Posted by: chrismaser | February 28, 2011


More than two decades ago, I wrote in Forest Primeval: The Natural History of An Ancient Forest, “The very process of the restoring the land to health is the process through which we become attuned to Nature and, through Nature, with ourselves.”1 In this case, “restoration” is use in terms of functional processes in a general sense, not in terms of a specific condition. Attaching such a narrow condition to the concept of “restoration” alters the notion profoundly in a way that forges its impossibility—be it in terms of retuning to a specified condition of either the environment or an antique artifact.


This is an important question because, as we work to heal the land, we will advance our sense of consciousness and thereby rediscover our inseparable connection to nature. In the process, we will learn that cumulative circumstances have made it impossible to revert modern landscapes to those of old. This fact does not mean they cannot be healed, but rather that no ecosystem can be restored to some idealized prior condition. Moreover, the historical manipulation of an ecosystem toward a specific end has often resulted in a different long-term outcome. Therefore, wisdom and humility would dictate that the biophysical condition we choose to create is the repair of the functional integrity of an ecosystem, and the reason for doing so is to allow the system to once again produce its ecological services for the benefit of all generations.

Nevertheless, some people insist not only that ecological restoration is achievable but also that it should return New World ecosystems to pre-European times, a proposal that is neither feasible nor possible for four reasons: (1) change is a constant process, (2) Europeans fundamentally altered the New World, (3) no records exist of conditions prior to the arrival of the Europeans, and (4) we cannot go back in time.

Reason One: Change Is a Constant Process

Change—as one of the inviolable biophysical principles—is a universal constant, a continual process of inexorable novelty. It is a condition along a continuum that may reach a momentary pinnacle of harmony within our senses. Then, the very process that created the harmony takes it away and replaces it with something else—always with something else. Change requires constancy as its foil in order to exist as a dynamic process of eternal becoming. Without constancy, change could neither exist nor be recognized. Such change honors the Buddhist notion of impermanence. This biophysical reality means there is no such thing as an independent variable, a constant value beyond the number one, or the possibility of anything being reversible—ever.

Reason Two: Europeans Fundamentally Altered the New World

We do not know what the conditions were prior to the European invasion, which began with Christopher Columbus and the Spanish in 1492. The first reason is self-evident; we weren’t there. Moreover, we have no records.

By 1492, indigenous peoples had modified the extent and composition of the forests and grasslands through the use of fire. In addition, they rearranged micro-relief through human-created earthworks. Agricultural fields were common in some areas, as were houses, villages, trails, and roads. Some of the environmental manipulations were so subtle Europeans mistook the altered landscapes for ones untouched by human hands.

Prior to the Spanish invasion of Florida in 1513, the indigenous population of North America, north of Mexico, was about 3.8 million people. The decline of indigenous peoples, once it began, was rapid and precipitous—probably the single greatest demographic disaster in history. With European disease as the primary killer (augmented by European atrocities), populations of indigenous peoples fell by 74 percent, to one million.

By the mid-1500s, the Spanish controlled land from the Carolina coast as far north as La Charrette (the highest settlement on the Missouri River—near today’s Marthasville) and westward to at least San Francisco Bay in California, thereby exposing the indigenous peoples across the continent to European diseases. Decimation of the native population through conquest and the spread of European diseases affected the human-influenced landscape accordingly.

In the period between the decimation of the indigenous populations and the migration of significant numbers of Europeans westward, a significant environmental recovery took place, with a commensurate reduction of discernable indigenous cultural features. Some of these changes were already evident in the historical accounts of travelers as early as 1502–1503, when Columbus sailed along the north coast of Panama on his fourth voyage. During this voyage, his son, Ferdinand, described the land as well-peopled, full of houses, with many fields, open areas, and few trees. In contrast, Lionel Wafer, a pirate, found most of the Caribbean coast of Panama covered with forests and unpopulated in 1681. And so it was all over the Americas: forests grew back and filled in, soil erosion abated, agricultural fields became occupied by shrubs and trees, and indigenous earthworks were overgrown.

By 1650, indigenous populations had been reduced by about 90 percent in the hemisphere, whereas the numbers of Europeans were not yet substantial in 1750, when European settlement began to expand. As a result, the fields of indigenous peoples were abandoned, their settlements vanished, forests reestablished themselves, savannas retreated as forests expanded, and the subsequent landscape did indeed appear to be a sparsely populated wilderness.2

Prior to the invasion of Europeans, human impact on the environment was not simply a process of increasing change in response to the linear growth of the indigenous populations. Instead, the landscape was given time to rest and recover as people moved about; cultures collapsed; populations declined because of periodic starvation, disease, and war; and habitations were abandoned.

