Chris Maser

The value of ecological restoration is the thought and act of putting something into a prior position, place, or condition. That much is clear enough. But why should we humans bother putting something back toward the way we perceived to have been? Why try to go backward in time when society's push is forward, always forward? The answer draws on two paradoxes:  backward is sometimes forward, and slower is sometimes faster.

In our drive to maximize the harvest of Nature's bounty, we, in the United States, strive only for a sustained or ever-increasing yield of products, and we are intensively altering more and more acres worldwide to that end. We cannot, however, have a sustainable yield of anything until we first have a sustainable ecosystem, such as a forest, to produce the yield. In practice, we tend to think it a tragic economic waste if Nature's products, such as wood fiber or forage for livestock, are not somehow used by humans but are allowed instead to recycle in the ecosystem, compost as it were. And because of our paranoia over "lost profits" (defined as economic waste), we extract far more from the ecosystems that we replace.

We will, for example, invest capital in another crop, but not in maintain the health of the ecosystem that produces the crop. This scenario is in the tradition of our Western, Industrialized culture, and, through it, much of the lithosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere are being degraded.


This brings me directly to the notion of restoration as a means of changing the way we think and the way we relate to the particular ecosystem we inhabit. Basically, restoration—as it is generally thought of—helps us to understand how a given ecosystem functions. As we strive to put it back together by reconstructing the knowledge of what was in times past, we learn how to sustain the system's ecological processes and its ability to produce the products we valued it for in the first place and might value it for again sometime in the future.

Similarly, restoration helps us to understand the limitations of a given ecosystem of portion thereof. As we slow down and take time to reconstruct what was, we learn how fast we can push the system to produce products on a sustainable basis without impairing its ability to function.

Thus, the very process of restoring the land to health is the process through which we become attuned with Nature and, through Nature, with ourselves. Restoration, therefore, is both the means and the end, for as we learn how to restore the land, we heal the ecosystem, and as we heal the ecosystem, we heal the deep geography of ourselves. Simultaneously, we also restore both our options for products and amenities from the land and those future generations. This act is crucial because our moral obligation as human beings is to maintain the welfare of our children and beyond. To this end, maintenance and restoration are the heart and spirit of caretaking the Earth as a biological living trust. I use the word "spirit" advisedly because it is derived from the Greek word for "breath," which denotes life.

We, as citizens, must learn to understand and accept that the "sustainability" of a forest, or any ecological system for that matter, is analogous to a "free spirit," an ever-elusive prize, which, like a horizon, continually retreats as we advance. The "dance of approach and retreat" causes me to think of "sustainability" as the duty of each generation to pass forward to the next as many positive opportunities for safekeeping as humanly possible. This notion requires clarity of mind because it means that we, the adults, must finally come to grips with the fact that each generation is obligated to pay its own way—beginning with us, here, now. The cost of our presence on Earth must be accounted for in how we treat the ecosystems that we, and all generations to come, are obliged to rely on for our survival. By this, I mean that all debts incurred by the generation in charge must be paid by that generation—not passed forward as an ecological mortgage that encumbers the social-environmental welfare of those who are young and as yet unborn.

To achieve the level of consciousness and the balance of energy necessary to maintain the sustainability of ecosystems, we must focus our questions—social and scientific—toward understanding the biophysical principles inherent in the governance of those systems and our place within that governance. Then, with humility, we must develop the moral courage and political will to direct our personal and collective energy toward living within the constraints defined by those principles—not by our economic/political ambitions.


The biophysical systems we are redesigning by our existence in and our interaction with our surroundings are continually changing the environment—all of it, if in no other way than through generalized air pollution. Consequently, conditions prior to the arrival of Europeans in North America are irrelevant, if for no other reason than the compounding, environmental influences of today's huge human population and its so-called "permanent" developments, which have, in many ways, limited the possibilities of ecosystem restoration. Added to our current environmental dilemma, is the fact that indigenous populations were much smaller and more nomadic than our contemporary mega-populations. Moreover, the ecological systems with which we daily interact are becoming ever further removed from the types of biophysical balances that characterized pre-European conditions.

Our challenge today is to mature sufficiently in personal and social consciousness to recognize a functionally healthy and sustainable ecosystem when we see it and then to maintain it as such. Beyond that, we need to repair functionally degraded ecosystems to the greatest extent we're capable of. The sustainability of which I speak is a process, a journey toward the ever-increasing consciousness that we humans must acquire in order learn how to treat our environment for the benefit of all generations. Sustainability is not an absolute—not a materialistic endpoint, but rather, a lifetime journey of growing consciousness.

Although sustainability is not a condition in which a biophysical compromise can be struck, the social decisions leading toward sustainability often necessitate conciliation. Seeking sustainability to a degree, which may appear to be an innocuous concession, defeats sustainability altogether. Leave one process out of the equation or in some other way alter a necessary feedback loop, and the system as a whole will be deflected toward an outcome other than that the one originally intended.

