Terra Renewal

It’s a sign of how far the environmental movement has come that after talking for decades about  conservation and preservation—ideas geared towards stopping environmental abuses—“restoration,” or repairing  damage already done, has found a home in the lexicon.
California’s restoration scene has taken off over the last 20 years. Once the province of a few community activists, scientists, and enthusiasts, the movement today encompasses thousands of ongoing projects, hundreds of millions of state, federal, and private dollars, and dozens of government agencies in cooperation with the private and nonprofit sectors.
At the same time, the challenge of restoring what has been lost, damaged, or simply altered by 150 years of industrial and agricultural development remains daunting. Take, for example, the San Francisco Bay and Delta Estuary.
A century and a half of filling, dredging, and diking has shrunk the bay by one third of its original size. Once lined with 190,000 acres of marshes, today it has only 40,000 acres. Of the 500 species of fish and wildlife associated with the baylands, 20 are endangered or threatened with extinction.
At the same time, seven million people live and work adjacent to the bay’s historic wetlands, a fact that forces engineers and planners to consider some difficult and fundamental questions: What are the goals of restoration? Who or what benefits? And how far are we willing to go to achieve those goals? In May 2002, officials announced a $100 million plan to purchase and restore 16,500 acres of former salt-making ponds in San Francisco Bay. If the project takes place, it will be the most  ambitious wetlands restoration in California history—but it’s still a drop in the bucket. To truly restore the bay would mean reversing decades of so-called progress, tearing down whole neighborhoods, breaking up dams and levees and ports. But restoration at its most radical—the “bringing down of civilization” as Derrick Jensen calls it (see page 18)—has never been on the drawing board.
“We’re certainly not going to take people’s homes out to  create wildlife habitat,” says Clyde Morris, manager of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, regarding the Cargill salt pond restoration. “It would be pretty silly  to try to return to a pre-white man environment.”
Not that it hasn’t been tried.
In 1934, a faculty committee at the University of Wisconsin in Madison began acquiring derelict farmland—dominated by non-native, weedy quackgrass and bluegrass—for the establishment of an arboretum that would incorporate a collection of all the ecological communities native to the area. A rich  mosaic that includes wildflowers, prairie grasses, and hardwoods, the resultant 60-acre Curtis Prairie now contains over 200 plant species and is considered one of the earliest and most extensive restored ecological communities in the world.
Nevertheless, 70 years later none of the communities of the Curtis Prairie represents a perfect snapshot of the pre-settler environment. Rapid urban development in nearby Madison has left its mark—roadwork has slimmed buffer zones of planted pine trees and caused erosion and deposition that have buried parts of the prairie. A siltation pond was added to offset urban runoff, but the pond has contributed to erosion of a creek that runs through the prairie, allowing the intrusion of aggressive reed canary grass. Further complicating the restoration is timescales: soil structure alone may take hundreds or even thousands of years to develop.
Realistically, restoration isn’t about crafting historically exact re-creations, writes Seth Zuckerman, a California-based environmental writer. “People can . . . seek to restore the land,” writes Zuckerman, “to a particular snapshot of ecological beauty from an imagined earlier era: before industrial logging, before the arrival of white settlers, before the diking of wetlands. But any such snapshot only existed for a moment in time. Lasting restoration does not attempt to restore an ecosystem to a particular state; it attempts to restore the processes of natural succession and evolution that occur in wild, self-regulating systems.”
Restoration, in other words, is less about turning back the clock than it is about allowing natural processes to return to an area that humans have disrupted—setting the evolutionary clock ticking again, as restorationist Don Falk puts it. Nature is far better at creating nature than humans are (see p. 19).
Meanwhile, it becomes ever more evident that what’s good for nature is also good for humans, and nowhere is this better illustrated than in the watershed restoration movement.
For much of the 20th century, big federal projects channelized urban waterways in rapidly growing population centers, straightening and wrapping them in concrete and frequently burying them to control flooding and make room for new  development. Ironically, these expensive efforts to control the environment often had the opposite effect: watersheds lost their ability to cope with increased sedimentation and  polluted runoff, resulting in increased flooding and the degradation of water quality. As urban streams were essentially  converted into underground storm sewers, “what used to be a neighborhood amenity [became] a neighborhood nuisance,” says Larry Kolb of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board.
By the 1980s, many citizens were fed up with the failed creek projects of the previous decades, particularly in the low-income and minority communities that frequently  receive the brunt of industrial pollution and runoff.
One of those communities is North Richmond, where a trash-strewn creek flooded chronically; its eroding banks were an eyesore and a public nuisance. Residents had received an offer from the Army Corps of Engineers to relieve the frequent flooding of Wildcat Creek with a concrete culvert behind a chain-link fence but turned it down, opting instead to hire their own expert, nationally known hydrologist Ann Riley, to help design a community-based solution.
Volunteers removed trash from public access areas of the creek; stabilized eroding banks with native vegetation, brushpiles, and cages of rocks; and widened the floodplain to  accommodate 100-year flood cycles. The result was a shaded, meandering neighborhood resource and critical habitat for  endangered red-legged frogs and the occasional great egret. Bordered by the 1.5-mile Wildcat Creek Trail, the creek is also a place where kids go in search of crayfish and reintroduced rainbow trout.
