waste generated by those plants.

Ironically, the middle ground is in some sense, the most aggressive conservation strategy because it is ALL OF THE ABOVE.  The consequences of climate change are too dire to choose one path and abandon the other.  We must carefully go down every path available.  We must do what we can to limit the increase in human population—within the constraints of a free society—and we must aggressively pursue the technological innovations that are needed to protect the environment from the activities of humans.  We must develop new sources of energy that do not emit greenhouse gas emissions as well as reduce our use of limited resources, such as water and energy.

I conclude with an important caveat.  This article does not do justice to Mann’s brilliant book.  I have only scratched the surface of Mann’s complex and deeply informed book.  Charles Mann made a presentation to the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco shortly after the publication of his book.  A video of his presentation is available HERE.  The video will help bridge the gap between this brief summary and reading Mann’s important book.

  1. Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and The Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World, Alfred Knopf, 2018

What is Compassionate Conservation?

Matt Chew has written another guest post for Million Trees about the International Compassionate Conservation Conference that recently took place in Australia, where he gave a presentation.  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 has written two popular posts for the Million Trees blog about the “restoration” industry and about the controversial projects that are eradicating tamarisk trees.

Arian Wallach, Dingo for Biodiversity Project

I was introduced to compassionate conservation by one of its proponents, Arian Wallach.  Dr. Wallach is the Project Director of the Dingo for Biodiversity Project in Australia.  Dingoes were the top predators of smaller animals in Australia for about 5,000 years until Europeans introduced new predators in the 19th century.  Colonists to Australia have been killing dingoes since they arrived because dingoes are also predators of their sheep. 

Eradicating top predators has serious consequences for the entire ecosystem.  In the case of dingoes, smaller predators introduced by colonists have taken that role and are now the target of poisonous campaigns to eradicate them.  For example, Australia recently made a commitment to kill 5 million cats with poison.  Killing dingoes has put Australia on the killing treadmill. 

We have examples in the United States of similar cascading effects of killing top predators.  When wolves and bears were killed in some of our national parks, populations of grazing animals such as deer and elk exploded.  Vegetation was browsed to death and ultimately the grazing animals were without sufficient food.

Dr. Chew tells us that defending top predators is one of several tenets of compassionate conservation.  Two important themes emerge from his description of the conference:

  • Traditional conservation tends to focus on the preservation of a species, sometimes at the expense of individual members of that species. Compassionate conservation invites us to re-evaluate that emphasis, to also take the lives of individual animals into consideration.  In an extremely individualistic society such as America, this would seem an entirely appropriate approach to conservation.
  • Modern methods of conservation tend to focus primarily on rare animals, sometimes at the expense of common animals. Common animals are often blamed for the fate of rare animals.  Shooting barred owls based on the belief that endangered spotted owls will benefit is an example of such projects. 

These are ethical questions that deserve our thoughtful consideration and Dr. Chew’s guest post invites us to think deeply about them.

Million Trees

The third International Compassionate Conservation Conference took place in Australia last November. Over 100 pre-registrants represented thirteen countries of current residence. Every occupied continent and a few archipelagoes were accounted for. Nearly half of the roster bore “Doctor” or “Professor” credentials. About two-thirds were Australian, one-sixth from the USA, and the remainder distributed in single digits. The final tally, including walk-in registrants, has not been compiled.

Some Background

Traditional resource conservationists and animal welfare advocates celebrate separate histories and espouse distinct philosophies. In a given circumstance their views may coincide, but they more often conflict. Sometimes it’s a mix of both. Professionals in either discipline are more attuned and (perhaps) committed to the distinctions than are members of the general public. Some advocates on both sides are more confrontational than others. Given all that, it may be unsurprising that the concept of compassionate conservation arose in the unique context of a British charity organized by the starring actors of the 1966 film Born Free. The predicament of Elsa the lioness they helped publicize provided a unique nexus of predator conservation and captive animal welfare to build on.  Their Born Free Foundation , which at one point actually trademarked the term “Compassionate Conservation” has helped underwrite three meetings: a symposium in Oxford, U.K. (2010); a conference in Vancouver, British Columbia (2015), and the most recent conference in Leura, New South Wales.

