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The Restoration Drama

John Feehan

Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century, by Paddy Woodworth, University of Chicago Press, 536 pp, $35.00, ISBN: 978-0226907390

It is difficult for anybody who looks dispassionately at the statistics that echo our depletion of the Earth’s resources, and illustrate how wounded is the world of nature, not to be profoundly disheartened at times. The human population has increased four-fold over the last hundred years, and doubled in our lifetime, but our use of water resources has grown nine-fold in that time, climate emissions have increased seventeen-fold, overfishing by a multiple of thirty-five. The rainforests that harbour most terrestrial biodiversity have dwindled: Madagascar has lost ninety-three per cent of its forest, ninety-nine per cent of the Atlantic coast forest of Brazil is gone, the island forests of Polynesia and the Caribbean have disappeared altogether. At the current rate of extinction, thirty per cent of species will be gone by 2050.

The growing concern among ecologists about the rate of species extinction, and the urgent need to do something more focused about halting or reversing it, resulted in the formation of the Society for Ecological Restoration in 1987 and the establishment of the journal Restoration Ecology. There is now a flood of scientific papers in this and other publications documenting the theory and practice of our attempts to try to patch a few of the holes in the unravelling fabric of biological and ecological diversity in every quarter of the Earth.

Several textbooks are also now in print, aimed at budding professionals. Up to now, however, there have been few concerted attempts to distil all of this and make it available to a more general readership. Over the past few years there have been several attempts at a more popular treatment (among them Andrew Balmford’s Wild Hope), but Paddy Woodworth’s is certainly the best, and acclaimed as such by many of the most important theoreticians and practitioners in the field of restoration ecology. The book could hardly be more timely, and the fact that it is one of a cluster indicates the growing degree of awareness of the topic.

There is a freshness and clarity to Woodworth’s approach that is due in part perhaps to the fact that he has come late to the field. His former journalistic writing life dealt with “the bitter and intractable Basque conflict, and […] the sometimes equally vindictive Irish arts scene” (which made me wonder what I’d been missing in a theatre of war of which I was entirely unaware). It is a very personal odyssey which he describes, although the “I” of the narrative, a constant presence, is perhaps a little intrusive at times.

The book opens with the author’s experience of the sensational and much publicised endeavour to restore a migratory flock of whooping cranes in the eastern half of North America using microlight planes. This is an outstanding example of the extraordinary things that can be achieved when our will and commitment are supported by the resources of an affluent society. The project was his shuttlecraft into this project, and the cranes feature prominently in the early pages.

Woodworth’s series of case studies begins with an account of South Africa’s spectacularly successful Working for Water programme, through which vast resources have been devoted to the elimination of Invasive Alien Plants (IAPs) from the Fynbos ecoregion. Fynbos is the gem in the crown of southern African biodiversity, one of only eight biodiversity “hotspots” in the world, seventy per cent of whose plants are found nowhere else. The programme has some thirty thousand people on its roll-book (equalling 10,500 full-time jobs), with an annual budget of nearly $100 million. It was inaugurated shortly after South African independence, at a time when one might have thought it most unlikely that anyone in the new cabinet, for which poverty alleviation mattered more than anything else, was going to get excited about ecology. But the only reason the programme has been successful is that it manages to combine the provision of clean water – which was being stolen by IAPs at an extraordinary and growing rate – and a public works programme that provides paid employment to thousands of the poor, thereby restoring social capital.

There is much debate about the degree to which Working for Water is achieving its environmental objectives. Although an impressive two million hectares of IAPs had been cleared by 2011, with follow-up clearance of up to five million, restoring (it is claimed) fifty million cubic metres of water every year, control of reinvasion has been less than adequately effective, and the area covered by IAPs is now greater than at the start of the programme. This is largely because the resources were too widely and thinly spread across the country – for political reasons – so that the worst-affected areas that should have been the priority were not tackled with the necessary intensity. Poverty relief was the real priority, dictating the agenda. Working for Water is now moving towards more programmes explicitly for ecosystem services. But whatever about its limitations, it has been outstandingly successful in bringing ecosystem health to the forefront of public opinion, and this may turn out to be, in the long term, its greatest achievement.

