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.
The Mattole River runs coastwise south to north for 64 miles through a wrinkle in the North American crust formed as the Pacific plate collides with it and dives, pushing up the King Range. Just to the north is Cape Mendocino, California’s westernmost point, where the Japanese and California ocean currents meet. Under the sea near the mouth of the Mattole, three fault lines meet to form the Triple Junction, the most seismically active spot in the state. The coast road from San Francisco to Portland takes a major detour around this rough terrain; it’s an hour from any major highway to most parts of the Mattole. Redwoods grow in its fog-washed headwaters, a rich mixture of Douglas fir and hardwoods elsewhere. Of the 2000 or so people living here now, some two-thirds of them have migrated here in the last twenty years as large sheep and cattle ranches have been subdivided into homesteads.
In the late seventies, a few people began to observe that the native Mattole king salmon population was diminishing in an alarming way. In recent memory it had been the local custom to gather the few large fish it took to make a winter’s supply from a migration that arrived each November and December in seemingly limitless numbers. Now only the hardiest of outlaws was gaining occasional protein this way. The Mattole run was one of the last purely native “races” of salmon in California, largely because the river was so remote that the state Department of Fish and Game (DFG) had never gotten around to stocking it with hatchery fish. Salmon runs play a large and dramatic part of the spectacle of life in valleys where salmon run. Their value as food only begins to justify the depth of feeling that some people have for them. People who wouldn’t dream of eating them get moon-eyed at spawning time and will sit quietly in a drizzle for longer than is reasonable in order to see one jump. It became vitally important to some people in the Mattole valley to attempt to reverse the decline. It was important in terms of maintaining this most visible celebration of the mosaic of wild life in the valley, and it was important to maintain this remnant of genetic diversity for the health of all Pacific salmon. The creature response was to take it on, to attempt to puzzle it through, to learn whatever needs to be learned in order for the people who lived in the valley to do what was necessary to make the king salmon population viable once more.
The few people who undertook this challenge made up for their small numbers with a large name—the Mattole Watershed Salmon Support Group. They were flying in the face of the common wisdom of the time, which was laced with despair. In the two decades between 1950 and 1970, something more than three quarters of the Douglas fir and redwood trees which held the slopes in place had been cut for timber. A disastrous amount of bare soil had been exposed to a disastrous amount of rainfall. Starting in the flood year of 1955, huge amounts of hillside began to slide into the river system, a process which continues as much as twenty-five years after the original disturbance, as root wads rot and cease to lend their tensile strength to steep slopes. Deep pools and channels in the river had filled up with silt; the river jumped its banks, taking out whole stands of riparian growth which had shaded and cooled the water.
The clean gravels that salmon require for spawning and the deep pools the young fish needed to grow in were gone, and anyone with eyes for it could see the destruction in the new broad and cobbled floodplains where farmland had been in the lower stretches of the river. This was the source of the despair: the processes that had been cut loose by the too-rapid deforestation of the basin were apparently too huge to be engaged by humans with fragile limbs and frugal means. Most people were willing to ride out their assumption that nothing much could be done. If we were willing to make fools of ourselves, we would be given the opportunity, but not much else.
The salmon group worked from the assumption that no one was better positioned to take on the challenge than the people who inhabited the place. Who else had the special and place-specific information that the locals had? Who else could ever be expected to care enough to work the sporadic hours at odd times of the night and day for little or no pay?
Working symptomatically, we discovered a low-tech decentralized tool in the streamside incubator used previously in British Columbia and Alaska, which treated the problem of silted-in gravels by imitating the ideal natural situation. These incubator systems—or hatchboxes, as we were quick to call them—fed filtered water from the client creek through select clean gravels in a box the size of a pickup truck toolbox and were located in a creek-neighbor’s yard. Cheap to build, without moving parts or external sources of power required, the hatchboxes proved to be relatively trouble free. They could accommodate as many as 30,000 fertilized eggs and consistently deliver a better than 80% egg-to-fry survival rate—compared to less than 15% survival in the mud-stricken river.