Leura, Australia

The latter two events were co-sponsored and organized by the Centre for Compassionate Conservation (Centre) at the University of Technology in Sydney (UTS). The Centre was founded in 2013 by UTS conservation biologist Dr. Daniel Ramp, who continues as its Director. His unusual goal, succinctly (indeed, laconically) stated, is “to better conserve nature by protecting the welfare of individual animals in captivity and in the wild.” The Centre currently lists a core management team of five, plus six affiliated researchers. Five conference attendees identified themselves as Centre Ph.D. candidates, and another as an unspecified Centre student. Before organizing the Centre, Daniel and most of his present colleagues comprised something called THINKK, focused more narrowly on ethical kangaroo conservation. Coincidentally, a documentary film emerging from that effort just opened in selected U.S. theaters.

Alloying animal welfare advocates and conservationists this way requires effort.  Alloying them into a fully coherent interest group is unlikely. Conservationists, including conservation biologists, are rarely concerned with the comfort or fates of individual organisms. For example, the Society for Conservation Biology is “dedicated to advancing the science and practice of conserving Earth’s biological diversity”. It emphasizes populations, species, biotic communities and other aggregations rather than individual organisms. This view accommodates Darwinian natural selection and economic sustainability of recreational and commercial exploitation, including so-called ecosystem services. Except where the population of some species is approaching zero and every extant individual contributes substantially to its genetic diversity, whether any of them are particularly well off beyond their ability to breed or produce gametes for propagation purposes is a subsidiary concern. By contrast, animal welfare begins with sentient organisms and recognizes fewer aggregate or emergent properties. Strictly speaking, to welfare advocates, preserving a species or population is secondary to protecting individuals from experiencing pain or suffering, especially that related to human actions or influences.

California Condor with tracking tags on wings

Logically extended, the difference between conservation and compassion can be illustrated by the California condor recovery effort. Condors incapable of breeding are useless to conservation biologists other than for public relations purposes. Any “display” animal is subject to the particular dangers inherent in repeated transportation and public contact. Presented as an example or representative of the taxon Gymnogyps californianus it nevertheless becomes a named or nicknamed individual entity in the minds of the people who “meet” it.  Once transferred permanently for display to (e.g.) a zoo, the welfare of a named, non-breeding condor takes on a significance that it never had before. Should it fall ill, hundreds or thousands of people will fret. Should it die unexpectedly, they will mourn and hold its keepers responsible. Meanwhile, potential breeding condors may be released to cope with hazards of “wild” survival their captive counterparts never face. The processes of breeding contribute further stresses and risks. The value of a display condor is tallied in goodwill and monetary contributions. The value of a breeder is tallied in viable offspring, much as the value of a laying hen is tallied in eggs produced. The contentment of a named bird is judged differently from that of a numbered one. Should “recovery” succeed, individual condors will someday become as anonymous as turkey vultures, their welfare officially unmonitored. With all that in mind, a compassionate conservation conference is necessarily a coalition exercise. A stable, hybrid entity like the UTS Centre remains exceptional.

In the Event

The three-day Leura schedule included ten presentation sessions, a poster session and six workshops. Each presentation session opened with a half-hour keynote talk from an invited speaker followed by a series of shorter contributions.


Australian waterfall

Presentation sessions were organized around conservation ethics (2); novel ecosystems (2); animal welfare science and issues (2); laws and policies; agriculture and wildlife, predator-friendly ranching and finally “cultivating compassion”. Keynote speakers (six men, four women) came from the USA (5), Australia (3), Malaysia (1) and the UK (1). Nine are university faculty or affiliates; two represent independent conservation NGOs (yes, we turned it up to 11). Few of us can comfortably label ourselves without hyphenating. Our credentials include (alphabetically) Animal Science, Conservation Biology, Ecology, English, Environmental Ethics, Environmental Science, Ethnography, Evolutionary Biology, History, Humanities, Law, Natural Resources, Philosophy, Wildlife Biology, and Zoology and doubtless some that I overlooked. Our keynote talks ranged from practical legal and management case studies to aspirational exhortations. That may not be a defensible continuum, but it will have to do.

A conference program with abstracts is available for download here. Since there were about sixty presentations over two and a half days, I can hardly even list them, much less say anything pithy about more than a few. Their diversity made for an intense, eclectic, even exhausting experience. The general quality of presentations struck me as higher than the average at many more traditional, disciplinary conferences. Perhaps it takes “more” of something or another to survive the rigors of interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary work.