There has been an increasing emphasis in recent years on "natural ecosystems," as though only those apparently devoid human influence would qualify. The idea of "natural" has been perpetuated by writers who created the romantic myth that Indigenous Americans somehow had the wisdom and self-control to live in perfect harmony with Nature, taking only the bare minimum of what they needed to survive and, by inference, voluntarily keeping their own populations in check. It has also been assumed that predators and their prey were in a perfect balance, that Nature's ecological disturbance regimes either did not exist or did not have any affect on the great American landscape until the Europeans invaded the continent—hence the idea of a "climax" ecosystem, one that is indefinitely stable. Clearly, such romantic ideas would render unacceptable any perceived human disturbance to the "balance of Nature." In reality, however, Nature exists in a continual state of ever-shifting disequilibrium—irrespective of human influence.

Speaking of human influence, what sets us apart from our fellow creatures is not some higher sense of spirituality or some nobler sense of purpose, but rather that our deem ourselves wise in our own eyes. Therein lies the fallacy. We are no better than or worse than other kinds of animals; we are simply a different kind of animal—one among the many. We are thus an inseparable part of nature, despite what religion teaches.

As a part of nature, what we do is natural even though it often is destructive. This is not to say our actions are wise, ethical, moral, desirable, or even socially acceptable and within the bounds of nature's biophysical laws. It is only to acknowledge that as a part of nature we will, of necessity, change what we call the "natural world," and it is natural for us to do this, since people are an integral part of the total system we call the universe. The degree to which we change the world, and the motives behind and the ways in which we make these changes, however, are what we may justifiably question. And it is the motive with which we redesign our environment—spirituality humility versus material arrogance—that is knocking at the door of our consciousness.

Today, many of us are trying somehow to reach back into human history to find our mythological roots and to recapture some primordial sense of spiritual harmony with nature. Our search is urgent, because at some deep level we know we are destroying our only life-support system. We have an intuitive feeling that we humans as a whole have lost something we must find-our connection to Planet Earth as a living entity. With this background, the question before us is:  restoration to what?


This is an important question because, as we work to heal the land, we 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, which does not mean they cannot be healed. It does mean, however, that no ecosystem can be "restored" to a prior condition. Therefore, wisdom and humility would dictate that the biophysical condition we choose to create—and the reason for doing so—is to "repair" the functional integrity of an ecosystem and thereby allow it to once again produce its ecological services for the benefit of all generations.

A simple example is mending a sock, a lesson my mother taught me over fifty years ago. To mend a sock, she had three material things:  (1) a wooden "darning egg" (although an old-fashioned light bulb also works), (2) a darning needle, and (3) 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 literally weave the thread through the existing strands until the hole was mended in a neat crosshatch. As 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.

Note that I said, "mended"—not "restored," because, while the sock functioned as it was suppose to, it was not in any way put back into its original condition. To restore the original condition is a physical impossibility. But to repair the sock's physical structure in a way that allows it to continue functioning as a sock is possible.

That notwithstanding, there is much insistence on the part of some people that ecological restoration is not only achievable but also should return ecosystems to pre-European times, a proposal that is neither feasible nor possible for these reasons:

  1. Change is a constant second-to-second, minute-to-minute process, which honors the Buddhist notion of impermanence. This biophysical reality means there is no such thing as an independent variable or a constant value of anything.

  2. The invariable process of ever-shifting relationships totally negates the possibility of anything being reversible—ever. Therefore, the old notion of "restoration," which means returning something to a former condition, is a physical impossibility.

  3. Whatever we create is new, but may emulate—only emulate—a prior condition. Although we may have reams of data and use it all in our attempt to go backward in time, we cannot do so. But we can return to a given place and do our best to simulate what we understand to have been there. Nevertheless, whatever we create will be original and immediately entrained in the perpetual process of change and novelty.

  4. We do not know what the conditions were prior to the European invasion that began with Christopher Columbus and the Spanish in 1492. The first reason is self-evident; we weren't there. Moreover, we have no way of knowing what the conditions were in North America prior to the landing of Columbus and the Spanish because there are not records. Consequently, even if we could biophysically do so, returning to the ecological conditions of pre-European times is a non sequitur.

  5. Whatever the conditions were, they reverted toward the "wild" side between the time the Spanish landed in 1513 in what is now Florida and when the British landed on the North American continent in the early 1600s. And some parts of the continent had reverted even more toward the "wild" side by the time Lewis and Clark made their historic trek across the North American continent (1803-1805), and still more by the time the Oregon Trail was in full use in the 1840s.

    By 1492, indigenous peoples had modified the extent and composition of the forests and grasslands through the use of fire. In addition, they rearranged microrelief 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 the 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 Spanish and European atrocities), populations of indigenous peoples fell by 74 percent, to 1 million by 1800.

