After conservation,...restoration. Ecology conference highlights value of environmental repair work
DRAINED marshlands are being reflooded on San Francisco Bay. The nearly extinct red wolf has been reestablished in North Carolina. And the Nashua River in New Hampshire, once an open sewer of industrial waste, is thriving again as a real river. These restoration projects and thousands of others around the United States are the seedlings of the next generation of the environmental movement, according to John J. Berger, founder of Restoring the Earth, a Berkeley organization promoting environmental repair work.
``An epochal development has begun,'' Mr. Berger said. ``For the first time in human history, masses of people now realize not only that we can and must stop abusing the earth, but that we also must restore it to ecological health.... The same intelligence and ingenuity with which humanity subdued the earth is needed now to heal it.''
Nearly 900 people attended the first national Restoring the Earth conference last month at the University of California at Berkeley: environmentalists, scientists, researchers, visionaries, corporate people, labor activists.
Citing concern about depletion of the ozone layer, about millions of acres of land strip-mined, clear-cut, or overgrazed, about toxic contamination of ground water, lakes, and rain, the conference organizers described the earth's state as ``an environmental emergency.''
``Unfortunately, it's a slow emergency,'' said Hardy Jones, an independent producer who works on environmental films. ``So it doesn't get the kind of media play that, say, an airplane crash would get.''
Nonetheless, at what former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, the keynote speaker, called ``little nooks of greenery,'' concerned people have turned to healing the earth.
The projects, Berger said, are ``an effort to imitate nature in all its artistry and complexity by taking a degraded system and making it more diverse and productive.''
Productivity is a key element in the most successful restoration projects so far. The wetlands now being restored around San Francisco Bay were traditionally seen as wasteland, to be diked off and filled in for development or turned into evaporation ponds to produce salts. Now biologists believe tidal marshes are critical to the food chains that once supported thriving commercial fisheries on the bay of salmon, shad, striped bass, and oysters.
``Something I've tried to get across for a long time is that the tidal marshes provide the greatest benefit for the fisheries, for water quality improvement, and for the primary productivity of the estuary,'' said Michael Josselyn, a biologist who has worked extensively on tidal marshland restoration around San Francisco Bay.
The marshes are home to algae and to a kind of sea grass called eelgrass that are the base of the bay's food chain, Mr. Josselyn said.
Of the 220,000 acres of wetlands that surrounded the bay in 1850, more than 75 percent was filled in, starting in the 1850s. The small patches that have been saved or restored are part of restoring the commercial fisheries of the bay, now reduced to a single fishery, for herring. The food chains need to be reestablished with the vital tidal marshlands, said Josselyn. The fresh water flowing into the bay must not be diverted upriver to other uses, he said, and it must be protected from pollution.
The US Army Corps of Engineers, traditionally an adversary of environmentalists, has jurisdiction over wetlands in the bay. The corps surprised some ecologists by siding with the Environmental Protection Agency in several legal actions to require restoration or stop destruction of wetlands on the bay.
The restored marshes, in addition to supporting the fisheries' ecosystem and re-creating the habitat of native species like pickleweed and cordgrass, are used for final filtering of waste water. The marshes also play an underappreciated role in flood control and the cleansing of the area's air and water.
And they are being used for recreation, with bicyclists and hikers traveling on raised pathways through the marshes, and birders watching great blue herons and California clapper rails return. Cooperation with industry, technologists, and governmental agencies seems to be one of the hallmarks of today's restorationists. Earlier conservationists, in contrast, fought industries to end ecological damage and distrusted governmental agencies that had a stake in development.
Restorationists want to harness the American propensity to build. ``We need to appropriate technology to use what we have for good,'' said Kathleen Ferguson Karn, one of the conference organizers. ``Technology can be used to make the kind of place we want to live in.''
And preservationists' traditional distrust of the private sector is receding. The restorationists are as comfortable with annual reports as they are with birding manuals. ``We have to be willing to use all the tools,'' said Dave Foreman, a co-founder of the radical environmental group Earth First! ``Sometimes we have to put on three-piece suits or high heels and hose.... And sometimes we put on jeans and climb a redwood tree to keep it from being cut down.''
Drawing some of the heftiest applause from the conference assembly was the Nature Conservancy, which has parlayed skill at using all the environmentalists' tools into the world's largest system of private nature preserves. The Virginia-based organization uses corporate money, tax-law savvy, and cooperation with landowners, developers, and governmental entities to obtain land that is critical to preserving endangered species. The conservancy helped buy the land for the red wolf preserve in North Carolina.
Cooperation with corporate America may improve the chances for a project to succeed, as the 25-year effort to restore the Nashua River showed.
Despite such success stories, cooperation with industry also seems to be the source of some discord. Some environmentalists fear restorationism will be used by industry to justify wreaking more environmental havoc than would be allowed if the damage were viewed as irreparable.
Mindful of this, Berger said, ``Our task is to see that restoration is used properly - to repair past damage, not to legitimize new disruption.''
Others worry that too much emphasis on restoration will detract from preserving the 10 percent of the United States as yet undisturbed by development. ``Our highest priority must be the preservation of that 10 percent,''said Michael Fischer, executive director of the Sierra Club. ``First preservation. Then restoration.''