If we were to maintain the native adaptations of the populations we were hoping to enhance, we would have to take our eggs from native stock in the wild, rather than accept eggs from another watershed or from homogenized hatchery stock. It was around this idea that we first began to encounter official resistance to the notion of locals and non-professionals dealing directly with nature. It was difficult for DFG to break precedent and allow non-licensed civilians to put a net or a trap in fresh water, a procedure heretofore strictly forbidden to non-agency personnel; and even more difficult for some (but not all) agency-employed biologists to accept the possibility that non-credentialed locals might be able to handle some of the field work that had been their province only. There was one point in our negotiations when one of the more stiff-necked wildlife managers was insisting that we needed a fisheries biologist to drive any truck transporting live fish. Our quest for legitimacy finally took us to the office of then Secretary for California Resources, Huey Johnson. Huey took a chance on us. A year and a half after we had first approached the state, we were ready to put away our briefcases and put on chestwaders.
When they leave the Mattole for the open sea in the late spring or early summer of their first year, it takes as many as 200 king salmon to make up a pound of salmon flesh. When they return as adults after spending three to five years in the Pacific, one fish often exceeds twenty pounds and an occasional one may approach forty pounds of muscle, will, and utterly exotic intelligence. We had arrived at an agreement with the state which allowed us to capture twenty female salmon, each one carrying three to five thousand eggs, and enough males to fertilize them. The spawners run up river in mid-winter, preferring the obscurity of muddied, rising water, the obscurity of night. A trap and weir close off the river, but only temporarily. Once the waters rise to a certain point, the structures must be moved out of the channel or they will be washed away. Once trapped, the salmon must be moved to safety and held until the eggs are ripe and ready for fertilization.
To enter the river and attempt to bring this strong creature out of its own medium alive and uninjured is an opportunity to experience a momentary parity between human and salmon, mediated by slippery rocks and swift currents. Vivid experiences between species can put a crack in the resilient veneer of the perception of human dominance over other creatures. Information then begins to flow in both directions, and we gain the ability to learn: from salmon, from the landscape itself.
The first thing we learned from salmon was the importance of the watershed as a unit of perception. If salmon organize themselves so clearly by watershed, wouldn’t it make sense for us to organize our efforts similarly? Salmon are not only creatures of unique watersheds, adapted so that generation after generation responds to the timing and flow of utterly specific rivers and tributaries— but they are also dependent on watershed processes in general. During their reproductive time in fresh water, salmon live at the top of the aquatic food chain, but at the bottom, so to speak, of fluvial and geological processes. The success of incubation depends on the availability of river bottom gravels free of fine sediments. The survival of juveniles depends on the presence of cold deep pools cut down to bedrock.
In the Pacific Coast Range, new mountains are still rising out of the ocean bottom at the rate of two to four meters per millennium, and the soft sea silts have rarely had time to metamorphose into competent rock which might stay in place against the winter storms which are washing most of the uplift back to sea. A ten year storm combined with any one of the frequent earthquakes which informs this coast can cause a landslide which will change the course of the river and alter the pattern of salmon reproduction for several human generations. Combine these conditions of the fundament with a ranching technology that requires a few hundred feet of dirt road for every head of stock; with a timber economy that makes it cheapest to build a road to every tree and remove all vegetation from the slopes; with a homestead ethic that can rationalize miles of benchcut road to protect the privacy of each and every American home, and you have a recipe for the kind of catastrophic impacts we were observing.
To nurture the health and natural provision of the wild salmon population, the salmon were telling us, we were going to have to understand them as an integral part of the habitat, and that habitat extends all the way to the ridgelines above us, and includes the human settlements. In order to address the aquatic habitat, we would need to keep the topsoils on the slopes where they could grow forests and rangeland ecosystems, meat and vegetables, and out of the streams, where they killed fish. We would need to attempt to reduce the amount of silt entering the riverine system each year to below the amount which winter flows were able to flush out. Above all, as humans, we needed to learn to take our meat and wood in ways that didn’t cancel out the potential for natural provision and other relationships within our own habitat. Finally, the salmon were telling us, what was good for them was good for us. Both species benefit from healthy watersheds and an extended sense of commonality. “Ladies and gentlemen,” they were saying, “please, let’s get serious about this business of coevolution.”