What I can do is highlight a couple of impressive research projects of particular interest to Million Trees followers in the western U.S.  In his keynote address, Conservation as creative diplomacy: Raven and tortoise futures in the Mojave Desert, University of New South Wales Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Thom van Dooren looked at “new technology” attempts to dissuade the big black birds from preying on juvenile, endangered reptiles. Artificial tortoises conceived as the equivalent to exploding, joke cigars featured heavily in this thought-provoking and entertaining analysis. Understanding introduced megafauna in the Anthropocene: Wild donkeys as ecosystem engineers in the Sonoran Desert by Arizona State University graduate turned Centre Ph.D. candidate Erick Lundgren showed how “feral” burros in western Arizona create water sources used by “native” wildlife by digging down to shallow aquifers in dry washes. Photos and infrared video made the case for this completely new and gratifying application of the term “ass holes” and discussion of the demonstrable positive effects of “alien” animals. An early presentation of Erick’s findings can be viewed here.


Poster of Non-Nativist Landcare

For readers unfamiliar with poster sessions, the basic idea is to summarize a project, argument or proposal in the minimum necessary words and graphics to convey the important ideas. Posters can be perused at the convenience of conference-goers, and (as in this case) can be strategically hung in proximity to coffee and snacks; but a period is usually specified for poster authors to literally stand by their work and answer questions. What constitutes a poster is evolving rapidly. Mechanically pasted-up arrangements have been superseded by single, large format prints, which in turn may soon give way to looped or even user-navigable videos on flat screen displays. Only a handful of posters were presented at Leura. One included a description of low-disturbance riparian revegetation techniques; another explained a new proposal to legally protect captive whales, porpoises and dolphins in the U.S.A.; a third took data-driven issue with Argentina’s official over(?)-emphasis on lethally suppressing European rabbit populations; and the fourth combined a poster with a video loop to demonstrate the surprising calmness of red foxes living in proximity to dingoes, their only wild predators.


Befitting a gaggle of academics, three of the six workshops initiated collaborations meant to produce papers for peer-reviewed publication. “Welfare in the wild” focuses on the challenges of assessing the condition of free-living wild animals, a necessity for practical compassionate conservation. “The Australian Wildcat Project” seeks to reframe feral cats as wild animals and find “compassionate and effective solutions” that supersede traditional (and ineffectual) lethal culling.  “Transforming wildlife management policies” envisions a compassionate alternative to the present Australian Pest Animal Strategy.

For attendees not leashed to the “publish or perish” treadmill, “A framework for human-wildlife health and coexistence in Asia” built on the related presentation session to propose guidelines for further research and development. “Predator friendly ranching skills and technologies” demonstrated an array of time-tested, new and proposed methods for keeping livestock without resorting to lethal predator control. “Bringing ethics into conservation with argument analysis” offered an introduction to rhetorical and logical analysis of the claims underlying conservation decision-making.


Banksia in Australia

On July 31, 1947, Aldo Leopold finalized a paragraph that appeared about seven eighths of the way through his introduction to a proposed book of essays. It began “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” There, Leopold styled himself as “the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well, and does not want to be told otherwise”. Perhaps ironically, less than nine months later (at age 61) he succumbed to heart failure aggravated by the exertion of fighting a grass fire, leaving the still unpublished anthology in other hands. Nearly two decades on, editors transplanted the paragraph into the much-revised text of a Leopold essay titled “The Round River” for re-publication by Oxford University Press, where his overwrought sentiment blossomed into a gnostic axiom of conservation biology.

Practically anyone could recognize an injured animal. Only Leopold, selected colleagues and their presumptive heirs could diagnose the arcane injuries of populations, species, communities or ecosystems. The welfare of an organism didn’t “amount to a hill of beans” next to the integrity of the greater collective. It was a more than convenient fit into the value system of academic biology, where individuals are traditionally considered mere examples of taxa, available for collection, experimentation, or “scientific” interference pretty much at will.

