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for people who care about the West

Shifting baselines


In “Restoration’s crisis of confidence” (HCN, 8/6/18), Maya Kapoor offers a thoughtful summary of current debates about the role of history in ecological restoration.

Kapoor correctly describes how restorationists in the Southwest are moving away from their traditional focus on recovering historic baseline, or “reference,” conditions. Baselines have always been arbitrary and difficult to describe, and they are increasingly detached from the kinds of future scenarios we associate with climate change.

Two other points, however, are worth mentioning.

First, the notion of restoring degraded ecosystems to pristine conditions is mostly limited to the Anglophone world of former British colonies. In most other regions, including Europe, the idea of restoring ecosystems to a pristine natural state has never resonated. We Americans are just beginning to catch up.

Second, the idea that history is no longer relevant for restoration — “ecologists can’t look to the past,” as Kapoor puts it — because ecosystems are so dynamic ignores the fact that we know ecosystems are so dynamic largely from research about the past in fields such as paleoecology, historical ecology and environmental history.

History cannot provide a roadmap for specific restoration plans, but it remains essential for placing those plans in their larger context of social and environmental change.

Peter S. Alagona
Santa Barbara, California