Bioregionally, there might be a number of ways to define “your” part of the planet—physiographic areas, the ranges of species of plants and animals, climatic zones, human language groups. In terms of psychological comfort, scale and appropriateness enter into the equation. Efforts to define and embrace ecological responsibilities, either in individual or social terms, can be most successfully undertaken in the context of specific places. The human organism demands, finally, that its intuitions and ideas become embodied through physical perception, and the landscape surrounding generally offers us our only proof of our immersion in biospheric life. In our case, the range and requirements of a particular race of salmon had defined a context for our efforts, and the 306- square-mile watershed of the Mattole offered a scale in the range of the possible. If the experience of the whole place remained beyond the perception and understanding of any one person, the drainage divided itself into more than sixty tributaries, many of which were home to groups or individuals interested in the demands of stewardship, and interested too in the possibilities of an identity extended beyond parcel boundaries.
The attempt to engage ourselves with a salmon run shifted almost at once from a symptomatic, technical-mechanical approach to a systemic, multi-leveled, ecological approach. Focusing on the crisis of another species had boomeranged into the need to take a close look at our own social organizations and economic activities. This latter was no new insight, of course. The same conclusions had been reached by everyone from the United Nations to Earth First! The difference was the conviction that, through engaging the fundamental processes of a particular place, we might discover the appropriate models for our own activities and organization. Adopting the conceit that our restoration and enhancement projects would hasten the process of watershed recovery, those same projects might be the very means by which we learned what we needed to know in order to live integrated lives in living places.
What easy rhetoric! What facile promises! The long list of skills required for the task quickly turned our leap of consciousness into a scramble for data. But to my surprise and pleasure, much of the expertise we thought we lacked would be found among the two thousand plus people already living in the watershed. Some of my fondest memories are of whole days spent once a month by twelve to twenty people, training ourselves for the initial job of inventorying salmonid habitat.
A consulting biologist living on Blue Slide Creek gave us lectures on Odumesque energy budgets that were full of sunlight, nearly understandable, and wholly inspirational. A self-trained naturalist gave us descriptions of mychorrizal relationships so rhapsodic that some of us fell in love. When the information we needed wasn’t available in the neighborhood, we never had to go far to find a helpful technician: biologists from the DFG, a geomorphologist from the Forest Service, and most especially geologists and hydrologists from Redwood National Park, that planet-class laboratory in landscape rehabilitation only a hundred miles away. The agencies proved rich in this kind of talent, and were sometimes cooperative to the point of dipping into small public relations budgets to send their people our way during working hours. Often, too, the scientists showed up on weekends, anxious to share and test their ideas in the field.
Most of the skills we needed were gained more by experience than training or education. For all the headiness of ecological relationships and hydrological theories, for all the stretched mental landscapes of geological time, when it comes right down to engaging watershed recovery processes, you’ll most often find yourself with a shovel in your hand or in conversation with a backhoe operator. The great days of the worker-owned treeplanting co-ops were past, diminished by hostile legislation, but some of the workers were still around, and no one is better fitted to organize a large-scale treeplanting or to take on the risks and intricacies of a government planting contract.
As the physical effort grew, with crews engaging in salmon enhancement and habitat repair and erosion control and reforestation, the need arose for a new sort of organization based on watershed priorities. This structure would need, on one level, to serve the interests of various factions among the human community interested in engaging recovery, including groups organized around specific tributaries, groups organized around jobs, land trusts, and schools and civic groups devoted only peripherally to land-based issues. The larger need, however, was to invent a process for developing a shared perception of the real ecological parameters of the riverine watershed, to make long range plans, to make consensual decisions about projects and, increasingly, to take positions on complex issues.
Which should be approached first—the accumulated sediments choking the estuary, or the new sediments being introduced upstream?
(Answer so far: both.)
If habitat recovery can’t be monitored, how many additional fish should we be introducing?
(As many as we can without violating our general guideline of closely imitating natural processes.)
Knowing that less than ten percent of the original forest complex remains uncut, should we risk assuming a high moral ground we have no way of implementing? Call for a moratorium on the logging of ancient forests and risk alienating the largest private landowners in the watershed?