Human activities may be constructive, benign, or destructive, all of which are subjective concepts based on human values, but change is always continual, albeit at various rates and in various directions. All changes are, in addition, cumulative. Even mild, slow change can show dramatic effects over the long term. Although there was, of course, some localized European impact prior to 1750, thereafter (but especially after 1850) populations of European Americans expanded tremendously; they severely exploited the resources, greatly accelerating the modification of the environment in the process.

In particular, the settlers who introduced domestic livestock in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado left a dusty signature. Mineral aerosols in wind-blown dust from the soil’s surface are an important influence on climate, as well as on terrestrial and marine biogeochemical cycles. The amount of dust can be affected by human activities, which alter surface sediments. The changes in the flow of regional- and global-scale wind-borne dust following the rapid expansion and settlement of human populations are not well understood, but a study of sediment cores from alpine lakes in the San Juan Mountains from the past five thousand years has yielded some regional-scale answers.

The chemical composition of the dust is not comparable to that of the surrounding bedrock, an indication that it came from hundreds of miles away. Such transport is not surprising because the winds of winter are known to blow dust from the deserts of California and Nevada to Colorado. Carbon and lead dating revealed that the average annual amount of dust deposited in the lakes after the 1800s was 500 percent more than the dust deposited prior to that time. This sudden increase appears around the time of a boom in ranching, when cattle and sheep spread across the landscape, overgrazing the native, erosion-controlling plants. There was a subsequent drop in the level of dust deposited, however, with the passage in 1934 of the Taylor Grazing Act.

Nevertheless, the dust has yet to settle. The past century has seen more than a five-fold increase in the deposition of agricultural chemicals from fertilizers: potassium, magnesium, calcium, nitrogen, and phosphorus. The infusion of these chemicals into the alpine ecosystem will have serious implications with respect to the alkalinity surface waters, aquatic productivity, and terrestrial nutrient cycling.3

Reason Three: No Records Exist of Conditions Prior to the European Immigration

Even with today’s data, we have no way to discern the environmental conditions that existed prior to the introduction of livestock. There simply are no records. But even if data did exist, they would, at most, present a snapshot in time, a point along the continuum of change. Nevertheless, it was thought necessary to find a means through which to justify the exploitation of the land and the remaining indigenous peoples with moral impunity. Because such impunity required intellectual and political rationalization, the American myth was hatched.

The grand American myth in the United States is one of imagined pristine nature across an entire continent of wilderness filled with wild beasts and savages, which was probably not as difficult for Europeans to conquer as has been imaginatively conceived. The ignoble savage, nomadic and barely human, was invented to justify stealing the land from the few remaining indigenous North Americans and to prove that the indigenous peoples had no part in transforming an untamed wilderness into a civilized continent. When the Europeans walked into a forest, which they often described as parklands, they did not see the indigenous peoples creating the park-like forests through the use of fire, nor did they observe the prairie-like conditions of large, open valleys, such as Willamette Valley in Oregon or the savanna of Wisconsin, being maintained by the indigenous peoples, also with the use of fire.

In fact, the Indian use of fire may have been the most significant factor in designing the American landscape, but the British and French, who came after the Spanish, did not see the land as the Spanish had seen it.4 When the British arrived on the scene they put the best spin on what they saw by assuming it was natural—which meant, and still means to many people, untouched by the defiling hands of humans.

Whatever the conditions were, they reverted toward the wild side between the time the Spanish landed on the North American continent in 1513 in what is now Florida and the time the British landed in the early 1600s. Some parts of the continent had reverted even more toward the wild side by the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark made their historic trek of 1803–1806, and a few areas were wilder still by the 1840s, when the Oregon Trail was in full use.

Furthermore, returning something to a former condition, the old notion of restoration, is an oxymoron because whatever we create is new, although it may emulate—but only emulate—a prior condition, despite the amount of data in hand. Nevertheless, we can return to a given place and do our best to simulate what we understand it to have been like.

It is true that we can physically go back to a particular place, but we can never go back in time to who we were at a given moment in the past, and we can never go back to the particular circumstances that pertained at a specific time in the past. Therefore, whatever we create will be original and immediately entrained in the perpetual process of change and novelty.

Reason Four: We Cannot Go Back In Time

Even if we had an idea of what pre-European conditions were, we could not go back to them. To this end, Nigel Pitman, María Azáldegui, Karina Salas, and others wrote, “What biologists write about tropical forests today will be, in many cases, the only thing left of them in the future. The forest that twenty years ago held the world record for frog diversity is no longer standing, but young herpetologists can piece together what it might have looked like from scientific articles.”5

For example, passenger pigeons were probably the most numerous birds in the New World prior to the European invasion. Population estimates from the 1800s ranged from one billion to almost four billion birds, but the population could have reached five billion; at the time, passenger pigeons constituted up to 40 percent of the total number of birds in North America. Their flocks, a mile wide and up to three hundred miles long, darkened the sky for hours and days as they passed overhead.