As a group, biologists have likely devised more (and more esoteric) ways than anyone else to kill, injure or discomfit organisms. Way back in 1865, physiologist Claude Bernard, fountainhead of the indispensable idea of homeostasis, reflected, “the science of life…is a superb and dazzlingly lighted hall which may be reached only by passing through a long and ghastly kitchen.” Recipes beyond his darkest dreams have since been tested there. In that regard, conservation biology is unexceptional. Conservation biology in practice consists largely of subsidizing the (Darwinian) fitness of too-rare species by forcibly taxing that of too-common ones. The move from culinary to macroeconomic metaphors indicates only that we are now cooking on a vast, institutional scale. Both figuratively and literally, conservation biologists break a lot of eggs in service of making too-rare species more common and supposedly too-common ones more rare. Consistent with basic economic wisdom, individuals of scarce species are more highly valued than those of common species. But much of biology is still concerned with examining formerly living objects to find out what experimenting on them accomplished. The drafters of laws like the U.S. Endangered Species Act made “experimental, nonessential” individuals or populations available for scientific “take”. At best, such exceptions allow for research that might stave of extinction. At worst, they provide cover for otherwise anathema activities like “scientific whaling.”

What will become of compassionate conservation? I can’t answer that question. Its advent represents an interesting cross-pollination among otherwise ramifying points of view. I’m sympathetic to the basic aims of its proponents. My own work wasn’t really conceived to abet them; but if it does, I say “well and good.” There’s more than enough casually rationalized cruelty in the world already. 

Matt Chew

“Tending the Wild:” Our changing relationship with nature

We recently introduced our readers to a book about the land management practices of Native Americans in California, Tending the Wild:  Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources.  (1) Drawing from this valuable resource, we will describe how the relationship of humans with nature has changed several times since the arrival of humans in California approximately 12,000 years ago.  We will conclude by raising questions about our current relationship with nature, as reflected in our land management practices.

The relationship of Native Americans with nature

Basket CA Native AmericanWe will let the author of Tending the Wild speak for Native Americans, based on her extensive research of their culture and land-management practices:

“Although native ways of using and tending the earth were diverse, the people were nonetheless unified by a fundamental land use ethic:  one must interact respectfully with nature and coexist with all life-forms.  This ethic transcended cultural and political boundaries and enabled sustained relationships between human societies and California’s environments over millennia.  The spiritual dimension of this ethic is a cosmology that casts humans as part of the natural system, closely related to all life-forms.  In this view, all non-human creatures are ‘kin’ or ‘relatives,’ nature is the embodiment of the human community, and all of nature’s denizens and elements—the plants, the animals, the rocks, and the water—are people.  As ‘people,’ plants and animals possessed intelligence, which meant that they could serve in the role of teachers and help humans in countless ways—relaying messages, forecasting the weather, teaching what is good to eat and what will cure an ailment.” (1)

We emphasize that Native American culture considered humans a part of nature because this viewpoint provides contrast to modern interpretations of the relationship between humans and nature. 

Exploitation of nature by early settlers

When Europeans began to establish settlements in California in the late 18th century, they brought with them an entirely different viewpoint about their relationship with nature.  Natural resources were to be exploited and humans were the master of the natural world which was in their service.

Western pioneer ranch
Western pioneer ranch. Painting by John Olson Hammerstad, 1842-1925.


The first phase of European settlement was the importation of huge herds of livestock by the Spanish coming from Mexico:

“During the Mission era…grazing was among the activities that caused the greatest damage.  Coastal prairies, oak savannas, prairie patches in coastal redwood forests, and riparian habitats, all rich in plant species diversity and kept open and fertile through centuries of Indian burning, became grazing land for vast herds of cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, and horses owned by Spanish missions and rancheros.  By 1832 the California missions had more than 420,000 head of cattle, 320,000 sheep, goats, and hogs, and 60,000 horses and mules…overgrazing eliminated native plant populations, favored alien annuals, and caused erosion…A great variety of alien [plant] species were introduced inadvertently during the Mission Period.  Research has shown that European forbs and grasses…were brought into California at this time, contained in adobe bricks, livestock feed, livestock bedding, and other materials.  Soon these alien [plants] overwhelmed the native species, markedly changing the character and diversity of grasslands and other habitats west of the inner Coast Ranges.”  (1)

Tending the Wild reports that during this early phase of European settlement, Native Americans were quick to adapt to the changing landscape.  They incorporated useful new plants into their diets.  Likewise, we see today new plants and animals quickly enter the food web.


Hydraulic gold mining in California.
Hydraulic gold mining in California.