Woodworth’s next case study tells the remarkable tale of the restoration of a habitat that had ceased to exist, having been lost, when the conditions for its continuance altered as a result of human interference, not just to the woodland that replaced it, but even from the awareness of twentieth century ecologists. This is the savannah – the “barrens” in nineteenth-century North American landscape terminology – discovered and “resurrected” by Steve Packard and his co-workers on the North Branch Restoration Project in Illinois.

This has been a remarkable ecological achievement, which after a slow start – it only took off after nearly two decades of trial and error – caught the popular imagination and began to engage communities, harnessing the potential of popular re-engagement with the natural world in a way that has enabled it to become “a prototype for citizen-led ecological restoration”. “Citizen-led” does not necessarily imply community support, however, and a salutary lesson from the project is the way it exemplifies the gap there may be between inspired, enthusiastic and often charismatic environmentalists and the body of a broader citizenry. The chapter is also an eye-opener to the emotional intensity of the divide that can exist among “conservationists”, who can have very different views about what they are trying to “restore”. Perhaps we catch a glimpse of this kind of divide closer to home in the gap between the hope cherished by some Irish ecologists that the vast area of cutaway raised bog will make it possible to restore something of the lost wilderness in Central Ireland and the reserve many citizens have about there being something so uncontrolled on their doorstep. Although they would deny it, the volunteers (or so critics argue) are motivated as much by a certain ecological aesthetic, and their intuitive sense of what constitutes harmony and beauty in a landscape, as by a full or real understanding of what constitutes – or constituted – a real, living savannah.

In his next chapter Woodworth paints a wonderfully vivid portrait of the Cinque Terre in Italy, describing the extraordinary skill and labour involved in the creation, over many generations, of its terraced fields, an agriculture adapted to the steep hillside terrain, and the harmonious cultural – and biodiverse – landscape that resulted. The fields of the Cinque Terre are now spontaneously reverting to the chestnut and oak forest, from which they were created in the first place, as a result of farm intensification, and can only be maintained by management that prioritises preservation over purely agro-economic considerations. The traditional terrace farming that produced this biodiversity it is not unique to Cinque Terre; it can be found on hilly landscapes all over the world, and where it still survives it can be seen as one of the great cultural achievements of humankind.

All of the questions the Cinque Terre raises arise also in the case of the Burren, where the limestone pavement quickly reverts to hazel scrub once grazing pressure is lessened, resulting in the loss of the uniquely rich natural diversity of the calcareous grasslands, which can only be maintained by external subsidy. This is one of the most important lessons of many of these case studies. As with the Cinque Terre, the landscapes they describe are forced to depend too much on external subsidy: they are not spontaneously supported from “within” by the prevailing economy.

Closer to home, the author raises the question as to whether woodland restoration projects are designed to produce woods as we imagine them to have been rather than as they really were. Our familiarity with “oakwoods” or “beechwoods” today can mislead us. Primeval woodland was multi-species, even when particular species intercepted the highest percentage of light or harnessed the highest proportion of soil nutrients. Truly “natural” woods are much more varied in age composition, and virtually impossible for hairless bipeds under two metres in height and lacking chainsaws and bulldozers to hack their way through. Chapter 7 is a short, optimistic overview of initiatives in woodland restoration in Ireland, where the main emphasis is on the “young” flagship projects at Clonbur and Brackloon, but Woodworth also briefly reviews the lessons to be learned from the Millennium Forests Project, about which there was such enthusiasm fifteen years ago, and from the stop-start NeighbourWood Scheme.

In Chapter 8, Woodworth breaks his tour to engage at closer quarters with the dilemma that preoccupies many restorationists: whether it is possible, where IAPs have taken over an ecosystem, to restore the former state, particularly in view of the fact that climate change makes it impossible to predict with any degree of confidence how this will play out and interact with or influence flora and fauna, native or otherwise. (Of course, the backdrop of climate change provides the subtitle of this book.) “The past is no longer a prescriptive guide for what might happen in the future” is a quote from an influential paper by James Harris, one of the most passionate prophets of the dilemma. It offers little solace to remark that it never is, because the time frame for this remark is (or properly should be) geological – but this is the very thing that drives the evolutionary development of novelty in ecosystems. In a striking metaphor, Harris tells us that “The changing climate is spinning the ship of restoration, but that does not mean that we should throw away the compass.” Indeed. Except that the compass is not in our hands or under our control. The compass in our hands is a toy; the real compass is elsewhere, and of a complexity beyond our understanding.

