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The Promise and Peril of Ecological Restoration: Why Ritual Can Make a Difference
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I. The Challenge of Restoration

Writing in 1992, biologist E. O. Wilson prophesied, "Here is the means to end the great extinction spasm. The next century will, I believe, be the era of restoration in ecology." This statement has become the rallying cry for advocates of ecological restoration, an emerging international environmental movement focused on the renewal of damaged or destroyed ecosystems. The benefits promised by ecological restoration are manifold. In addition to its primary ecological goals of replenished biodiversity and improved ecosystem functioning, restoration fosters intimate, participatory kinds of community between practitioners and their local environments. Moreover, the idea that we can heal our environments rather than just minimize the damage we do to them is a much-needed positive message in the midst of our ongoing environmental crisis.

The many benefits of restoration do not come for free, however. Aside from the painstaking work that it entails, restoration presents profound challenges to environmental thought and to environmental culture at large. One way to understand these challenges is to consider the way in which restoration runs against the grain of both conservationist and preservationist styles of environmentalism. Insofar as conservationists understand the values of nature in terms of human interests, they tend to advocate the active management of ecosystems as natural resources and so are less concerned with the preservation of particular species, let alone entire ecosystems, for their own sake. Insofar as preservationists understand the values of nature over and against humanity, they tend to champion particular species and habitats and advocate more "hands-off" styles of management that minimize interference. In contrast to both of these, restorationists often combine active management with deep appreciation of the intrinsic values of particular species, habitats, and ecosystems as a whole. Indeed, many practitioners have become passionate advocates for the holistic restoration of particular ecosystems precisely because of the way in which restoration has involved them in close relationship with these systems. In many contexts, these differences are negligible, and restoration is welcomed by environmentalists of all stripes as simply a different strategy of preservation or conservation. What makes restoration controversial is the willingness of some of its practitioners to sacrifice existing populations for the sake of some preferred ecosystem. Of course they usually have good reasons for this, ranging from general ecological values such as biodiversity to the special values of particular ecosystems. Nevertheless when restoration means killing species that are deemed "invasive" or culling native populations whose overabundance threatens the character of an ecosystem, it sits uneasily with mainstream environmentalist sensibilities.

These troubling aspects of restoration are well illustrated by the "Chicago Restoration Controversy." In 1996, a network of Chicago-based grassroots restoration projects that had transformed hundreds of acres of forest into historic oak savannah, and which had just been celebrated in a popular book as a model for the restoration movement, became the target of heated criticism from animal-rights activists, op-ed columnists, politicians, and angry citizen groups such as ATLANTIC, or the Alliance to Let Nature Take Its Course. Under pressure from these groups, local authorities declared a moratorium on restoration work, stalling the projects and even reversing their progress in some areas.

Restorationists and their advocates were stunned by this setback, and have since struggled to understand what went wrong. The assumption of many Chicago restorationists during the controversy was that their opponents simply did not understand the goals and benefits of restoration. But subsequent studies of public attitudes in the Chicago metropolitan area suggest that the causes of opposition were more complicated than this. It seems that the controversy was "rooted less in opposition to restoring nature and more in the specific practices involved in ecological restoration, such as removing or killing healthy trees, using herbicides, setting prescribed fires, and removing fauna." Moreover, contrary to restorationists' belief that "informed people will not resist," those who opposed restoration were found to have the same objective knowledge about restoration as those who supported the project. In addition, one study found that a person's attitude toward the restoration of urban areas is often related to the kind of environmental ideology the person holds, rather than just the person's level of environmental concern. Specifically, the...

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