I welcome comments on my website because I often learn from them. This comment on a recent post inspired me to think about why I often put the word “restoration” in quotation marks when describing projects that are more destructive than constructive:
Oh my, we are back to putting quotes around words we don’t like. An excerpt from this article:
“Many ecological studies and associated “restoration” projects adopt the same viewpoint that destruction is a justifiable method of studying and “restoring” ecosystems. “Restoration” projects often begin by killing all non-native plants with herbicides before attempting to create a native landscape.”
Often? We do a fair amount of underburning around here, primarily to “restore” ecosystem structure and function in mixed conifer. Of the burns I have been involved with, not one involved herbicides and pesticides. I think you put the lie to your own article by this one exaggeration. I suspect if I bothered to look I would find many others.
This is my reply to this comment:
When the word restoration is used appropriately, it is a powerful, positive word. There is a multitude of potential projects in California that would be restorative. Here is a brief list:
- There are 94 toxic waste Superfund sites in California that should be cleaned up.
- There are 47,000 abandoned mine sites in California that are health and safety hazards.
- There are thousands of “impaired waters” in California identified by the California Clean Water Act, such as septic tanks that leak sewage into our waterways and waters contaminated with mercury and other toxic chemicals.
- There are 5,000 orphan oil wells in California with no known responsible operator that have not been properly capped and therefore emit methane into the atmosphere.
Prescribed burns are currently popular and some don’t use herbicides before burning, but they are NOT a panacea. Many prescribed burns have become destructive wildfires. Here are two presentations made at the October conference of the California Native Plant Society that were critical of the over-reliance on prescribed burns:
- Dr. Jon Keeley is a respected fire scientist with US Geological Service with expertise in chaparral ecosystems. He explained that 60% of native chaparral species (notably manzanita and ceanothus) are obligate seeders that do not resprout after fire and therefore depend on their dormant seed bank for regeneration. In recent decades the fire interval in chaparral has decreased due to climate change and associated drought. In many places the fire interval has become too short to establish the seed bank needed for regeneration. In those places Dr. Keeley has observed vegetation type conversion to non-native annual grasses. Dr. Keeley Is concerned that vegetation type conversion from forests in some cases and shrublands in others to non-native annual grassland may be the result of shortening fire intervals further “because of the upsurge in state and federal programs to utilize prescription burning to reduce fire hazard.”
- Another presentation about a 20-year effort to convert non-native annual grassland to native grassland using prescribed burns at the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve reported their failure: “Non-native grass cover significantly decreased after prescribed fire but recovered to pre-fire cover or higher one year after fire. Native grass cover decreased after prescribed fire then recovered to pre-burn levels within five years, but never increased over time. The response of native grass to fire (wild and prescribed) was different across time and within management units, but overall native grass declined.” The audience was audibly unhappy with this presentation. One person asked if the speaker was aware of other places where non-native grass was successfully converted to native grass. The speaker chuckled and emphatically said, “NO. I am not aware of any place where native grasses were successfully reintroduced.”
When describing projects that are more destructive than constructive, I put the word “restoration” in quotes. I stand by that choice.
Projects that are truly restorative
Days after responding to this comment, the New York Times published an article about the successful effort to clean up the New York City harbor that deserves to be called a restoration:
“Fifty years ago, Congress voted to override President Richard Nixon’s veto of the Clean Water Act. It has proved to be one of the most transformative environmental laws ever enacted.
“At the time of the law’s passage, hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage was dumped by New York City into the Hudson River every day. This filth was compounded by industrial contaminants emptied into the river along much of its length. The catch basin for all of this was New York Harbor, which resembled an open sewer. At its worst, 10 feet of raw human waste blanketed portions of the harbor bottom, and certain reaches held little or no oxygen to sustain the life of its fishery. Trash floated among oil slicks.
“Health advisories against eating fish from the Hudson remain, but its ecology has largely recovered, thanks to the law, which imposed strict regulations on what could be discharged into the water by sewage treatment plants, factories and other sources of pollution….”
The NYT article also describes how many animal species benefitted from the reduction in pollution in New York City’s harbor.
NYT also published an article about the pollution of the water surrounding Cape Cod that is destroying that ecosystem.
“The algal explosion is fueled by warming waters, combined with rising levels of nitrogen that come from the antiquated septic systems that most of the Cape still uses. A population boom over the past half-century has meant more human waste flushed into toilets, which finds its way into waterways.
“More waste also means more phosphorus entering the Cape’s freshwater ponds, where it feeds cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea and liver damage, among other health effects. It can also kill pets.
“The result: Expanding aquatic dead zones and shrinking shellfish harvests. The collapse of vegetation like eelgrass, a buffer against worsening storms. In the ponds, water too dangerous to touch. And a smell that Ms. Fisher characterizes, charitably, as “earthy.”
“Together, the changes threaten the natural features that define Cape Cod and have made it a cherished destination for generations.”
This an example of the many missed opportunities to restore the environment. Instead of addressing the sources of pollution, such as leaky septic tanks and sewage systems, we invest in projects that contribute to pollution by spraying harmless vegetation with herbicides, killing harmless animals with pesticides and contributing to air pollution by burning vegetation.
Closer to home, the recent torrential rain soaking California is a reminder of our inadequate sewer systems now overflowing from storm drains into city streets and being dumped into the ocean when the drainage gets that far. San Francisco’s antiquated sewage system is an extreme case. When it was built, it funneled storm runoff from city streets into the city’s sewer system, combining residential sewage waste with storm water runoff. When it rains heavily, San Francisco’s sewage system is not capable of treating the increased flow. Such systems have been illegal for decades, but San Francisco has not made the necessary improvements to its sewer system. As the SF Chronicle reports, city streets are now flooded with a toxic mix of rain water and human sewage.
“Restoration” is not a dirty word when used to describe projects that reduce pollution. When projects contribute to pollution they cannot legitimately be called “restorations.”