These changes in the landscape paled in comparison to the exploitation of the land that began in 1849 when gold was discovered in California and the huge influx of Americans of diverse European descent arrived.  Here are a few examples:

  • “…by the 1870s ‘more men made their living in the broader geography and economy of farming—48,000—than in all the mines of the Sierra footholls—36,000.’ To accommodate the acreage devoted to growing crops, marshes were drained, underground water was tapped by artesian wells, streams and rivers were dammed and diverted for irrigation, and lands were fenced.  In the process huge tracts of former native grasslands, riparian corridors, and vernal pools were converted to artificial, human-managed agricultural systems.” (1)
  • “Five million acres of wetland in California have been reduced by 91% through diking, draining, and filling for agriculture, housing, or other purposes.” (1)
  • By 1900, 40% of California’s 31 million acres of forest were logged.
  • “By the early 1900s, the numbers of marine mammals, wildfowl, elk, deer, bear, and other birds and mammals had been so drastically reduced that Joseph Grinnell would write, ‘Throughout California we had been forcibly impressed with the rapid depletion everywhere evident among the game birds and mammals.’” (1)
  • Between 1769 and 1845, the population of Native Americans in California dropped from an estimated 310,000 to 150,000. Between 1845 and 1855, the population of Native Americans dropped from 150,000 to 50,000.

Romanticizing Nature

Meanwhile, in Europe and the East Coast of the US, a new view of nature was being articulated.  The Romantic movement viewed nature as an escape from the stress of urban life, a tranquil retreat from civilization.  In California, John Muir was strongly influenced by Romanticism: 

“Muir and those with similar views responded to the destruction and exploitation of California’s natural resources with a preservationist ethic that valued nature above all else but which defined nature as that which was free of human influenceThus while he championed the setting aside of parks as public land, Muir also contributed to the modern notion that the indigenous inhabitants of the state had no role in shaping its natural attributes.” (1)

Muir was unable to fit Native Americans into his idealized view of nature.  He wrote this account of Miwok Indians in the Sierra Nevada in 1869:

“’We had another visitor from Browns’ Flat to-day, an old Indian woman with a basket on her back.  Her dress was calico rags, far from clean.  In every way she seemed sadly unlike Nature’s neat well-dressed animals, though living like them on the bounty of wilderness.  Strange that mankind alone is dirty.  Had she been clad in fur, or cloth woven of grass or shreddy bark, like the juniper or libocedrus mats, she might have seemed a rightful part of wilderness; like a good wolf at least, or bear.  But no point of view that I have found are such debased fellow beings a whit more natural than the glaring tailored tourists we saw that frightened the birds and the squirrels.’” (1)

Sharp Park, Pacifica, CA.  Photo by Erica Reder, SF Public Press
Sharp Park, Pacifica, CA. Photo by Erica Reder, SF Public Press

In this romanticized view of nature, humans are not welcome Humans defile the purity of nature.  This is the prevailing viewpoint today among those who consider themselves environmentalists, park advocates, and conservationists.  They advocate for “wilderness” where “humans may visit, but not remain.”  They post signs, advising visitors to look but not touch.  Their “restoration” projects put nature behind a fence.  They complain about immigration.

The condescending attitude articulated by John Muir toward Native Americans was instrumental in our ignorance of their land management practices.  Europeans considered Native Americans primitive and therefore did not expect to learn anything useful from them.  Europeans imported and grew their own food from their original homes because they were unaware of how local food sources could be grown and used.  Our knowledge of Native American culture is recent and it comes too late to ever be fully informed because those who tended the land are long since gone.  Furthermore, this new knowledge of land management practices of Native Americans is not well known, certainly not among native plant advocates who are attempting to re-create a landscape which was created by methods they do not understand.

Redefining ecological “restoration”

The author of Tending the Wild admires Native American culture as well as the landscape that was created by their land management practices.  Therefore, she concludes her book with a proposal that we adopt their land management methods:

“What then, should be the goal of ecological restoration?  Restoring landscapes and ecosystems to a ‘natural’ condition may be impossible if that natural condition never existed…Restorationists must at the very least acknowledge the indigenous influence in shaping the California landscape.  This chapter advocates an additional step—using indigenous people’s knowledge and methods to carry out the restoration process, to return landscapes to historical conditions and restore the place of humans in this continuing management.”  (1)

In our previous post, we described some of the land management practices of Native Americans, particularly the importance of setting fires.  Adopting these management practices for ecological restorations would require us to make a permanent commitment to setting fires.  Fires pollute the air, release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and endanger lives and property.  Therefore, this is surely not a proposition that can be reasonably applied to our densely populated urban parks.  The maximum population of Native Americans prior to the arrival of Europeans is estimated to have been 310,000.  The population of California was estimated to be over 38 million in 2013.  Land management practices that were appropriate for a human population of only 310,000 are not appropriate for a population of over 38 million.