The pigeons inhabited the billion or so acres of forest that once covered the continent east of the Rocky Mountains, where they bred in colonies that could cover from 30 up to 850 square miles, with up to one hundred loosely constructed nests of small twigs in a single tree. Generally, one egg was laid and incubated by both parents. They tended their chick for two weeks, after which the entire flock would depart, leaving the flightless young dropping to the ground. After a few days, however, they would begin to fly and take care of themselves.

Passenger pigeons could have caused widespread, frequent disturbances in pre-European forests by breaking the twigs and limbs of the trees in which they roosted and nested, thereby creating the fine fuels that influenced the frequency and intensity of fires in the forests they inhabited. Moreover, their excrement would have nourished forest soil and plants.

Furthermore, the consumption of vast quantities of acorns by pigeons during their spring breeding season may partially account for dominance of white oak throughout much of the north-central hardwood region. The vast numbers of passenger pigeons undoubtedly did much to determine the species composition of eastern forests prior to the twentieth century.

Although their gregarious nature invited over-hunting, no appreciable decline in pigeon numbers was noted until the late 1870s. Thereafter, it took only twenty-five years of relentless pursuit to complete their destruction. This dismal episode in American history was aided by the invention of the telegraph, through which the locations of flocks could be ascertained. Tens of thousands of individuals were killed daily from nesting colonies and shipped to eastern markets. The market hunting occurred simultaneously with the destruction of their forested habitat, which was cleared to make way for agriculture. As well, the expansion of northern red oak during the twentieth century may have been facilitated by the pigeon’s extinction.

The passenger pigeon may be the only species for which the exact time of extinction is known. The last bird died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoological Garden—before any competent ornithologists could write an account of the species.6

Consequently, trying to restore an ecological condition for which we have no concrete data from a time we cannot recapture is an impossible task. Consider, for example, that there are far more people spread across the North American continent now than there were prior to the Spanish, French, and British invasions. As a result, the entire North American continent is polluted, a condition that dramatically affects what can be done in the name of ecological re-creation.

Researchers Scott Doney and David Schimel made this point clear: “Over a range of geological and historical timescales, warmer climate conditions are associated with higher atmospheric levels of CO2 , an important climate-modulating greenhouse gas. One emergent property is clear across timescales: atmospheric CO2 can increase quickly, but the return to lower levels through natural processes is much slower. The consequences of human carbon-cycle perturbations will far outlive the emissions that caused them.”7 Hence, urgent action is required to curb the production of greenhouse gases in China and other fast-growing countries because China’s carbon dioxide emissions are far outpacing previous estimates, which will make stabilizing atmospheric greenhouse gases much more difficult than it would have been before.8

Part of the pollution problem is caused by capitalism—a human invention that was foisted onto the North American continent by the European immigrants and is now used to fuel our insatiable appetite for material goods, even as the competition it spawns in the money chase destroys the ecosystems that sustain the economy. In addition, technological inventions designed to increase our ability to exploit nature have irreparably altered the entire landscape of the United States, even as they have alienated people from nature—a point aptly illustrated with the passenger pigeon and the advent of the telegraph.

Coupled with capitalism is the notion of the absolute rights attached to the concept of private property, both material and intellectual—a European precept in direct opposition to the indigenous practice of sharing rights to the use of communal land. This change by itself does much to preclude emulating the ecological connectivity necessary to re-create intact ecosystems, but all the changes mentioned have irreversibly altered the entire North American continent—to say nothing of the world at large.

With the foregoing in mind, William Schlesinger, a professor at Duke University in North Carolina, poses a critical question: “In the pre-industrial era, humans lived in concert with nature. No doubt it was a hard life, but it was sustained for centuries. The question we now face is whether we can live the way we aspire to today, without degrading the life support systems of the planet that would sustain us tomorrow.”8


So what kind of re-creation will benefit us today and the children of tomorrow—and why? This is at once an intelligent, compound question and a wise one because it’s both present- and future-oriented. Moreover, it raises another interesting question: If what we do is not ecological restoration, what is it?

