The Tricky Politics of Ecological Restoration

The Tricky Politics of Ecological Restoration

The Tricky Politics of Ecological Restoration

A conversation with Laura J. Martin about the Cold War origins of environmental management and her book Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration


In her new book, Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration, environmental historian Laura J. Martin charts the history of a practice devoted to mending damaged ecosystems, which she argues is currently the most important mode of environmental management in the world. Martin, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Williams College, defines ecological restoration as “a mode of reconciliation with the human past.” Her definition encapsulates the way restorationists have had to approach the blurry line between protecting and interfering with the natural environment in response to human action, which has, for the better part of human history, been interchangeable with human harm. Martin offers a timeline of the origin of ecological restoration as a practice and its development into a professional field, in addition to tracing the sometimes surprising choices—some ethical, some aesthetic, and some political—that have determined which species and ecosystems were restored in the United States and why.

The Nation spoke with Martin about the ways that settler colonialism is embedded in ecological restoration, how environmental justice can benefit from concepts key to social justice, and how World War III simulations helped ecologists understand for the first time that environmental damage could be irreversible. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Naomi Elias

Naomi Elias: The boundaries between conservation, preservation, and restoration may seem porous to those unfamiliar with the history of environmentalism in the United States. Can you explain how ecological restoration emerged as its own distinct school of thought for how we should relate to the environment, and why it’s different from the other concepts?

Laura J. Martin Well, today, ecological restoration is the most widespread and important mode of environmental management in the world, but that was not always the case. Restoration didn’t really take off until the 1990s. In the United States, ecological restoration emerged in the early 20th century as an alternative to conservation and preservation. Restorationists argued that it was possible for people to actively increase the number of species in the landscape. This was different from conservation and from preservation in a few ways. For example, the American Bison Society set out to breed bison and to reintroduce them; this was different from preserving land, setting aside land for bison, and hoping they would recover on their own. Restoration was much more interventionist and hands-on and much more concerned with the lives of individual species than preservation, which had more aesthetic concerns.

Restoration also differed from conservation—in fact, it was proposed as an explicit alternative to it. Conservationists during the early 1900s were focused on economically valuable species like salmon and Douglas fir, whereas restorationists were focused on species for their aesthetic and their cultural values. Restorationists were attempting to intervene in the lives of other species, but in a constrained way. And unlike conservationists, they hoped to respect the autonomy of other species. They were less concerned with making money off the sustainable harvesting of commercially valuable species and more concerned with what we now call the ecosystem as a whole.

NE: You point out that it’s a field with a paradoxical purpose: to design wildness. What kinds of issues does this bring up for ecologists?

LM: In Wild by Design, I argue that ecological restoration is distinctive as a mode of environmental management because it simultaneously attempts to intervene in nature and to limit or even hide that intervention. It therefore is trying to strike this balance between an acknowledgement by humans of their role in degrading ecological systems and, simultaneously, an acknowledgement of the otherness or autonomy of nature. Ecological restorationists have grappled with this tension between design and wildness since the inception of ecological restoration in the early 1900s. It’s a thread that I trace through the science and practice of ecological restoration from the turn of the 20th century until today.

We can think of really interesting and important examples that are unfolding today around questions of how to help species cope with climate change. There’s the idea of assisted evolution, for example: trying to breed species or subspecies that are resistant to the effects of climate change, such as ocean acidification. There’s a lot of debate among restorationists about whether this intervention—actually breeding species to match the environmental conditions of climate change—is going too far and is somehow undoing the wildness of that species, or if it’s a necessary intervention in order for species to be able to survive. That’s a more extreme example of the question at hand with any restoration project, which is: How far should people intervene in the lives of other species in order to try and protect them from human harm?

NE: And to go back a little, you argue that the man cited as the sole inventor of ecological restoration, Aldo Leopold, has been mislabeled, and you instead make a case for the women botanists who helped turn the field into what it is today. Can you shed light on their work and why they’re forgotten architects of the field?

LM: Aldo Leopold is often celebrated today as the so-called father of restoration. But Leopold was embedded in a very large network of scientists that included women botanists who were the first scientists to develop methods for cultivating native plant species, which are often tricky to germinate. The Wildflower Preservation Society was a woman-led organization that promoted native plant gardening and conducted experiments on how to pursue plant restoration. One reason that Leopold and other men get credit for the development of restoration in the United States today is that men in the Ecological Society of America arranged a hostile takeover of the Wildflower Preservation Society in 1924, explicitly arguing that it was too radical to have women in scientific leadership positions. One of my discoveries in doing the archival research for this book is that the number of people who were involved in developing both the concepts of restoration and the practices of restoration in the United States was much broader than I initially imagined, [because of] this dominant narrative that exists that restoration was dreamt up by a very small number of men.

NE: Can you explain how American restoration techniques and philosophies were shaped by US government policy over the years?

LM: Restoration predates the field of ecology and the term “ecology” by decades. Ecology began in the United States in the 1910s. It didn’t really take off as a scientific discipline until the 1960s, really, but that does not mean that people were not pursuing what we would now call ecological research and ecological restoration. I begin Wild by Design with the argument that the American Bison Society cared less about bison than they did about securing control of land with white settlers. The first wildlife restoration sites in the United States were established on Indian reservation land that the federal government was systematically dismantling under the Dawes Act as part of a broader campaign to erode Native American sovereignty. These are the sites that would become what is now the National Wildlife Refuge System.