Furthermore, the land management practices of Native Americans were useful for their culture.  They tended the landscape in order to feed, clothe, heal, and house themselves.  If that specific landscape is no longer useful for those purposes, why would we consider it an ideal landscape?  In what sense would it be superior to the landscape that occurs naturally without setting fires or intensively gardening our open spaces?

A more realistic paradigm is needed

We believe a more sustainable paradigm for managing nature is needed.  Although we won’t presume to define this new paradigm, we will suggest some parameters:

  • Humans are as much a part of nature as any other animal. Therefore, conservation goals must accommodate the presence of humans.  However, humans must respect plants and animals as equal partners in achieving conservation goals.
  • Since we live in a free society, we must assume that human populations will grow in proportion to the choices of humans. And since we are a nation of laws, we must assume that immigration will occur as allowed by our laws.  Conservation goals must be consistent with the realities of human population density.
  • Conservation goals should look forward, not back. Goals should reflect the changes in the environment that have already taken place and anticipate the changes that are expected in the future.
  • The distinction between native and non-native species should be only one of several criteria to determine whether a species “belongs here.” If plants and animals are sustaining themselves without human subsidy, we should acknowledge and appreciate the functions they perform in the ecosystem.  This approach will reduce the use of herbicides, now being used to eradicate plants perceived to be “non-native,” in our parks and open spaces.
  • Conservation goals should be realistic within the confines of available resources and in competition with other priorities.
  • There are pros and cons to every change we make in the landscape. Whenever we alter the landscape, if our land management methods damage the environment by using pesticides, killing animals or destroying their food resources and homes, contributing to greenhouse gases, restricting recreational access, etc., we must have solid evidence that the benefits to the environment will be greater than the damage we foresee.  If there is no net benefit, we should leave it be.

Can you add to or suggest revisions of this list of a new conservation ethic?  Surely there are as many opinions as there are readers of Million Trees.  We would like to hear your ideas.



  1. M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, University of California Press, 2005 (This is the source of most of the information in this article.)

Rosalie Edge, conservation hero

Rosalie EdgeWe are grateful to Dyana Furmansky for turning a suitcase full of letters into a fascinating biography of an important conservationist, Rosalie Edge. (1) Rosalie Edge was one of the first ardent defenders of wildlife—particularly birds—in America.  She came to this mission late in life, from unlikely previous experience.  Her life is therefore an interesting story, but it also interests us because her experiences as a conservationist shed light on our struggle to preserve our urban forest.  Specifically her struggle with the Audubon Society foretold our attempts to convince the local chapter of the Audubon Society (Golden Gate Audubon Society) that some of their policies are harmful to birds.

From privilege to the trenches of conservation warfare

Rosalie was born Mabel Rosalie Barrow in New York City in 1877 into a family of great wealth and privilege.  She married Charles Noel Edge in 1909 and followed him around the Orient for several years while he earned his living as a civil engineer and then as an investor.

They returned home, where Rosalie joined the woman’s suffrage movement in 1915.  She wrote passionate pamphlets for the suffragists, which later became her hallmark as a conservationist.   When women won the vote in the United States in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, Rosalie didn’t have much time to find another mission.   Her husband fell in love with another woman, effectively ending their marriage, which continued in name only to their death.

At the age of 44, in 1921, Rosalie was grief-stricken about the failure of her marriage.  She found solace in walks in Central Park in New York City and soon discovered that watching the birds gave her comfort.  The birders of Central Park were a community in the 1920s as they still are today.  They took Rosalie under their wing.  Soon she was embroiled in the organizational politics of the National Association of Audubon Societies (NAAS), the precursor to the National Audubon Society.  She learned that NAAS was engaged in activities that some members considered harmful to birds:

  • The President of the NAAS was taking donations from manufacturers of guns in exchange for adopting policies that were supportive of hunting birds.
  • NAAS also refused to oppose policies and practices that are harmful to birds, such as:
    • Killing birds to use their feathers in women’s hats, and
    • The policy of the federal government that paid large bounties for dead birds of prey, such as bald eagles.
  • NAAS was trapping and selling fur-bearing animals on its bird reserve in Louisiana to pay the salaries of their staff.

