Taking Steps Towards a Restoration Ethic

by Jamie Sayen

This piece was originally published in Home! A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, copyright 1990.

“This is the irony of our age: hands-on management is needed to restore hands-off wilderness.” — Reed Noss, landscape ecologist.

Since there is nowhere enough wilderness to permit the full mystery of evolution to flourish, we, as a culture, must begin the daunting task of restoring vast tracts of damaged land to a condition where they can begin to re-wild themselves. To speak of ecological restoration by humans of ecosystems and species damaged by humans is to speak in paradoxes. Enter at your own risk. Bring a healthy dose of humility and recognize that you are attempting work that only Mother Earth can properly do. Be not deterred by the apparent absurdity of the task. The alternative is the collapse of the biosphere.

The only option left to us is to begin to live by an ethic that 1) preserves all remaining wildlands; 2) opposes all abuses to global and local ecosystems, including “mitigation;” 3) restores, in an ecologically appropriate manner, large tracts of lands that have suffered from human development; 4) restores human culture to natural succession; and 5) aggressively advocates the above points.

The newly-formed Society for Ecological Restoration and Management (SERM) held its first meeting in Oakland in January…. The SERM conference offers hope for a responsible restoration movement. If SERM avoids becoming mired in bureaucracy, it can become a progressive force in the environmental movement.

At the 1988 Restoring The Earth conference, Michael Fisher, Sierra Club executive director, said the “highest priority” of restoration environmentalists is the preservation of the remaining 10% of wilderness on Turtle Island. “Restore the 90%,” he said, “but not at the expense of the 10%.”

Fisher is rightly concerned that restoration will be used by mitigationists to justify the destruction of the 10%. He also fears that attention to restoration could distract activists from the fight to preserve wildlands….

Preservation and restoration are inseparable. The values at the heart of the preservation movement—the intrinsic value of wildness and biodiversity—are at the heart of an ecologically responsible restoration movement. Preservation is the preventive medicine of restoration….

“There is no such thing as reforestation…. We can’t fix nature…. We can put back pieces and allow nature to heal herself.” — Chris Maser, forester.

The search for appropriate restoration techniques leads to the realm of paradox. In Conservation and Evolution, O.H. Frankel and M.E. Soule write of “our abysmal ignorance of biological processes in complex ecosystems.” With humility and patience, we can gain insights into the mysteries of nature, but our ignorance remains the dominant factor in our efforts “to save the world.”

We must not, however, use ignorance as an excuse for inaction. We must act, but—to avoid the pitfalls of hubris—we must act with acknowledgment of our limits. All the restorationist can do is remove the human-created barriers to the natural healing process and guard against the creation of further barriers. As Don Falk, of the Center for Plant Conservation, in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, said: “It is ourselves we are trying to manage, not nature.”

This attitude rejects the analogy of the ecosystem to a machine. Even a complicated machine can be understood by the human mind. It can be taken apart and reassembled to working order. In contrast, no one can ever fathom the mysteries of natural systems. Numerous conference speakers acknowledged that systems reconstructed by humans are always biologically impoverished relative to similar natural systems, and are always more susceptible to invasions by exotics.

Efforts to recreate or replicate damaged ecosystems can never succeed. Even if we knew all the parts (down to site-specific soil microbes and mycorrhizal fungi), we wouldn’t begin to understand the web of relations. Furthermore, an undisturbed system today is quite different from what it was 100 or 1000 years ago. It may have the same appearance, but changes caused by climate, disturbance, succession, adaptation and evolution change it in ways no historian, archaeologist or ecologist can ever fully know.

The goal of restoration, therefore, must be natural recovery. Remove the destructive forces; restore as many native species, communities, and functions as possible. Collect data on patterns of species and communities, but don’t get bogged down with useless data. Restore natural processes—the spirit of the place—not some static, idealized, pre-settlement condition.

Since the goal of restoration is the health of a system, not merely of any one species, a holistic view is required. Freeman House of the Mattole Restoration Council says his community’s effort to restore salmon in the Mattole River revealed that it was not enough to supplement the salmon population, that the whole habitat must be restored.

Though we cannot know exactly what conditions prevailed in ecosystems before they were damaged, we can identify many critical components. Native and exotic species can be identified (the exotics, at least). In his superb “Recipe for Wilderness Recovery” (Earth First! Journal 9-86), Reed Noss lists sources helpful in determining pre-settlement conditions: ecological literature, historical narratives and photographs, early land surveys, analysis of sediments and mapping, analysis of packrat middens, and study of old growth remnants and of live and dead plant materials.

At the conference, Gary Nabhan described how analysis of packrat middens has helped identify pre-settlement species for Sonoran desert communities going back 20,000 years. By studying the pollen, insects, and small vertebrate bones found in packrat middens, and comparing this inventory with currently existing species, restorationists can begin to reconstruct elements of pre-settlement conditions. Of course, these inventories will necessarily be incomplete, and often difficult to date with precision….

