Ecological “Restoration”: “Someone Pays and Someone Profits”

The article below was first published on April 1st on MillionTrees.me – a site fighting unnecessary tree destruction in the San Francisco Bay Area. Though it references mainly the widespread tree destruction planned for the East Bay, the same principles apply broadly.  The article is republished here with permission

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The Ecological “Restoration” Industry: Follow the money

Matt Chew is one of many professional academics that criticize invasion biology.  Unlike most, he emphasizes explaining the weaknesses of eco-nativism using scientific, historical, and philosophical methods, depending on the issue.  This has made him a useful collaborator and resource for like-minded but primarily science-oriented colleagues. Million Trees is deeply grateful for his willingness to speak publically about the fallacies of invasion biology, including the generous gift of his time in writing this guest post for us.

Dr. Chew is a faculty member of Arizona State University’s Center for Biology and Society and an instructor in the ASU School of Life Sciences.  He teaches courses including the History of Biology, Biology and Society, and a senior conservation biology course in “novel ecosystems,” described HERE on the university’s “ASU Now” news website.

He was also a speaker at the 2013 annual conference of Beyond Pesticides.  A video of his presentation is available HERE (go to 24:40).  He says that “invasive” plants are convenient scapegoats that are presenting a marketing opportunity for the manufacturers of pesticides. Invasion biology is at the core of the greening of pesticides.

In his guest post, Matt helps us to understand how he chose to pursue a multidisciplinary critique of one topic rather than adopting a single disciplinary approach and identity. He began his professional career as a practicing conservation biologist, experiencing firsthand the sometimes startling disconnects between laws, policies, aspirations, public expectations, and realities “on the ground.” 

We celebrate April Fool’s Day with Matt Chew’s article.  When we waste our money on ecological “restorations” the joke is on us!

Million Trees

Matt Chew with his class in novel ecosystems


Those familiar with my academic work know I invest most of my efforts documenting and explaining the flaws and foibles of “invasion biology.” But I got into this messy business as a practical conservation biologist, a natural resources planner “coordinating” the Arizona State Natural Areas Program during the late 1990s. I found the toxic nativism of natural areas proponents morbidly fascinating, and the practical politics of natural areas acquisition and management morbidly galling. I chose to follow my fascination. But as “Death of a Million Trees” marks the end of its seventh year as a WordPress blog, and in light of recent decisions by Bay Area authorities, it’s time for a galling reminder:  Follow the money.

Authorities responsible for suburban fire suppression and recovery necessarily view stands of living trees as liabilities. They can’t see the forest for the fuels. The prospect of eliminating them merely drives their value further into the negative. That it must be subsidized is ironic because eucalyptus and Monterey pine are plantation grown in many countries for timber or pulp. But they aren’t traditional sources of California wood products and a glut of more familiar drought-killed trees awaits salvage far from finicky neighbors.

So condemned trees can’t just be disappeared by pointing them out to eager loggers. “Concept planning” can be fairly vague, but “action planning” must be very specific. A job this big requires both general and sub-contracting. It requires hiring and training and supervising. Capital equipment will be acquired, maintained and repaired. Affected areas must be surveyed and material volumes estimated. Before trees can be felled, access routes must be surveyed and created. After trees are felled they must be sectioned, staged, loaded and hauled away for disposal. More often they are shredded in place. At every step, someone pays and someone profits.

Where “ecological restoration” is the objective, stumps must be pulled or blasted and roots must be excavated. The eucalyptus seed bank will need to be eliminated or rendered inert. Perhaps even a century’s accumulation of organic topsoil will need amending, or removing and replacing to reconstitute prehistoric substrates. Seed suppliers and nurseries will be contracted to provide plant “native” materials. After the armies of tree-fellers and stump-blasters will come waves of laborers, tractors, diggers, spreaders, and planters in an endless relay of trucks. Ecological restoration is farming, all the more so in proximity to a cityscape arrayed in exotic plants. If all goes well and the rain falls in judicious quantities at auspicious times, planting will be followed by perpetual weeding. At every step, someone pays and someone profits.

It’s hardly surprising that FEMA has no intention of underwriting restoration on that scale. Their plans envision minimally spreading shredded wood, leaving a layer up to two feet deep to gradually decompose, and hoping whatever oaks and other present understory plants they haven’t accidentally fractured or flattened will thrive in the sudden absence of big trees. Two feet of material will gradually compact, but assurances that it will rot into organic soil within a few years are pretty optimistic. Whether and when it will support anything resembling a native plant assemblage is dubious. Meanwhile, some viable stumps will require recurring treatment with the herbicide du jour and occasional supplemental felling. It’s not a reset-and-forget strategy. It’s just the first step of a long and contentious cycle of interventions. And of course, at every step, someone pays and someone profits.

Whenever public property and expenditure is concerned there should be an open procurement process with a clear data trail. A call for proposals is written and published, bids are received, contracts awarded, and work commences. But we can be certain that by the time the prospect of deforesting the Bay Area was openly discussed by policymakers, potential bidders were positioning themselves to influence the shape of the emerging policy and take advantage of it. And various interest groups who saw deforesting the hillsides as a means to their ends became a de facto coalition of advocates. Some acted more openly than others, and some to greater effect. But prominent nonprofit organizations expect returns on their investments. Nothing happens unless someone pays and someone profits.

Some of the premises underlying the logic of the program will inevitably be faulty. Should it falter at any step due to unforeseen events (e.g., meteorological, horticultural, ecological, economic or political), contingencies will be implemented… if funds are available. There are only three certainties. Firstly, no action occurs unless someone pays and someone profits. Secondly, nature, within which I include all aspects of human society, is complex and capricious. No one can predict with much certainty how a post-deforestation landscape will look or function. Finally, a coalition of the discontented will emerge and agitate for improvements that require someone to pay, and allow someone to profit.  As Nancy Pelosi recently reminded us, “we’re capitalist and that’s just the way it is.”   

Matt Chew

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