Chapter 9 is an account of the justly celebrated Jarrah Forest on the site of the world’s largest bauxite mine, Alcoa in Western Australia. Impressive though this showpiece of ecological restoration is though, it is hardly “a paradigm for other projects” because it is so expensive: an expense Alcoa can easily afford in this case because its operation is so financially lucrative. This example illustrates well the fragility of many exemplary projects because of insecure and inadequate funding.

In his account of the extraordinary Gondwana Link Project, which attempts to reconnect and restore a range of wonderful habitats in eight different ecosystems across a thousand square kilometres in Western Australia, we read that “ecological restoration is social restoration is human restoration” (perhaps echoing Thoreau’s “in wildness is the restoration of the world”); and although it is especially clearly demonstrated by the way this project operates, this theme recurs throughout the book. Something that echoes through every case study in the book is the conviction that it is only when an appreciation of what biodiversity really means becomes part of our human, ethical core (albeit shored up as it develops by economic, aesthetic and other more “selfish” considerations) that we may truly hope to be its custodians in anything more than a local and piecemeal way.

Woodworth also explores Daniel Janzen’s insistence that, since we are genetically hard-wired to control our environment, “the human genome needs to absorb and designate what [Janzen] calls ‘wildland nature’ as an essential part of its own needs”. This also entails the need to nourish and develop a sense of ownership: this is ours, and being its custodians (which requires us to understand it) will benefit us. Janzen has been one of the truly inspiring figures in restoration ecology for fifty years, and we spend time in his company in Chapter 10. His ideas are so central that Woodworth has distilled the essence of his key articles and posted them on his own website.

The Gondwana example illustrates especially well the need for conservationists (and particularly restoration ecologists) to engage in advance with mining companies – “major forces in our landscape” – a point echoed again and again in other chapters. This Australian example is also useful for the way it illustrates the difference between efforts to restore connectivity in landscapes, such as those of northwest Europe, which are, to use the acronym invented by Stephen Hopper of Kew, YODFELs (Young, Often Disturbed, Fertile Landscapes) and OCBILs (Old, Climatically Buffered, Infertile Landscapes) with extraordinarily high levels of endemism, often in tiny areas.

Chapter 11 takes us to New Zealand (a micro-continent, in ecological terms, such is its biodiversity). Here, restoration has an agenda and emphasis dictated by the urgent need to eradicate the wide range of alien mammals introduced to a part of the world whose extraordinary diversity of reptiles, birds, amphibians and invertebrates evolved and diversified in the absence of mammals (except for three species of bat). This is a fascinating introduction to an approach to conservation that focuses primarily on species rather than habitats, and where wiping out predators assumes an often startlingly high profile. New Zealand is especially, if shockingly, illuminating in the way it provides a view over two hundred years of what happened in the course of four thousand years in Europega. It beggars belief that while New Zealand has 2,300 species of native vascular plants, eighty-six per cent of which are endemic, the number of introduced species is 2,400. Many exemplary projects in New Zealand are a result of concerted action by educational institutions, local authorities, community groups and charismatic individuals. It is, however, impossible to tell whether they constitute the critical mass within the population necessary to ensure long-term success. And the scale of the problem is vast. Even in New Zealand, where thirty per cent of the land mass is protected, and there is broad public awareness, government funding is sufficient to manage only five per cent of that thirty per cent sustainably.

A short Chapter 12 introduces us to the extraordinary skill, acquired over centuries of experience in the restoration and long-term maintenance of rainforest under shifting cultivation, of the Lacandon Maya people in the southeast Chiapas in Mexico, close to the border with Guatemala. We can admire the sophistication of this “form of ecological management and manipulation of the forest that constitutes a seamless web of cultivation and restoration”. It is disheartening, however, to read of a preference among the Lacandon Maya of today for roads and canned food over garden produce that requires such sophisticated maintenance (“day after day, month after month” in the heat of southern Mexico), and the implication of the startling fact that the houses in the community have Sky TV dishes. I found Don Manuel’s explanation of why he never used chemicals unforgettable:

It kills everything below the surface, then it burns the earth, and we kill the earth after several uses. They told us it was good, I used it to see how it worked. All the insects and bugs under the earth die. It frightens me that the Tzeltales [a neighbouring tribe] use it, all the roots rot, it is like cutting the body and draining the blood. What will I say to God if I have destroyed everything with chemicals?