The Mattole Restoration Council was formed to serve these ends, a consensual council with thirteen member groups at this writing. Monthly meetings rarely manage to remain serene deliberations on the ecological parameters of the basin, however. The Council has, over the years, arrived at a position which recognizes the need for localized ecological reserves, based on the perception that genetic diversity is more site-specific than is generally assumed, and on the exact knowledge of how little of the original forest and range complex is left. At the same time, the Council embraces a vision of the most desirable future wherein productive lands stay in production: forests continuing to produce timber and fisheries, rangeland continuing to provide forage, stabilized agricultural lands producing farm products.
The need for reserves outrages industrial timberland owners, and the desire for an economically productive landbase over which local residents maintain some control makes environmentalists jumpy. Often the Council finds itself in the ambivalent position of monitoring and resisting the tendency of industry and government agencies to harvest every mature tree at the same time that it is participating in a statewide attempt to invent a set of sustainable and restorative forest practices. Either one of these processes will eat up a lot of volunteer time, and they present themselves over and above the Council’s stated goals of supporting a certain level of active rehabitation work, of attempting to meet contract deadlines and, importantly, of developing and distributing the baseline information we need if we are to engage our watershed in a manner which restores it to previous levels of health and productivity.
The process of researching the biotic and geological realities of natural places is likely to surprise anyone undertaking it for the first time. Our own experience has led us to describe watersheds and other natural areas as unclaimed territories, so sketchily are they documented. When the DFG first opened its files to us in 1980, we were disappointed to find how scanty the salmonid habitat data for the Mattole River was, but not surprised once we came to the realization that two counties with a combined area the size of Delaware were being monitored by a single biologist. But if we were to approach the restoration of native salmon populations in any sort of systematic manner, we would have to do it without historical baseline data, and in order to understand the current situation we would need to generate the data ourselves. Later, when we needed to understand just how much old growth forest remained in the watershed, we encountered a similar situation. Antagonistic theories and counter-theories about how much ancient forest was left were getting a lot of press space, but when we took a closer look, no-one knew what was out there. (A little later, the U.S. Forest Service found itself with the same problem.)
In both these cases, we were able to find some support for finding out, and we were faced with the choice of hiring professionals to do the surveys, or to train local residents. Either option would cost out about the same, the added local knowledge balancing out the cost of training amateurs in survey techniques. We went with the locals, reasoning that, as a watershed population, we would have gained an array of skills that had a value beyond the data we would collect.
Even when the information you need is available, it will almost always be in the wrong context if you are filling in the map of a natural area. No wonder so many find themselves alienated from planetary processes when all the information for their part of the planet is filed by township and range, rather than river and mountain. The Mattole watershed, for instance, extends into two counties, two jurisdictions of the DFG, and overlaps with about half of a Bureau of Land Management holding. Research the distribution of a species and you’ll find it laid out for the state of California, in an amalgam of ranges and townships, rather than intertwining complex of habitats. Try to find out who lives in the Honeydew Creek drainage. You’ll find the owners listed alphabetically, rather than by where they live. And so on.
By spending the time to reorganize biotic, geologic, and demographic information into a watershed context, we are ritually reanimating a real place that had become totally abstracted. Our maps of salmonid habitat, of old growth distribution, of timber harvest history and erosion sites, of rehabilitation work, our creek addresses for watershed residents, become, when distributed by mail to all inhabitants, the self-expression of a living place.
The hatchbox program is entering its tenth year, and it has not been the quick fix our early naivete allowed us to hope for. The salmon population turned out to be even more diminished than we had guessed. If we aren’t yet able to put a number on the volume of Mattole topsoil that is delivered to the Pacific each year, we do know where it’s coming from, and where in the river it is tending to settle out, jamming up biological and hydrological processes. Thousands of trees have been planted, thousands of tons of rock moved to armor gullies and streambanks. A whole generation of elementary school kids has released a lot of salmon into the wild as part of each of their eight school years. Some of those kids have gone on to attend a recently established watershed-based high school where they learn, among other things, local appropriate land use techniques. There is no end in sight, but the prospect is now one of ever-deepening experience, rather than one of ever-diminishing possibilities. Our long, slow systematic look at the landscape has revealed the tremendous vigor with which nature heals itself, and some of the wonderful logic and time sense of natural succession is now available to us.