With only the force of her strong personality, Rosalie tried to shame the NAAS into abandoning these practices by attending their annual meetings.  When that approach failed, she sued NAAS for its mailing list and won.  With the mailing list of the 11,000 members of NAAS, Rosalie was able to communicate directly with the membership.  This approach put substantially more pressure on NAAS leadership as well as reduced its membership.   She had very little help with this effort.  She named her operation the Emergency Conservation Committee (ECC), but she was a proverbial one-woman-band.

Many of the NAAS policies to which Rosalie objected where eventually changed.  However, she was alienated from most members of NAAS and its successor NAS, until shortly before her death in 1962 at the age of 85.  She attended their banquet in 1962, along with 1,200 conservationists, where she was given a standing ovation.  Rosalie said, “’I have made peace with the National Audubon Society.’” (1)

The accomplishments of the Emergency Conservation Committee

The accomplishments of the ECC are particularly impressive if you keep in mind that most were achieved in the 1930s and 40s.  In the 1930s, there was very little money for anything other than creating jobs and putting food on the table.  In the 1940s the cost of World War II was our highest national priority.  Conservation was perceived as a luxury by both the public and the government.  Yet, Rosalie and those who helped her, accomplished many great things.

  • Migrating hawks shot in one day prior to establishing sanctuary.  Courtesy Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Archives
    Migrating hawks shot in one day prior to establishing sanctuary. Courtesy Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Archives

    Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania was a place where wind currents funneled tens of thousands of hawks during their fall migration. It was therefore a popular place for hunters to stand on the mountain and shoot the birds out of the air.  Tens of thousands of hawks were slaughtered every year, which was just too much to bear for Rosalie.  Nearly penniless during the deepest years of the depression, Rosalie borrowed $500 from a friend with an interest in the hawks to lease Hawk Mountain.  Fortunately the land wasn’t useful for most purposes and economic conditions depressed land values, so she was eventually able to buy it.  It was the first privately acquired property for the sole purpose of conservation.  It was considered the model for The Nature Conservancy by one of TNC’s co-founders, Richard Pough.  Today, Hawk Mountain is visited by tens of thousands of visitors every fall to witness the migration.  There are far more visitors to see the birds than there had been to shoot them in the past.  The data gathered at the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary about immature hawk and eagle migration were very helpful to Rachel Carson in making her case against DDT.

  • When Franklin Roosevelt became President, things got a little easier for Rosalie because his Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, shared her interest in conservation. Together they collaborated to create Olympic National Park in Washington State, to incorporate a sugar-pine forest into Yosemite National Park, and to create King’s Canyon National Park in the Sierra Nevada in California.  None of these achievements was easy.  The story of how opposition was overcome would sound familiar today.  Timber and other economic interests had to be satisfied or neutralized by overwhelming public support.  Rosalie’s passionate pamphlets were instrumental in creating public support.

Olympic National Park.  NPS photo
Olympic National Park. NPS photo

Familiar themes

Rosalie’s experiences with the National Association of Audubon Societies sound familiar to us.  Despite the organization’s stated mission of protecting birds, economic interests sometimes influence its policies and practices.  The paid staff of an organization is under constant pressure to fund its salaries.  The temptation for quid pro quo arrangements is great, particularly during hard economic times.  Although Rosalie was successful in ending such arrangements, the temptation is always there.  Therefore, constant vigilance is required to prevent it from happening again.

Towards the end of her life, Rosalie’s unpublished memoir explains why her Emergency Conservation Committee was successful:

“In her memoir, she had commended volunteerism as the most meaningful way to bring about change.  ‘I beg each one to keep conservation as his hobby, to keep his independence, his freedom to speak his mind,’ she had written years before.  She had seen too many professionals become jaded or fall captive to special interests.  She, on the other hand, had spoken freely.  There would always be a need for those who could do that, she warned.” (1)

We believe that the local chapter of the Audubon Society (Golden Gate Audubon Society) is supporting projects that are harmful to birds.  We have detailed those projects in a recent post and won’t repeat them here.  The story of Rosalie Edge’s confrontation with the National Association of Audubon Societies warns us that changing those policies will not be easy.  However, we are inspired by Rosalie’s success and we follow her lead:  We are a loose confederation of volunteers who work collaboratively, but independently.   We are compensated solely by the occasional success of our venture to save our urban forest and the animals that live in it.  We cannot be compromised by any economic interests.

(1) Dyana Z. Furmansky, Rosalie Edge Hawk of Mercy, University of Georgia Press, 2009