Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Restoring Nature to...What? by Moderator Scott Weidensaul

[Discussion Topic: Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul] View Readers' Comments

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
(©Scott Weidensaul)
The discussion over the past week has been enjoyable and gratifying. When I accepted the offer to moderate the WILD READ discussion, I wasn't sure what the response would be, and it's been wonderful to get the varied perspectives and experiences that everyone's been adding to the mix.

I'd like to shift the discussion a bit, though, and focus on a subject that's been mentioned a few times in the past week, as well as in previous months on this blog – the subject of ecological restoration.

"If the East is to have wilderness it must restore it," Roger Tory Peterson wrote in Wild America, while he and Fisher were traveling down the Blue Ridge in 1953. "The second growth now thirty, forty or fifty years old, which clothes the Shenandoahs, will, while our sons are alive, become trees eighty, ninety, or one hundred years old. Our grandsons may see a forest approaching climax."

But that was about all the two naturalists wrote about restoration; mostly their discussion of wilderness concerned celebrating the existing pieces, and saving those areas still under threat – like a passage that had always puzzled me, reading Wild America when I was younger.

Old clearcut, Lower Hoh River,
Olympic Peninsula  (©Scott Weidensaul)
"It would be criminal if we allowed the saw the freedom on Olympic park; the Park belongs to all Americans, and not to a few to make a profit from," Peterson wrote. Well, obviously; that's why commercial logging is banned from national parks, isn't it?

But not until I dug deeper during my own time in the Pacific Northwest did I learn that this was a well-aimed barb at the park's infamous mismanagement during those days. Starting in 1941, loggers were allowed to remove 100 million board-feet of lush, old-growth forest from Olympic National Park – a loss driven by misplaced patriotism, private greed and abetted by park managers who took an extraordinarily liberal view of "salvage" logging. Only after growing protests, including those of Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas, did the wholesale cutting end in 1958.

Alpine meadow, Olympic National Park
(©Scott Weidensaul)
Today, of course, Olympic National Park is 95 percent federally designated wilderness, but from the high country you can still see how the lowland rain forests where some of the mightiest trees on the planet once grew have been chewed up for kindling – forests that, but for political chicanery, rapacity and short-sightedness would have been included in the park, or better protected once they were.

Unlike the fast-growing hardwoods of the East, those cut-over conifer stands will not recover in many spans of human life. But restoration can take many forms, and one of the most exciting river restoration projects in the country got underway this past autumn in Olympic. The Elwah and Glines Canyon dams on the Elwah River are being simultaneously removed, restoring free flow to the largest watershed in the park. (There's a National Park Service blog about the removal, which will take three years.)

The strong, fast-flowing Elwah was an anadromous fish paradise, home to steelhead, sea-run cutthroats, coho, chum, sockeye and pink salmon, and spring and summer runs of the some of the largest chinook salmon in the world, sometimes exceeding 100 pounds. Although the sockeyes are probably extinct, there are a few Elwah spring-run chinooks left, and once the dams are gone, more than 70 miles of spawning river will be available to them instead of the meager five miles they've had since the dam went in more than a century ago.

The payoff may be immense – in terms of a healthier river, robust salmon runs (which the NPS estimates could reach 390,000 fish a year); cultural rejuvenation for members of the Lower Elwah Klallam whose lives traditionally revolved around the salmon; and subtle but crucial changes to the forest ecosystem within the park, which historically benefited from the annual influx of marine nutrients brought deep into the interior by the spawning, dying salmon.

Ecological restoration was a theme I was able to visit again and again in Return to Wild America. Dam removal is just one aspect of this movement, and one that's been gaining momentum in the 12 years since the Edwards Dam on the lower Kennebec River in Maine was torn down – the first time a federal license was revoked for ecological reasons. (Last year, almost 3 million alewives migrated up the steadily healthier Kennebec.)

Thousands of dams have been removed across the country, or are slated for removal. Most are small low-head dams on tributary streams, but many are big; the same time the Elwah project got underway, the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Washington State was breached in a single, breathtaking blast. (This time-lapse video of the breach is spectacular and worth watching.)

But whether it's the troubled restoration of the Everglades ecosystem, the creation of a 250-mile-long wildlife corridor of restored thornscrub forest along the lower Rio Grande in Texas (now jeopardized by the ill-conceived and politically expedient border wall), or grander plans for "continental rewilding" through protected core areas, corridors and the reintroduction of apex predators articulated by Michael Soulé, Reed Noss, David Foreman and others, it's clear that we're willing to dream big dreams of ecological restoration. But as we do, there is a central question that must be answered: Restoration to what?