It is part of the process of recovery that we gain a new and deeper perception of home. Before this we lived on parcels, on acreages; now we are invited to live in watersheds and ecosystems, rivers and streams, mountains and valleys. But our emerging identities, fragile and unsure, are bruised and buffeted by forces which reside both within and without our chosen region of effect. The success of state agencies in appearing impermeable; the seeming venality and single-mindedness of industrial resource extractors; the demanding tedium of the court system—together they combine to make a clamoring immediacy which threatens to obscure our purpose (which is transformative) and divert our energies toward the perpetual claims of crisis response.
But it is also part of the process of recovery that we learn the things we need to know to live in places. Our crisis response becomes more effective as we come to know more about our particular places than they do. But it is likely that our most important and effective contribution to the solution to the puzzle of humans on the planet will be to develop resource related industries which are restorative, which tend to improve air and water quality, biodiversity, and soil fertility, as organic gardening and farming already tend to do. Two examples are emerging in our own Alta California backyard.
Along the northern coast of California, salmon fishing has been a major source of protein and income as long as humans have lived here. By the late 1970s, the combination of a growing fleet and dwindling salmon runs had most fishermen casting about for a new occupation. For the last ten years, the number of small one and two person trailers had kept growing and among the new members of the fleet were younger fishermen who were to become leaders in an exercise in consciousness-raising for the industry. In a very short time, these notoriously independent operators were to learn a new and reciprocal relationship to the resource which would allow them to continue in business.
In the past, the very independence of fishermen had worked against them. As individuals, they tended to be the best and only source of local knowledge about aspects of the salmon life cycle. But as a political entity, fishermen were most likely to do little more than to lobby the government for the least amount of regulation, and to fight the annual fight for the best price they could get for their catch. As the catch decreased each year, the fleet was seized by a mood of deep pessimism. It seemed to many as if the Pacific salmon was doomed to the same sort of depletion as had eliminated the Atlantic salmon as a commercial species. Some argued that no course of action was available but to cut their losses by taking all the fish they could until the fishery was gone.
Nat Bingham had spent a winter on Big River nursing a batch of hatchery eggs through California’s first streamside hatchbox, and he had been impressed by the results. Bingham began to argue that if the fishermen would involve themselves in the fate of the freshwater habitats of salmon, in the watersheds critical to the reproduction of the fish, then it might be possible to imagine a sustained fishery.
One by one, local marketing associations began to line up behind Bingham and the other Young Turks, sometimes by margins of no more than one or two votes, to tax themselves toward a fund that would be invested in salmon enhancement and habitat repair projects—often run by the fishermen themselves. Today, Nat Bingham has been president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations for seven years; and that group has spearheaded a Salmon Stamp Program which generates in excess of one million dollars per year for salmon enhancement work in California. In 1988, the salmon fleet had its largest catch in over 40 years. A good part of the credit for that must go to small salmon restoration programs conducted up and down the coast by fishermen’s groups and watershed groups alike.
In those same watersheds, natural processes are deeply engaged by yet another set of workers, the loggers. If the commercial fishery was able to develop restorative relationships to its work, mightn’t the timber industry? The answer, of course, is yes, and always has been. Though seemingly rare, the presence of small- to medium-sized timberland owners managing for sustained yield and wildlife and watershed values is as much a constant in the history of timber production as the more noticeable (and widespread) operators who try to translate whole biomes into cash.
One logger on the neighboring Eel River has taken the notion of sustained yield one necessary step further. Jan Iris of Wild Iris Forestry in Briceland, California, starts with land cut over in the last forty years and has as his goal restoring forests to their previous diversity and productivity—steady-state, climax, mixed species Coast Range forest. In the process, it looks like he will be able to make an acceptable income as a timber producer, while rarely harvesting an old growth redwood or Douglas fir, both now rare enough that every harvest is now the object of contention. Since it comes at a time when loggers have lost large numbers of jobs due to automation and stand to lose more if the larger mills fail to retool for smaller trees, this innovation has important implications for a widespread regional economy.