According to Lillie Mae Jones, a longtime community leader who was instrumental in the Wildcat Creek restoration, the flooding has been alleviated. But Jones says the true benefit of restoration lies in the hands-on educational and job training opportunities it offers to locals.
Groups from nearby Verde Elementary School frequently visit the creek to monitor water quality and learn about the ecosystem. “By taking city kids and putting them in the boonies,” Jones says, “it gets them interested in where they live, what affects their lives, and it gets them interested in ecology. When you make them aware of the environment and injustice, it makes a difference.”
Jones is proud of the work her organization, Community Youth Council for Leadership and Education (CYCLE), does in bringing at-risk youth—some of them on probation or under house arrest—out to work on the creek. Jones explains how the environmental work translates to life-skills training. “It’s our way of creating employment for the kids who are out here pushing drugs and killing each other,” she says. “It gives them legitimate roles.”
The success of Wildcat inspired dozens of similar locally based restoration projects. The Urban Creeks Council of California has coordinated efforts in North Richmond, Albany, Berkeley, and El Cerrito, pulling in state and federal dollars and enlisting the participation of community groups like the East Bay Conservation Corps. Notable examples include Oakland’s Sausal Creek (see page 20)—where in the ’80s, grassroots activists halted the proposed burial of the city’s only large creekside parkway—and Berkeley’s Strawberry Creek, of which volunteers “daylighted” approximately 500 feet in 1994.
Kolb says that local flood control agencies have reinvented themselves as watershed stewards. Last year, the California  Department of Water Resources awarded 26 urban stream restoration grants worth nearly $8.6 million. As scientific  understanding of natural water systems has grown, Kolb says, agencies have learned that “you can’t treat the stream separately from the watershed.”
Over the last decade and a half, government agencies have sponsored more and larger restoration projects, many due to wider applications of two of the nation’s most important  environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act—in particular, a 1987 Supreme Court ruling requiring that storm flows and urban runoff be regulated under the latter.
The broadening interpretation of those two acts has forced South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project planners to consider the bay within a larger regional context. On the one hand, transforming salt ponds to habitat for endangered wildlife communities such as the clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse means a host of technical activities in the ponds themselves—assimilating brines, grading levees, breaching dikes, replacing dredged material, controlling non-native plants and animals, and disposing of derelict equipment. On the other hand, water quality in the bay is essential to the survival of these species, which means that upland watersheds hundreds of miles away are now a critical piece of the bay puzzle.
“You can’t address the quality of the bay until you restore the streams,” Riley says. Just as scientists found that the Curtis Prairie could not be isolated from the effects of nearby urban areas, bay agencies have finally acknowledged the importance of upland water corridors where riparian woodlands and meanders catch sediment and filter pollutants such as pesticides, fertilizers, and PCBs. “It’s the dot we’re finally connecting,” Riley says.
At the heart of this regional approach is CALFED, a cooperative effort of more than 20 state and federal agencies working with local communities to address water management and ecosystem health issues throughout the San Francisco Bay Delta, including the Sacramento and San Joaquin river valleys, Suisun Marsh, and San Francisco and San Pablo bays. CALFED, by one official’s estimate, is the largest supporter of restoration projects in the state, with a $150-million-per-year ecosystem restoration budget. Since 1996, CALFED has supported 402 projects to the tune of $476 million.
The California Department of Fish and Game, which invested in over 200 restoration projects last year, awards approximately $20-25 million per year in restoration grants, most oriented towards restoring fish runs and habitat. Commercial and sport fish populations—native and non-native alike, such as salmon, steelhead trout, and striped bass—have been devastated by decades of damming, resulting in the widespread loss of riparian habitat and disruption of spawning routes. A 1988 California Department of Fish and Game report estimated that a fully implemented recovery strategy for salmon and steelhead could produce a net benefit of $6 billion and 8,000 new jobs; even doubling existing stocks of these fish would produce net benefits of $150 million a year.
Typical of Fish and Game projects is the public-private partnership that in 2002 brought together Trout Unlimited, the California Conservation Corps, and landowner Mendocino Redwood Company to plant and irrigate 200 trees along a tributary of the Russian River west of Ukiah. Dam removal has also gained momentum as a more ambitious habitat restoration strategy; Friends of the River has targeted 22 dams for  removal, mostly in Northern California.
Although they have attracted much of the attention and resources, restoration is not the exclusive province of streams, rivers, and wetlands. The Natural Resources Project Inventory tracks over 4,000 restoration or assessment and planning projects in California. Of those, about 600 are exotic weed eradication programs. In Palo Alto’s Arastradero Preserve, for example, volunteers work year-round(see p. 21).
Large-scale projects—like the South Bay salt ponds, or the proposed restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park, can have long-range price tags in the billions of dollars, causing some to ask whether it would be cheaper not to have destroyed them in the first place. “Nature does a far better job of making nature than mankind does,” says Will Travis of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, “so it’s always cheaper to protect what we have than it is to despoil it and then come back and try to restore it later.”
Friends of the River’s Ron Stork sees it as a matter of tradeoffs. “For the cost of another B-1 bomber, does the country want another Yosemite Valley?” To that, he says, many people would say yes.

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