One of the thorniest problems facing a restorationist is the issue of “exotic” genetic stock. Often, species replanted are native to an area, but the genetic stock is non-native (i.e., has grown in a different environment with different species). Constance Millar, a forest geneticist, gave a talk entitled: “Restoration—Disneyland or Native Ecosystem: Genetic Guidelines for Restoration.” Her thesis was that the genetic nature of introduced stock has a profound impact on existing communities.

She explained that Redwood National Park, while still in private ownership, had been aerially reseeded with three native species: Sitka Spruce, Coast Redwood, and Douglas Fir. The seeds had come from Oregon and Washington, and each had been grown in isolation from the other two species. Thus, they were not adapted to the site or the biological conditions of the Park. They were exotics, and the result was the genetic pollution of the native stock. “They were apparently real,” she said, “but were not functionally real….”

Disturbance is another critical factor in any restoration effort. Disturbance (a natural process) differs markedly from disruption (from human activity). Chris Maser, noting that humans disrupt natural disturbances, clarified this distinction: “Nature always allows healing. We don’t.”

When disturbance and disruption are scrambled together, how do we identify the dynamics of the natural disturbance regime for the system under study? How do we reintroduce natural disturbance? How do we restore a natural fire regime? How do we bring in disease?

The issue of disturbance is further complicated by habitat fragmentation and preserves (or restoration projects) that are too small to survive natural disturbances. The Yellowstone fires revealed that even a large National Park is far too small to absorb the impact of a cataclysm like last summer’s fires.

There is pressure on restorationists working with a tiny fragment to minimize disturbance. James MacMahon, a shrublands restorer, observed that “Restorationists tend to prevent at all costs disturbance to their projects.” We need more and larger preserves so that we don’t feel compelled to control natural disturbance….

Mycorrihizae, or “fungus roots,” are critical to the health of soils, plants, and trees. They are especially important to the survival of transplants. They promote rapid growth and increase drought resistance. They weather mineral grains and extract nutrients for their root hosts. They protect their hosts from pathogens.

Clearcuts and herbicides are death to mycorrhizae, and the fungi recover only very slowly. One cause of tropical rainforest decline is the rapid loss of mycorrhizal fungi after cutting.

Though plants can be grown by artificial means, without mycorrhizae, they become addicts, forever dependent on artificial nutrients. Studies have shown that two plants without mycorrhizal fungi interact very negatively, while plants with “fungus roots” interact very positively. Trees in old growth forests, with root systems linked by mycorrhizae, communicate with each other….

Mycorrhizal fungi may be highly site specific, which would imply that genetic adaptations are more local than previously suspected. If this is true, we must save every microenvironment to save biodiversity.


What is the relationship of restorationists to a restoration project? Are we outside the ecosystem, tinkering to repair it? Or are we working to restore human culture into a restored ecosystem? The role of humans in the ecosystem is one of the most divisive issues in the environmental movement.

Despite the malignancy of modem human culture, we are a species related to all other species. The quest to eliminate the malignant elements need not become a mission to eliminate our species. Humans have been a natural part of the system for 99% of our history. Modern human culture, Chris Maser said, is “separating human values from ecological values.” Until we have a social, economic and political culture based on a “biologically sustainable system,” he said, our crisis will worsen.

Stephanie Kaza suggested that the two challenges facing restorationists are repair work and establishment of a new way of relating to the planet. Without the latter, she said, restoration work is “emergency triage….”

In the introductory chapter to Conservation Biology: The Science of Scarcity and Diversity, Michael Soule writes: “Many of the authors also appear to be suggesting that the perennial reluctance of scientists to discuss matters of ethics may imperil the very organisms and processes they hold most dear.”

In the next two decades we could lose the ability to recover 4000 species in the wild in North America. Over 1000 are critically endangered now. Don Falk said that the fates of over one-fifth of the flora in the U.S. are of concern.

As Jasper Carlton has said, “America is dying.” To avert this death, we must work for an Endangered Ecosystem Act, a Biodiversity Act, and a National Biological Preserve System, which system could begin with the lands now mismanaged by the U.S. Forest Service. We must overturn local, state, and federal tax breaks and subsidies for developers.

Finally, we must be guided by an ethic of humility, which acknowledges “our abysmal ignorance.” Can-do optimism is a prescription for furthering the destruction caused by what conservation biologist David Ehrenfeld has aptly called “the arrogance of humanism.”

Instead of attempting to control evolution or create ecosystems, we should work to restore the possibility of the evolutionary dance. We must rely upon the resiliency of Mother Earth, not on our species’ cleverness.

The ultimate goal of restorationists should be to put ourselves out of business.

(First published in Earth First!, May 1, 1989.)

Jamie Sayen is a wilderness preservation advocate and author. He got involved with Earth First! in 1985, and in 1988 he founded Preserve Appalachian Wilderness and Northern Appalachian Restoration Project, both organizations devoted to the protection of wilderness and old-growth forests in northern New England. He served as editor of the journal Glacial Erratic, and has written many articles and several books. Currently, he is a Leadership Council Member for Rewilding Earth.

Liked it? Take a second to support Quinn Collard on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!