Woodworth’s second Irish case study is the restoration of bogland. He begins with an overview of Catherine Farrell’s inspirational restoration of blanket bog at Bellacorick, but is careful to include her caution as to its status. This is not restoration to what was there before Bord na Móna began its work of surface mining, not even necessarily to the juvenile stages of that lost ecosystem, because we are not sure exactly what those were. But it has restored the peat-forming conditions that will allow the development of a new blanket bog in equilibrium with the changed environmental conditions of the west of Ireland today and into the future –though what develops will in due course merit a moniker in the nomenclature of phytosociologists somewhat different from the “Pleurozio purpureae-ericetum tetracilis” of the bog that once was! Then we are taken on a tour of Kilconny Bog – “a bog on life support, its vital circulation system maintained through pumps and stents and bypasses and intravenous drips, its organic structures propped up with plastic crutches and radical surgery” – where a plethora of artificial supports continues to be employed in order to maintain an unsustainable, pristine status quo.

While the long-term hope and objective in Mayo is the restoration of blanket bog – of a “classic” landscape in phytosociological terms – and there are local examples where this has been achieved with degraded raised bog, it cannot and should not be the aim for the vast areas of industrial cutaway raised bog. There, the guiding philosophy can still be a form of the “ecocentric restoration” championed by Bill Jordan (where there is a minimal level of management “undertaken strictly for the sake of the system, a tribute to nature as given and its inherent value”), but without dictating the end state in advance.

In this chapter the focus is on a series of isolated case studies, but the most exciting development in the area of peatland rehabilitation in Ireland is the recognition of the way in which spontaneous natural regeneration takes place on industrial cutaway. This produces a spectrum of species-diverse transitional habitats whose future will be decided through interaction between the inherent ecological vitality of the site and the uncertain environmental circumstances in a world in which global warming is the ecological wild card. Peatland stratigraphy itself shows us how the growing bog changed constantly through the course of its development in response to changing environmental circumstances. But this change is slow, scarcely discernible in a human lifetime. On several occasions in the course of their development raised bogs dried out sufficiently for pine forest to cover them.

The progress of the gargantuan harvesting machines across the brown deserts where great pristine raised bogs had once extended as far as the eye could see – “a vast brown ocean of bog, extending to the horizon on all sides, where the only landmarks were church steeples” (as JJ Moore, one of the most eminent members of the last generation of botanists who knew them intimately described it) – was viewed with horror by “conservationists” in the 1960s and 1970s. The bogs would be replaced by fields and conifer plantations, with the occasional recreational facility where it was too wet for anything more “productive”.

In the event, much of the cutaway bog proved unsuitable for agriculture or forestry, but when left to its own devices showed a remarkable – and unsuspected – ecological vitality, developing a mosaic of new peatland habitats which were in many respects more biodiverse than those they replaced. These are not “classical” ecosystems, and they are still evolving towards an uncertain distant ecological “climax”. Their progress is monitored and charted by the new Ecology Unit within Bord na Móna (led by Catherine Farrell) with a view to steering that progress in ways that maximise long-term biodiversity.

The author might have found a number of other examples closer to home to broaden his Irish case studies. Several of the most biodiverse habitats – the Shannon callows and the grasslands of the Burren perhaps the most noteworthy – developed in response to agricultural management practices that were labour intensive but involved low nutrient input and, of course, with no thought of biodiversity as an intended outcome. Only within the last hundred years – indeed, for all practical purposes, within half that time – have the flora and fauna of these habitats become values to be weighed in the balance alongside economic considerations. Their ecological parameters have come to be defined in a way almost analogous to the manner of religious dogma: “pristine” status is conferred on those that resist further change. Meanwhile, however, agricultural policy and management have altered fundamentally, becoming input-intensive and mechanised, making these ecosystems – once in relative harmony with the farming culture that produced and sustained them – “economically obsolete”. Their survival now depends on the continuation of practices that are less than optimally efficient from an economic point of view but analogous in outcome with obsolete traditional practices, involving compensatory payments to farmers for income foregone through schemes that are often poorly funded or uncertain. The alternative, however, is to let nature take its course, with unpredictable outcomes.