Traditionally, the goal of any ecological restoration project has been a return to a pre-European condition – the "wilderness" condition, it has always been assumed, that existed before about 1600 A.D. But ecologists have come to belatedly realize that there hasn't been a humanless landscape – therefore, a true "wilderness" landscape – anywhere in the western hemisphere for a very, very long time. In that light, 1600 A.D. seems like and increasingly arbitrary target.

This has really come into focus for me over the past six years, as I've been working on a book that is just now hitting the shelves – The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery and Endurance in Early America. (And I apologize for the shameless promotion.) As you can tell from the title, it's not a nature book, but a straight human history of the 250 years leading up to the close of the Seven Years' War in the 1760s.

'The Manner of Their Fishing," John White 1585
 (Library of Congress)
Still, as a naturalist I was filtering everything I read and researched through the prism of my passion for the natural world. Whether it was the ecological transitions that followed the retreat of continental glaciers 12,000 years ago, the sweeping megafaunal extinctions, or new anthropological, linguistic, genetic and archaeological research that is pushing the arrival of humans in the western hemisphere back at least 16,000 years (and perhaps as far as 30,000 years), the picture is one of constant change and a pervasive human footprint.

I'm not suggesting my epiphany was anything revolutionary – many scientists have been reshaping our view of pre-Columbian America for years. But it is one thing to read the dry estimates in scholarly journals of precolonial Native populations in North America as high as 18 million, and another to read the first-hand accounts of early explorers like John Smith, sailing in 1614 from Monhegan Island in Maine to Cape Cod along the coast of what he dubbed "New-England."

Smith raved that is was, "of all the foure parts of the world I have seen," the place he would prefer to live. "The country of the Massachusits," he said, was the "Paradise of all those parts."

Except for one problem. Everywhere he sailed, the coast "shewes you all along large Corne fields, and great troupes of well-proportioned people." Again and again, his accounts stress the large Indian population  he encountered - and it wasn't just Smith. In 1524, for instance, Giovanni da Verrzano sailed into Narragansett Bay and reported meadows and corn fields extending seventy-five miles from the bay, "open and free of any obstacles and trees."

Smith, rounding what is now Cape Ann and Gloucester Harbor, gushed over the location – "not much inferior," he said, "(for) anything I could perceive but the multitude of people." (Emphasis added.)

Again and again, European explorers groused about what must have seemed a divine joke – Providence having led them to a rich new land, but one so thickly settled that finding a colonial toehold would be difficult or impossible.

Then, of course, "Providence" changed the rules. Those initial contacts sparked the greatest pandemics the world has ever seen, which were especially horrific during "the Great Dying" that swept the northeastern seaboard in the early 17th century. By the reckoning of scholars like Henry Dobyns, these so-called virgin soil epidemics may have swept away more than 95 percent of Indian populations in a few years, leaving the land depopulated and ripe for colonization.

Just five years after Smith found the coast packed with people, Thomas Dermer visited the same area and found only "some antient Plantations, not long since populous but now utterly void." In 1623, Christopher Levett founded the settlement of York, Maine, on "good ground, and much of it already cleared, fit for planting or corne and other fruits, having heretofore ben planted by the Salvages who are all dead."

Beyond the immense loss of life, this must have also had tremendous impacts on the ecology of the emptied regions. The great swaths of the Northeast had been maintained as open grassland or shrubland by fire, which is why the heath hen, the eastern subspecies of the great prairie-chicken, was common from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. (Not everyone buys the notion of pervasive Native use of fire; Foster and Motzkin 2003 is one work from this contrary view.)

Still, because these pandemics swept deeper and deeper into the interior, it's inescapable that as the land emptied of people it became, in every meaningful sense, wilder. The collapse of the great urban-based, agriculturally supported chiefdoms in the south, the palisaded towns along the tidewater and major river valleys of the mid-Atlantic, and the largely hunter-gatherer (with some seasonal gardening) cultures of the Northeast, all were decimated. Many of the interior cultures, like those in the Alleghenies west through the Ohio River valley, were essentially extinct before Europeans ever set foot in the region.

You can make a strong argument that the period from about 1620 through the 1740s was the least inhabited – and therefore the wildest – that had existed in this area for thousands of years.