    This decline is not surprising when you consider that, in what today is the United States, the Spanish controlled the land in the mid-1500s from the Carolina coast as far north as La Charrette, the highest settlement on the Missouri River, to at least San Francisco Bay in California and thereby exposed the indigenous population to European diseases. Decimation of the indigenous population through Spanish-style conquest and the spread of European diseases affected the human-influenced landscape accordingly, although there was not always a direct relationship between the density of a human population and its impact.

    These circumstances point to a significant environmental recovery of the land by 1750, with a commensurate reduction of indigenous cultural features. Some of these changes are evident in the historical accounts of travelers, such as Columbus who sailed along the north coast of Panama on his fourth voyage in 1502-03. During this voyage, his son, Ferdinand, described the land as well-peopled, full of houses, with many fields, open land, and few trees. Lionel Wafer, in contrast, 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 became stabilized, agricultural fields became occupied by scrubs and trees, and indigenous earthworks became overgrown.

    By 1650, indigenous populations had been reduced by about ninety percent in the hemisphere, whereas the numbers of Europeans were not yet substantial in 1750, and European settlement had only just begun 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."¹

    Here it is important to point out that, 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 due to periodic starvation, wars occurred, and habitations were abandoned. The effects of human activities may be constructive, benign, or destructive, all of which are subjective concepts based on human values, but change is continual, albeit at various rates and in various directions. All changes are, nevertheless, 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, and especially after 1850, populations of European Americans expanded tremendously, severely exploiting the resources, which greatly accelerated the modification of the environment. To exploit the remaining land and indigenous peoples with "moral" impunity, however, required intellectual/political rationalization, and so was born the "American Myth."

    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 settlers 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 they 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 them through the use of fire, nor did they see the prairie-like conditions of large, open valleys, such as Willamette Valley of 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 as first seen by the European invaders, namely the British and French, who came after the Spanish were already established in, what is now, the United States.² The European invaders, however, did not see the land as the Spanish had seen it. When the Europeans 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.

  6. Even if we had an idea of what pre-European conditions were, we could not go back to them. It is an inalienable truth 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 or what the particular circumstances were. Consequently, trying to restore an ecological condition we do not know in a time we cannot recapture is a physically impossible task for many reasons, of which a few are:

    •population—there are far more people on the North American continent now than prior to the Spanish invasion

    •pollution—today, in contrast with pre-European times, the entire North American continent is polluted, a condition that dramatically affects what can be done in the name of ecological re-creation

    •capitalism—a human invention foisted onto the North American continent by the European invaders, and used to fuel the insatiable human appetite for material goods, even as the competition it spawns for raw materials destroys the ecosystems that sustain the economy

    •absolute rights of private property—a European concept in direct opposition to the indigenous practice of shared rights to use communal land, which does much to preclude emulating the ecological connectivity necessary to re-create intact ecosystems

    •technology—technological changes have irreparably altered the entire landscape of the United States, even as they have alienated people from Nature

    •all of the above have irreversibly altered the entire North American Continent—to say nothing of the world at large

So the question is: what kind 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.


  1. The preceding discussion of the indigenous peoples of the Americas 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. Wright, J.E., Jr., and D.G. Frey, (Eds.). Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. 1967; (2) James B. Griffin. Late Quaternary prehistory in the northeastern woodlands. pp. 655-667. In:  The Quaternary of the United States. Wright, J.E., Jr., and D.G. Frey, (Eds.). Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. 1967; (3) Clement W. Meighan. Pacific Coast archaeology. pp. 709-720. In:  The Quaternary of the United States. Wright, J.E., Jr., and D.G. Frey, (Eds.). Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. 1967; (4) Robert L. Stephenson. Quaternary human occupation of the plains. pp. 685-696. In:  The Quaternary of the United States. Wright, J.E., Jr., and D.G. Frey, (Eds.). Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. 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. Wright, J.E., Jr., and D.G. Frey, (Eds.). Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. 1967; (6) Martyn J. Bowden. 1992. The invention of American tradition. Journal of Historical Geography 183-26; (7) William M. Denevan. 1992. The Pristine Myth:  The Landscape of the Americas in 1492. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82:369-385; (8) W. George Lovell. 1992. 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, May (1992):16-17; (10) Karl L. Butzer. 1992. The Americas Before and After 1492:  An Introduction to Current Geographical Research. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82:345-368; and (11) Douglas MacCleery. 1994. 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 2:1-12.

  2. (1) Stephen.W. Barrett and Stephen F. Arno. 1982. Indian fires as an ecological influence in the Northern Rockies. Journal of Forestry 80:647-651; (2) James R. Habeck. 1961. The original vegetation of the mid-Willamette Valley, Oregon. Northwest Science 35:65-77; (3) Carl.L. Johannessen, William A. Davenport, Artimus Millet, and Steven McWilliams. 1971. The vegetation of the Willamette Valley. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 61:286-302; (4) John T. Curtis. 1959. The Vegetation of Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI. 657 pp; and (5) Michael Williams. 1989. Americans & Their Forests:  A Historical Geography. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY. 289 pp.

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