At the edge of the once great temperate rain forests, California Coast Range forests exhibit a wider range of species than their neighbors to the north. The incidence of the valuable redwood and Douglas fir is low compared to the incidence of Coast Range hardwood like tanoak, madrone and chinquapin. The latter woods have rarely found their way to market due to the long term hands-on care required to cure them for lumber. Iris has begun to manage timber for small landholders by selecting mature hardwoods and harvesting them in such a way as to release the young conifers which have been kept small by the shade of the great hardwoods. Second and third generations of hardwood trees are also left in situations where they will growth straighter and more quickly than if harvest had not occurred. There follows a two year curing process capped off by a period in a climate-controlled kiln which represents the largest part of Wild Iris’s capital outlay. The Wild Iris has had to endure a couple of lean years, but has found a demand for their product which exceeds their rate of production. Now local building-supply operator Bob McKee has invested in a six-headed molding machine and has begun to mill tanoak flooring, another local economic turnover.
Iris can see a future with “an operator up each little watershed” with restorative practices as their goal and their reward. “It doesn’t always have to be cut, cut, cut, chop, chop, chop. You may cut trees in the morning and do stream rehab in the afternoon. A lot of things need to be done.”
What is striking about these innovators is not so much that they gained their analysis and inspiration from personal engagement in restoration work—although that is the heart of my argument for environmental restoration as a transformative process for humans. (Iris gained his insight into the relationship between silviculture and soil erosion through time spent in stream rehabilitation work in the seventies.) More importantly, these are clear models, right in our midst, of ecological restoration translated into cultural and economic sustainability.
It is inevitable, for several reasons, that ecological restoration will take its place on the national agenda of the United States. The very flesh and blood of evolution, which is wild ecosystems, may already be so severely diminished that the evolution of large plants and animals can no longer proceed. Most experts agree that this potential exists; biologists Michael Soule and O.H. Frankel claim we have already reached this point. By the time that experts agree as to how much habitat is enough habitat, it is likely that restoration of wild systems will have become not only an appropriate human activity, but an essential one.
This nation has never given much credence to the appropriate, but is very good at responding to threats. To the degree that ecological restoration is interpreted as a matter of survival, to that degree the U.S. will respond. In that this time-frame coincides with a time when there will be no undisturbed habitats left to isolate and preserve, this effort must spill over into “resource areas,” human-occupied, which make up over three quarters of the planet.
There is no tradition of extended liability for ecological damages. The historical perpetrators are not going to be hunted down and fined. Rural areas will not be able to generate the funds necessary to restore themselves and will always need to appeal to one public agency or another. There will be more Superfunds. But if a national effort at ecological restoration is considered in the context of cultural transformation (and as a pathway to it), it may be possible to limit public costs to a single generation or less, by which time restorative economies should have begun to pay for themselves and consumer appetites will have begun to adjust themselves to biospheric realities.
The people want it and the talent is available. There is an enormous psychic need on the part of North Americans to engage their continent once more, physically and culturally, evinced on the one hand by a surprising explosion in the sales of stuff like backpacks, hang gliders, canoes, scuba gear, and mountain bikes; and, more to the point, by a proliferation of in-place grassroots restoration groups. The Hudson River. Papago reservations in the deepest Sonoran desert. Inner-city kids working on weekends to find rare prairie grass specimens in Chicago vacant lots. The Land Institute in Kansas blurring forever the distinction between prairie restoration and appropriate agriculture. Make a list of your own.
At the same time, a body of expertise is growing willy-nilly at the leading edges of what used to be called the life sciences. Loosely organized around the banner of conservation biology, more and more young scientists are dedicating themselves to the maintenance and restoration of specific ecological systems. The science of ecological restoration is less than fifty years old and has for most of that time been a study conducted in reserves isolated from human habitation, but not from the wind and water- borne effects of the surrounding human economies, nor from the wild phenomena of animal migration, distribution of seed from exotic sources, and occasional human predation. Rallied by papers such as those found in the two volumes of Conservation Biology (Soule and Wilcox 1981, Soule 1986) and by iconoclasts in the field like Daniel Janze, academic and field scientists have begun to organize themselves around pro-active groups like Conservation International (established 1987) and professional groups like the Society for Ecological Restoration (established 1989). This movement recognizes the need for the application of the principles of ecological restoration to the agro-ecosystems, but has made little systematic effort to ally themselves with the multitudinous grassroots organizations who need its expertise.
