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Is it possible to remake natural habitats destroyed by man?

Paul Evans; Febraury 13, 2004 

Seen from the train: a skein of wild geese in ragged arrowhead formation flying over urban Merseyside. It is a fitting symbol for a gathering of environmentalists from around the world who met in Liverpool last week. What matters for both the geese and the environmentalists is the subject of the gathering - ecological restoration: the return of indigenous, historical eco-systems. Ecological restoration is still relatively new. It began with the development of techniques to recreate prairies in America and has developed to encompass all kinds of damaged habitats around the world. The Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) was formed in the 80s to bring together environmental scientists, activists, philosophers, campaigners and artists and this was its first international conference in Europe. 

Under discussion were projects like restoring rainforest, coal-mining spoil in New Zealand, wetland habitats and dry woodland edges caused by forestry in Florida. Restoration is not just about wild lands either. Marc Matsil works for the city of New York parks department. He manages 30,000 acres in the city which never sleeps. 

"We raised $70m from companies which polluted the rivers and used the money for restoration," he said. "We now plant 50,000 trees a year and have restored 500 acres of saltmarsh in two years. We're using wild saltmarsh plants to break down petroleum hydrocarbons to reduce water pollution," says Matsil. "The bottom line is: everyone must be accountable and everyone must pay." 

But how does ecological restoration differ from traditional conservation? According to Mike Oxford, principal ecologist for north Somerset and chair of SER UK, "Conservation has traditionally been defensive, trying to protect habitats and species from damaging human action, but ecological restoration is offensive and aims to create more habitats in 10 years' time than we have now." 

The difference between restoration in the UK and the US is that here environmentalists are largely dealing with a cultural landscape, shaped by people over millennia, whereas in the US and Australia there is still a desire to restore "wilderness" or at least some semblance of what the landscape was like before the arrival of Europeans. 

But this search for what is called ecological integrity, is highly problematic. There are mutterings from some environmentalists about producing fake landscapes. Although the renowned Australian environmental scientist Richard Hobbs recognises the desire to turn back the ecological clock to a less complicated time, he believes the past is no guide to the future and that nature is dynamic. 

Some environmentalists, such as US philosopher Andrew Light, see the potential of ecological restoration to encourage and empower local democratic participation towards an "environmental citizenship". 

Eric Higgs, associate professor of anthropology at Alberta University, Canada, who is the incoming chair of SER international, says: "Ecological restoration is about ecological and cultural rejuvenation and can rebuild social relationships". Higgs cites a restoration project in British Columbia where the Songhees first nation people had an island from which they harvested wild bulbs, a practice which had been abandoned for 50 years. The restoration project returned the bulbs to the island and the Songhees resumed the harvest. "This is where ecological restoration also restores the cultural ecosystem," says Higgs. 

Dennis Martinez, of the Indigenous People Restoration Network, is a campaigner for cultural restoration issues in North America. He is concerned that many ecological restoration projects have very western frames of reference and are more concerned with products than with process. "We need to develop the more cyclical processes, understood by traditional local knowledge, which create conditions of a renewability between people and nature," says Martinez.