What is required is a redefinition of what “restoration” intends: not restoring the lost ecosystem which was defined by the circumstances of its time, but the natural ecological processes that may weave its magical replacement in a new future. A quotation from James Aronson and Andre Clewell at the head of Chapter 14 sums it up. Whether we define restoration as the recovery of natural ecosystem function or of ecosystems defined in terms of lost assemblages of plants and animals, what we will get is what we as a society are prepared to pay for: “Do we prefer the original or the transformed ecosystem? Which version favours our ecological values, our economic well-being, our cultural fulfilment, and our aesthetic preferences?”

Hopeful as these case studies are, Woodworth does not fail to remind us that “today’s restoration movement lives in the shadow of environmental catastrophe.” We are in urgent need of radical change on a scale our pursuit of ever greater personal affluence – heedless of consequences, careless about anything deeper – gives little hope of willed conversion to. Given “the increasingly naked subservience of all currently significant parties” (and we who vote them in) to market forces, what hope is there that our situation “will spark popular movements to take democratic control of our economies” – given that democracy will simply demand more of the same.

While continuing to maintain and restore pristine ecosystems, we need (as Woodworth acknowledges) to recognise that conservation is far more important (and much less costly) than restoration from the point of view of maintaining biodiversity, and that this principle should also include sustainable agriculture – a theme equally central to our survival. Some of the most biodiverse places on earth are the result of agriculture, but of an agriculture that does not violate integral ecosystem processes and is appropriate in scale.

Woodworth is alert throughout to the multiple meanings of “restoration”, and one of the strengths of the book is the clarity with which it manages to steer a course through the sometimes conflicting philosophies that underlie these different meanings. He concludes with a focus on three of the key figures in this debate. Firstly, in his account of Bill Jordan’s “ecocentric philosophy”, he tells us that “we do not have to go to Yosemite, the Kruger, or the Amazon to experience our relationship with ecosystems.” This is an observation that deserves much more detailed treatment, because it is in the possibilities it opens up that lies the only real hope of the radical change in perspective that will “restore the world”. Secondly, James Aronson’s practice is informed by the belief that the conservation of biodiversity is best achieved through making ecosystems economically useful to local people. Aronson argues that the most we can hope for is the restoration of ecosystem function and services rather than a “Shangri-La”-type historical reference defined by specific fauna and flora. But there is still an insistence that restoration targets should be based on a historical reference system.

Thirdly, there is the “novel ecosystems” philosophy of Richard Hobbs, Eric Higgs, Jim Harris and their school, characterised by a move away from historical reference systems, and requiring a revision of our “cultural norms of nature”. To quote Hobbs: “Ecological restoration finds new moorings in emphasizing restoration of ecosystem functions, goods and services.” An important point of emphasis in the critique of this approach is that it can so easily be exploited as an excuse for not undertaking expensive “restoration” of what was there before. Many restoration ecologists resist this approach vigorously, arguing that it is dropping the bar, providing an alibi for those who do not want to invest in restoration. They argue that wholesale restoration to historical reference systems (HRS) is possible, especially with the ever more sophisticated technological toolboxes now available, but that it takes vastly more resources than we are generally prepared to commit.

Every project described here is wonderful and ground for hope, and taken together they weave a canvas of extraordinarily varied technique and approach. Still, images of certain ones seem to root more deeply in the reader’s imagination. I did find myself drawing up a shortlist of places I have to visit (for my “bucket”, as I believe is the new word) in the unlikely hope of ever having the privilege of retracing some of the paths Woodworth has travelled. The image of the “island” wilderness of Mount Maungatautari, surrounded by its forty-seven kilometres of predator-proof fencing, and from which the notorious bush-tailed opossum (and mammals in general) that had devastated the native fauna has been eliminated by poisoning reminded me of Jurassic Park – but here we are trying to restore what we lost yesterday rather than 150 million years ago, and the challenge is to keep out rather than to keep in!

John Feehan, formerly senior lecturer at UCD’s School of Agriculture and Food Science, is well known for his award-winning television work on the natural and cultural heritage of the Irish landscape, for which he received a Jacobs Award. His many books include the definitive textbook on Ireland’s peatlands, the widely acclaimed Farming in Ireland: History, Heritage and Environment, The Wildflowers of Offaly and (with colleagues in UCD) a popular book on Ireland’s grasslands.