It is an indication of the environmental movement feeling its way toward ecological activism that some of its most effective leaders are advocating ecological restoration as a national undertaking. With surprising consistency, one hears a misspent military budget proposed as a source of funding, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the thirties as a model of organization. It is appropriate to demand a piece of the military budget for the job—both to give credence to the enormity of the task, and as recognition of the true nature of security. But the use of the CCC as a model is inappropriate. The CCC was raised as a response to massive unemployment during the depression and activities were selected, in part, for their non-controversial nature—treeplanting, building park infrastructures, firefighting. Large numbers of workers were moved great distances.
The use of CCC as a model for the current discussion gives rise to the likelihood of seeing the unemployed of Michigan and Louisiana put to work restoring natural systems in northern California, thus ignoring the potential of restoration work to teach local inhabitants the things they need to know to live integrated lives. If the nation embraces a massive effort in ecological restoration which disregards its potential for social transformation, then, no matter how many trees are planted, species enhanced, or people employed, it will have missed its real goals.
One clear function of any ecological restoration movement is to treat symptoms of habitat decline which are “other” than human, i.e., diminution of species and genetic diversity, deforestation, soil erosion. I am arguing that an equally important goal of any restoration movement is to provide individuals and inhabitants the clear experience of themselves as functionally benign parts of living systems. The cumulative effect of these experiences is the transformation of social and economic institutions. As the true nature of environmental decline becomes apparent to more and more people, the desire for social transformation will become more widespread. In the best of all possible worlds, governments will attempt to serve these desires.
Thinking about national approaches to ecological restoration can be seen as an opportunity to broaden the scope of our search for organizational models. One good place to search is in the organization of nature itself. I would like to suggest three principles which we might keep in mind as the mandate to engage in recovery grows:
Approach the planet as the planet reveals itself. Ecological restoration must be approached contextually, bioregionally, within the boundaries of natural systems like ecosystems and watersheds. This is a fairly obvious principle sometimes obscured by the fact that we do most political things entirely in the context of abstract political boundaries. The absence of alligators cannot be treated in the state of Washington, nor the need for redwoods served in Arizona.
Human populations of natural areas are necessary participants in local ecological recovery. Ecological restoration deals with real plants and animals in real time in real places. Real places are not uniform, but break down immediately into a wonderful array of microsystems and microclimates, each of which mediates and modifies tendencies toward eccentric behavior on the part of living things within them. These behaviors are the very expression of recovery, and information about them generally resides nowhere else but in experience of locals. This vernacular science combined with the generalized monuments of legitimate biology, geology, and so on combine to create the most effective (and cost-effective) strategies for site-specific habitat repair. You can’t treat the fish population in Bear Creek without knowing its current status. Given only one choice, will you mount a three year study or drop by and visit with the avid fisherman who has lived for fifteen years directly above the banks of Bear Creek?
Natural regions exist in time. One pass through with a government crew isn’t going to do the job. The resident will remain in place after the government has come and gone. If the restoration program has been structured so that problems are defined and decisions made by inhabitants with the counsel of technicians, and if much of the work has been performed by local people, especially young people, then a population will remain whose identity has been extended to include their habitat. They will have the skills to maintain equilibrium with the changes inherent in natural succession. They will have the will to defend the place against further violations. And they will begin to invent the styles of resource development appropriate to the long range survival of their places, and thus of themselves.
They will have become participants in the planet’s recovery.
(First published in Whole Earth Review, Winter 1989- 90.)
Freeman House (1938-2018) lead watershed restoration efforts in northern California as a co-founder of the Mattole Watershed Salmon Support Group and the Mattole Restoration Council. After spending time in San Francisco, including as a member of the anarchist theater group The Diggers, he moved to the Mattole Valley in 1980. The Mattole Restoration Council brought together disparate groups working throughout the watershed and facilitated projects like a first-of-its-kind 1981 survey of salmon performed exclusively by watershed residents themselves. House’s book Totem Salmon: Life Lessons from Another Species was published in 1999.
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