So here, restoration was quite explicitly a settler colonial project: It really was about white settlement and not about the species. We see that influence of settler colonialism throughout the history of ecological restoration in the United States. Another example is that in 1963, ecologists recommended to the Department of the Interior that they manage national parks in order to preserve or even to re-create the ecological scene as first viewed by European visitors. The explicit purpose of this management was to create a landscape, to create an ecosystem, that appeared as though it had never been colonized but that was eminently colonizable, kind of capturing this moment of colonization very explicitly. Restoration in this context was meant to undo the ecological harms of settler colonialism, but not its social or its political wrongs.

You can see in the phrasing of this recommendation, known as the Leopold Report—named after Leopold’s son, who was involved in writing this report for the Department of the Interior—that they’re very explicitly imagining that the visitors to national parks are white people who are going to imagine themselves in the role of colonizer. So we really see this continuation of the ways in which settler colonialism is embedded within visions for future ecological restoration in the United States.

NE: One of the book’s revelations is that the restoration field owes a debt to US weapons development during the Cold War. Why was that a tentpole moment for ecological restoration?

LM: This was one of the archival discoveries in the book that most surprised me. It’s little remembered today, but the US Atomic Energy Commission was the main funder of ecology from the beginning of World War II through the early 1970s, when it was eclipsed by the National Science Foundation. There’s a few reasons for that. As the United States was developing its nuclear arsenal, the military was interested in whether weapons production or weapons detonation had any impacts on the environment. This was an unknown, unanswered question. Before the partial test ban treaty, the United States detonated 215 aboveground and underwater nuclear weapons in the colonized Marshall Islands. Ecologists were sent to the islands in order to attempt to document the effect of these weapons on nonhuman species, whereas other scientists, like doctors and engineers, were asked to document the effects of these weapons on people and on infrastructure. Ecologists in this research developed the concept of bioaccumulation: the idea that pollutants concentrate as they move up the food web.

This atomic ecology is what led to the development of the ecosystem concept. Ecologists followed radioisotopes as they moved between species and within a food web, and they started to see species interconnections in a new way and to refer to that group of species as an ecosystem. Whereas military planners were thinking about the effects of weapons on the unit of the city or the unit of the warship, ecologists were thinking about the effects of weapons—and, later, the effects of other pollutants and the effects of climate change—on the unit of the ecosystem.

One of the questions I was really interested in while writing the book is: What is the historical moment at which ecologists and other scientists stopped seeing all forms of ecological harm as reversible? When did they start to think about irreversible ecological change? This was a difficult-to-answer question. Throughout most of the 20th century, scientists believed that nature could heal itself as soon as a damaging action ceased—whether it was logging, or plowing, or other forms of environmental change, ecologists imagined that as soon as humans stopped doing those things, the ecosystem would heal itself. But there’s this rupture at some point in the 1960s where ecologists started talking about irreversible harm to the environment.

And, of course, this is a concept that’s very familiar to us today in the discourse around persistent pollutants and the discourse around climate change. We can imagine a lot of examples where human-caused environmental changes are at such a great scale or so unprecedented that they would cause irreversible harm to a species or to an entire ecosystem. In Wild by Design, I pinpoint this rupture as occurring at the moment when ecologists were asked by military planners to scenario-plan for World War III. Through these World War III simulations, in which ecologists actually irradiated entire forests in order to study the effects of a large-scale nuclear attack on nonhuman species, ecologists began to talk about the idea that an ecosystem can be damaged above a threshold at which it is so changed that it cannot restore itself.

What continued to haunt the discipline of ecology even after the end of the Cold War was not the blunt possibility of global annihilation, but the subtler specter of irreversible ecological change. Ecologists were converging on the view that humans might make it so that ecosystems could no longer repair themselves because of large-scale disturbances, whether those were nuclear weapons detonations or deforestation, pollution, or climate change. And so, in this world of irreparable harm that ecologists envisioned, the human management of ecosystems would by necessity be ongoing.

NE: You issue a warning about how ecological restoration has become increasingly “corporatized and consolidated, rather than democratic and locally focused.” What are the dangers of this direction it’s taking, and how can the field right itself?

LM: It’s my hope that Wild by Design will spark conversations about how to coexist with other species and how to do so in a way that foregrounds human social justice. To care best for the worlds that we live in and the species that we live with, we must design the wild with an eye toward human justice. A good example of the ethical and social complexity of ecological restoration is today’s forestry-based carbon-offsetting market, which is one mode of ecological restoration that is being pursued at a very large corporate scale. The idea behind carbon offsetting is that emissions generated in one location can be offset by removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere somewhere else—through tree planting, for example. Today, the major voluntary carbon-offset purchasers include the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Sweden, whereas the major offset-producing countries include Peru, Brazil, Kenya, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, and Indonesia. So it’s not difficult to see offsetting as a form of carbon colonialism. It’s a method of appropriating land in the Global South for use by the Global North.

The international carbon-offsetting market has its roots in American wetlands policy and regulation. Understanding this history is essential to designing a new mode of ecological restoration that is aligned with the goals of the environmental justice movement. Rather than separating nature from culture, restorationists must ask who benefits from a restoration project and who is harmed by it, as well as who gets to decide where and how restoration will occur.

And despite spending a lot of time in the book on the problematic history of ecological restoration, I do think that ecological restoration is a practice of hope. It has a lot of potential to reconcile the human and the nonhuman, or culture and nature. It’s a practice in which people think through how to best intervene in nonhuman worlds in a way that foregrounds the needs of those other species. It’s a practice that also thinks about the relationship between science and art as well. Since the early 20th century, restoration ecologists have been thinking about their science as a design practice, as an art, as a way of making a mark on the world—but a mark that is restrained, and one that is less about the individual’s authorship and the individual’s creativity and more about helping other species.

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