A simple example of repairing something is mending a hole in a sock, a lesson my mother taught me over fifty years ago. To mend a sock, she had three items: a wooden darning egg (although an old-fashioned light bulb also works), a darning needle, and darning thread. With patience and dexterity, she wove the thread back and forth across the hole. Then, she turned the sock around far enough to weave the thread through the existing strands until the hole was repaired in a neat crosshatch. At this point, the mended portion of the sock was often stronger than the original fabric had been, which meant it took me longer to wear it out a second time. The sock was repaired, but not restored to its original condition. Its physical structure, however, was mended in a way that allowed the sock to continue functioning as a sock.

Another, more complicated illustration is a woman who suffers cardiac arrest and is “brought back to life.” Clearly, she has been physically altered by the episode and psychologically changed by her nearness to death. Therefore, although a medical team can revive her, it cannot restore her to the condition she was in prior to her trauma. Even when a doctor performs a successful triple-bypass surgery, the functionality of the patient’s system is repaired by a surgical creation, although the system itself—and thus the person’s makeup—is different. Nevertheless, the system may function in a nearly normal condition for some years.

It is the same with ecosystems. We repair dislocated or otherwise broken parts by creating an “ecological bypass” in order to maintain the integrity of their processes. In so doing, we generate something other than what existed before. Let’s take the North American prairie as a case in point. For nearly twenty million years, an unbroken swath of grassland, a thousand miles wide, stretched from northern Canada, through the midsection of the continent, to Mexico. Then, in less than a century after John Deere invented his steel-bladed plow in 1837, the American prairie all but disappeared. Today, only a fraction is left. The mixed and shortgrass prairie of the Plains states represents about 5 percent of the ecosystem’s original extent, whereas less than 1 percent of the lush tallgrass prairie remains to the east. Most of the tallgrass prairie occurs as remnants in pioneer cemeteries and along old railroad rights-of-way.

Now the question becomes one of purpose: Why do you want to repair a patch of prairie? Schlesinger offers sound counsel:

We must remember that we live in an integrated chemical system that spans only a thin “peel” about 20 km [12 miles] thick on the surface of planet Earth. How we manage that arena will determine the persistence and quality of life for every one of the species that now inhabit this planet with us. Many species will disappear; others will proliferate globally, bringing huge changes to the ecosystem functions that we have long regarded as “normal.” Like it on not, Homo sapiens will be the supervisor of this arena. We can manage it well, manage it poorly, or through purposeful actions of terrorism and war, we can poison Eden. The chemistry of the arena of life—that is Earth’s biogeochemistry—will be at the center of how well we do.9

A biologically sustainable ecosystem is a prerequisite for a biologically sustainable yield of the broad array of nature’s interactive services and products on which our way of life depends. In turn, a biologically sustainable yield is a prerequisite for economically sustainable communities, which are a prerequisite for overall social-environmental sustainability. In addition, mended ecosystems would go a long way in counteracting global warming and the extreme weather it fosters.

For most people, however, the purpose of mending an ecosystem is to restore its vegetative beauty (the aesthetics of its biodiversity), which is at once the most notable and visual aspect whereby people connect with it. For them, the composition of species framed in a snapshot is important, particularly those in which they find pleasure, such as prairie flowers.

For people interested in native birds, however, the most important aspect of the mending process lies beyond mere plant-species composition. In this case, the composite structure of the ecosystem is critical because that structure both attracts the birds and serves them as habitat for feeding, reproduction, or both. The same can be said of people interested in butterflies, reptiles, small mammals, or any other group of organisms. In still other circumstances, someone may be concerned about the system’s ability to capture and store water or in making a reinvestment of biological capital as a means of increasing soil fertility.

Each of these approaches is focused on retrieving a selected part of an ecosystem in an attempt to recapture an aesthetic snapshot, to repair a certain structural condition, or to maintain—and perhaps enhance—a process or function. In this sense, the outcome can be viewed as a commodity or amenity. Whatever the reason, each outcome will be different.

Building Blocks Of Sustainable Planning:

• Why Be Concerned With The Building Blocks Of Sustainable Planning

• The Negotiability Of Constraints

• Feedback Loops

• Of Human Relationships And Social-Environmental Sustainability

• Grieving For Our Environmental/Social Losses

• Transportation—Efficiency Or Effectiveness, A Choice Of Focus

• Is Space A Resource?

