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Ecological Restoration and the Public Lands: Toward A More Natural Order

June 2003

Citation: 33 ELR 10443

Issue: 6

Author: Robert B. Keiter

"The task . . . is to become a co-worker with nature in the reconstruction of the damaged fabric . . . ."

—William Perkins Marsh (1864)

"This is a day of redemption and of hope. It's a day when the limits of what is possible have been greatly expanded because we are showing our children that restoration is possible, that we can restore a community to its natural state."

—Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt (1995)

Less than 200 years ago, when the Lewis and Clark Expedition traversed the American West en route to the Pacific Ocean, it encountered a largely untouched and still primitive landscape. Millions of bison criss-crossed the Great Plains, grizzly bears roamed the region, salmon choked many of the rivers, and fires routinely burned the prairies and forests. The region's native ecosystems, having evolved over the millennia, were shaped primarily by natural disturbance regimes. To be sure, the region's native inhabitants had a hand in the process, setting fires, taking wildlife, and even building modest dams, but these impacts had not unraveled historic evolutionary patterns. By the mid-20th century, however, that same western landscape looked quite different. European settlement and the persistent onslaught of modern civilization had markedly altered ecological patterns: cattle had replaced bison on the plains, only a few remnant grizzly bears remained, annual salmon runs were in decline, and fires were regularly suppressed with ruthless efficiency. Intent on making the landscape safe and productive, we eliminated entire species and disrupted natural processes on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Ecological simplification was the order of the day.

With the advent of the 21st century, serious efforts are underway to reverse this destructive pattern and to restore extirpated species, natural processes, and historical disturbance regimes. Ecological restoration has gained increasing respectability, leading some astute observers to conclude that undoing the environmental mistakes and miscalculations of the past will define the next era in western natural resource policy. Whether that proves true or not, the remarkable fact is that major ecological restoration efforts are afoot, and even larger projects are on the drawing board. Witness the return of the wolf to the northern Rockies and the reintroduction of fire on the public lands—two prominent examples of our emerging commitment to making the landscape whole again. Serious proposals have surfaced to translocate grizzly bears onto new terrain in central Idaho, to remove costly dams from the Columbia River system on behalf of the salmon, and to make ecological restoration a management priority across the Interior Columbia Basin's public lands. The recent proliferation of ecological restoration initiatives and proposals can only be regarded as a sea of change in how we value the natural world. Just how this change has occurred and where it may lead offers a fascinating excursion into the evolving human relationship with nature and the policy priorities that are redefining that relationship.

Robert Keiter is Wallace Stegner Professor of Law and Director of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law. This Article contains modified excerpts from his forthcoming book, KEEPING FAITH WITH NATURE: ECOSYSTEMS, DEMOCRACY, AND AMERICA'S PUBLIC LANDS, which will be published by Yale University Press in the summer of 2003. The University of Utah College of Law Faculty Research Fund helped support this project. The author would like to thank his colleague, Bob Adler, for his insightful comments on an earlier draft of this Article.

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