So where does that leave ecological restoration? What are the targets we should be setting for ourselves? Do we want to recreate – to the extent that landscapes and historical extinctions allow – an echo of a particular period in North American history? And if so, should the goal be the era before European colonization and the Great Dying, or something more distant and more exotic, like the notion of Pleistocene rewilding – trying to recreate a megafaunal ecosystem that mimics the function, if not the exact appearance, of what existed before the last great extinction ending 4,000 years ago?

What do you think?


Jason said...

Great blog entry with lots of great information which should bring some excellent discussion - looking forward to it.
My thought on the questions posed is this. I have a small issue with the word restore, perhaps it is just semantics, but I'd prefer to use re-imagine. As you very clearly state - if/when we restore, how do we chose the when or state to restore to? I think by using our knowledge of historical facts and effects, using our excellent science of the day, and using our techniques of modeling for the future with regards to climate change etc. - we should re-imagine wild areas that may need our help, into wild areas that can sustain themselves and possibly flourish in the world we know we have now and most likely will have in years to come. This seems much more hopeful and honestly, likely to work, than trying to restore to a time or status in the past that frankly... is past.

Mark LaRoux said...

I think what you are really asking is not what's wild about the land, the environment and what it contains, but what's wild about US...the 'multitude of people' that are now here. And more to the point, this discussion can't happen without addressing the inevitable word that accompanies the WILD READ, "America's". It's not Europe...not Africa...not Asia. (Thank God)
The natives that came here before us, regardless of origin, had to become different people to survive. Those that didn't change, didn't make it (after several generations). You can change the landscape all you want, but the land will inevitably tell YOU what you are, how wild, mild or coralled we are. If we are to become just another Europe (or Africa or Asia), just another land with people that endlessly breed, argue, and leave it to their kids to resolve their defiencies, then what's the use? (No seventh generation thinking?) What's different about our opportunity? I think in the end we need to at least save all the pieces of the puzzle, even if every generation has a different answer to this question. Rewilding is better than 'not rewilding' as it gives us options for the future. Not rewilding gives us....another Europe eventually. We've been there, done that. No thanks! (No offense to any non-Americas reading)
For 500 years, we've had this 'experiment of the Ego' that has allowed a few to profit from a common loss through land 'ownership'. The few profiting is not that unusual, both here and on other continents. The enormous common loss isn't really seen for generations unless you look closely. We cover it with whatever 'cause du jour' we have for the time. We are distracted by media, work, history (repeating the mistakes in a new way), 'life'...anything to keep us from looking ahead.
If looked at as an 'exchange of resources' then rewilding is a fantastic opportunity, a new currency if you will, that allows nature to pay a debt to the land. All the bills are needed to make the small change needed. The 100's (super/apex predators) 50's (meso-prdators, large herbivores) 20's 10's 5's....even the small change down to the pennies (earthworms?) is necessary for this economy. Witness a grizzly bear eating moths on a mountain or a hellbender searching for rare crayfish in a cave. We owe the land even more than our 'national debt'. We owe it our lives...our future, at least for now.
I'd like to think we keep our 'bills' in order, for when a debt needs repaying, but I'm not so sure.

Scott Weidensaul said...

Thanks to Jason and Mark for jumping in right away...I want to pick out a couple of threads from each of their comments.

Mark noted that, "The enormous common loss isn't really seen for generations unless you look closely." That's absolutely correct; each generation sets a new normal, which traditionally has traced a long, downward trajectory.

I mentioned last week what a devastating personal blow the loss of the American chestnut was to my great-grandfather, who in his last years often spoke about the joy of Sunday nutting expeditions with his family when he was a kid around 1900 – how each of the boys had their own smooth, curved "nut stick" that they'd fling into the treetops to bring down a rain of prickly hulls and sweet kernels.

So from an early age I knew – better than most people and certainly most kids – that we'd lost something precious, and I still can't pass a clump of chestnut sprouts rising from the rootstock of a blight-killed tree that my great-grandfather may have known without a spasm of grief and a slender hope for the future. But for all that, the loss of the chestnut is still mostly an academic or intellectual one for me.

For my great-grandfather, the academic loss was the passenger pigeon; he undoubtedly heard stories from the old-timers about the autumn flocks, which still came through eastern Pennsylvania as late as the 1870s, but which he never saw. And my nephew, now 17 and an ardent outdoorsman, has never known the feel of a lush, healthy eastern hemlock forest, the way the green filtered light has an under-the-sea feel to it; not long before his birth, the hemlock woolly adelgid slammed this part of the world, killing many of the biggest hemlocks outright, and leaving the survivors wan and gray, partially defoliated and ghosts of what they once were. To him, the hemlocks will be an academic loss.