• Open Space—A Biophysical And Cultural Necessity

• An Urgent Plea For Open Space

• Surrounding Landscape

• Riparian Areas And Floodplains

Related Posts:

• Nature’s Rules of Engagement

• Repairing Ecosystems—Historical Abuse

• Repairing Ecosystems—Six Lessons From History

• Repairing Ecosystems—Restoration, As We Currently Think of It

• Repairing Ecosystems—Why Restoration Is Not Possible

• Repairing Ecosystems—Basic Considerations


  1. Chris Maser. Forest Primeval: The Natural History of an Ancient Forest. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, CA. 1989.
  2. The preceding discussion of the indigenous population of the Americas and changes in the landscape is based on: (1) Martin A. Baumhoff and Robert F. Heizer. Postglacial Climate and Archaeology in the Desert West. Pp 697–707. In: The Quaternary of the United States, ed. J. E. Wright Jr. and D. G. Frey, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967); (2) James B. Griffin, Late Quaternary Prehistory in the Northeastern Woodlands. Pp 655–667. In: The Quaternary of the United States, ed. J. E. Wright Jr. and D. G. Frey, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967); (3) Clement W. Meighan. Pacific Coast Archaeology. Pp 709–720. In: The Quaternary of the United States, ed. J. E. Wright Jr. and D. G. Frey, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967); (4) Robert L. Stephenson. Quaternary Human Occupation of the Plains. Pp 685–696. In: The Quaternary of the United States, ed. J. E. Wright Jr. and D. G. Frey, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967); (5) Stephen Williams and James B. Stoltman. An Outline of Southeastern United States Prehistory with Particular Emphasis on the Paleo-Indian Era. Pp 669–683. In: The Quaternary of the United States, ed. J. E. Wright Jr. and D. G. Frey, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967); (6) Martyn J. Bowden. The Invention of American Tradition. Journal of Historical Geography (1992):183–226; (7) William M. Denevan. The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82 (1992):369–385; (8) W. George Lovell. Heavy Shadows and Black Night: Disease and Depopulation in Colonial Spanish America. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82 (1992):426–443; (9) S. M. Wilson. That Unmanned Wild Country: Native Americans Both Conserved and Transformed New World Environments. Natural History (1992):16–17; (10) Karl L. Butzer. The Americas before and after 1492: An Introduction to Current Geographical Research. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82 (1992):345–368; (11) Douglas MacCleery. Understanding the Role the Human Dimension Has Played in Shaping America’s Forest and Grassland Landscapes: Is There a Landscape Archaeologist in the House? Eco-Watch 2 (1994):1–12; and (12) Hazel R. Delcourt and Paul A. Delcourt. Pre-Columbian Native American Use of Fire on Southern Appalachian Landscapes. Conservation Biology 11 (1997):1010–1014.

  3. The foregoing discussion of dust in the alpine lakes is based on: J. C. Neff, A. P. Ballantyne, G. L. Farmer, and others. Increasing Eolian Dust Deposition in the Western United States Linked to Human Activity. Nature Geoscience 1 (2008):189–195.

  4. (1) Stephen W. Barrett and Stephen F. Arno. Indian Fires as an Ecological Influence in the Northern Rockies. Journal of Forestry 80 (1982):647–651; (2)James R. Habeck. The Original Vegetation of the Mid-Willamette Valley, Oregon. Northwest Science 35 (1961): 65–77; (3) Carl L. Johannessen, William A. Davenport, Artimus Millet, and Steven McWilliams. The Vegetation of the Willamette Valley. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 61 (1971): 286–302; (4) John T. Curtis. The Vegetation of Wisconsin University of Wisconsin Press, Madison. 1959; and (5) Michael Williams. Americans and Their Forests: A Historical Geography Cambridge University Press, New York. 1989.

  5. Nigel C. A. Pitman, María Del Carmen Loyola Azáldegui, Karina Salas, and others. Written Accounts of an Amazonian Landscape over the Last 450 Years. Conservation Biology 21 (2007):253–262.

  6. The preceding discussion of the passenger pigeon is based on: (1) A. W. Schorger. The Passenger Pigeon. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison. 1955; (2) Errol Fuller. Extinct Birds. Facts on File Publications, New York. 1987; and (3) Joshua W. Ellsworth and Brenda C. Mccomb. Potential Effects of Passenger Pigeon Flocks on the Structure and Composition of Presettlement Forests of Eastern North America. Conservation Biology 17 (2003):1548–1558.

  7. Scott C. Doney and David S. Schimel. Carbon and Climate System Coupling on Timescales from the Precambrian to the Anthropocene. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 32 (2007):31–66.

  8. Maximilian Auffhammer and Richard T. Carson. Forecasting the Path of China’s CO2 Emissions Using Province Level Information. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 55 (2008):229-247.

  9. William H. Schlesinger. Global Change Ecology. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 21 (2006):348–351.

Text © by Chris Maser 2011. All rights reserved.

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This blog is excerpted from my 2009 book Earth In Our Care: Ecology, Economy, and Sustainability. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ. 304 pp. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit mywebsite.

If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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