I love Jason's notion of reimagining vs. restoration – I think it perfectly captures both the inherently imperfect approach we have to accept in any restoration effort, working as we are with broken tools and pieces that are forever missing, as well as the excitement of trying to create something that is at once an echo of the past and a promise of a better, more diverse future.

And when I talk about "new normals," the trajectory isn't always downward. I was reminded of this last month when I did a talk for a local bird club. During the business meeting that preceded the program, the club president asked for recent sightings, and one of the local birders got up.

"Jane and I were down at Conowingo this morning," Leon said, referring to Conowingo Dam on the lower Susquehanna. "We had 232 bald eagles – it's not much, I know, but it was still fun."

Leon gave me a sly wink as he sat down, because he was making both a joke and a dead-serious statement. Two hundred and thirty-two bald eagles isn't that remarkable a count at Conowingo these days – twice that number is a possibility in winter, when the bird congregate below the dam tailrace to feed on fish caught in the hydro turbines. But he and I both remember all too well when seeing any bald eagle was a rarity...


Scott Weidensaul said...


...In the late 1960s and early '70s, when I formed my ideas of what "normal" meant in the central Appalachians, bald eagles were a prize, ravens were almost unheard of except in the wildest corners of the mountains, and seeing a turkey flock was something you bragged about at school. (If you bragged about seeing a bear, no one believed you.)

Today, there are ravens nesting on the superstructure of Beaver Stadium in State College, on the exterior ladders of electrical generation smokestacks and within sight of the state capitol. The bear population has increased 10-fold since my high school graduation to almost 20,000, and by the 1980s wild turkeys had recolonized every county of the state, including a few within the city limits of Philadelphia. Nor did they stop there. Turkeys now account for more crop damage complaints than deer, and according to the latest breeding bird atlas, turkey numbers jumped nearly 400 percent in the past 20 years.

I don't mean to suggest these isolated bright spots outweigh the losses, but they show that "normal" can be quickly redefined in both directions.

Mark LaRoux said...

Yep, so the native Americans, red wolves, and the American chestnuts learned the same genetic lesson: being a 'mutt' has it's uses...survival of a quarter or an eighth, even a sixteenth (or less) is better than not surviving. The Pleistocene rewilding you referenced would be wholly appropriate for the U.S.-they are mostly refugees, just of a different species.

Joe Z. said...

This discussion cuts across many of the aspects of restoration that I see occurring here in New Mexico. There are many programs and activities that occur here under the name "restoration." In many, if not most cases, the term restoration is not well defined; however, there is a general sense that we are "doing good things." Activities occurring under the name restoration include forest thinning, non-native plant removal, re-vegetation, stream bank stabilization, and erosion control among other things. These typically have prescribed management goals to improve wildlife habitat, reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, improve surface water quality, and re-establish proper hydrologic function to steams and rivers. In some cases, these activities look at historical evidence or plant genetics to help determine the condition of an area at some "pre-settlment" time. In other cases, they seek to re-establish ecosystem functions that will sustain some desired natural condition. The practice of of forest thinning followed by prescribed burns is among the most interesting of these.

Scott's essay and the comments of others here speak well to the issues that surround the definition of restoration. A rather loose or broad definition of restoration is included in the many government sponsored programs that fund these activities. These include the US Forest Service's Collaborative Restoration Program and its Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, along with the Bureau of Land Management's Restore New Mexico program.

In some ways, restoration has become a "feel good" term that has brought people and groups who have long been at odds with one another together to address common concerns -- think Wild Earth Guardians, the US Forest Service, and loggers. These collaborations help build relationships and trust, which bodes well for future endeavors aimed at repairing and protecting our natural heritage. This trust may be a fragile thing though. Restoration could easily become code for returning to unsustainable forestry practices under the guise of forest fuel reduction. Restoration could likewise be used inappropriately to close the forest to many local, traditional practices based on a desire to enhance some recreational activities for a narrow constituency.

I think we need to realize that, regardless of the definitions and goals of restoration, the results will forever require a certain level of management or stewardship -- the lands we restore will never again be truly wild, but they will hopefully be better off for our efforts. When we come together as a community to achieve these goals, we also become better off as a society.

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