Stine on Martin, 'Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration'

Laura J. Martin
Jeffrey K. Stine

Laura J. Martin. Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2022. 336 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-97942-0

Reviewed by Jeffrey K. Stine (National Museum of American History) Published on H-Environment (October, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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Jeffrey Stine on Laura Martin, Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration

With anthropogenic climate change and habitat destruction on the rise and without human intervention to mitigate those trends, an escalating number of wild species will vanish. This dilemma raises the question of what role society should play to help rectify the ecological harm it has inflicted. In Wild by Design, the historian and ecologist Laura Martin explores how restoration ecology can assist in addressing this challenge. With astute and thought-provoking insights and graceful prose, this book arrives at a timely moment, as the twentieth century’s two dominant modes of environmental management, conservation and preservation, are being supplemented by techniques of ecological restoration.

Martin addresses both the evolving cultural definitions of wildness and the political and scientific debates over how to address the loss of species. To many people, any mediation to assist a struggling species diminishes its wildness. In seeking “to intervene in the lives of wild plants and animals while also retaining their ‘wildness’,” today’s ecological restorationists, Martin contends, have challenged “the idea that a place is either untamed or managed, wild or designed” (p. 7). Wildness, in their view, has come to depend on human intervention, albeit intervention pursued with a light touch and a deep understanding of ecology.

Early restoration efforts in the United States, Martin writes, sprang from efforts to grapple with the loss of bison. Emerging from a dissatisfaction with the traditional conservationist call for ever tighter hunting restrictions, the idea of game restoration took hold in the early 1900s, based on the belief that bison could be bred on managed game reservations and then released for the benefit of hunters. Bison herds could be increased and hunting could continue. As this approach gained popularity, lands were also set aside for elk and pronghorn antelope, and sanctuaries built for game birds. Noting that five of the largest bison reservations were established on Indian reservations, Martin acknowledges that these nascent restoration efforts focused on benefits accruing to white citizens while disregarding Native American primacy and sovereignty.

The 1930s proved to be a transitional period for restoration efforts, which fed upon the growth and professionalization of ecology research amid the environmental crisis of North America’s devastating drought. Martin describes how views changed in regard to the purpose of nature reservations; they became perceived as protecting land not only from development but also from government management programs, and as securing “control sites” for comparative studies. With scientific investigation as the objective, restorationists sought to set aside lands that had previously gained little attention for beauty or recreation, such as grasslands and wetlands. As their understanding of ecological interconnectedness deepened, restorationists shifted their attention toward entire ecological communities, focusing on the manipulation of plant communities rather than on eliminating predators or artificially propagating desired species.

Martin details how, in an ironic twist, restoration ecology became an unexpected beneficiary of the Atomic Age. The vast expansion of federal science funding during the Cold War helped shape the research programs in ecology, much as it did in fields like physics and oceanography. Concern with the implications of radioactive fallout from atomic and nuclear weapons testing, for example, prompted the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to support ecological studies involving radioisotopes, which enabled biologists to track the circulation and transformation of molecules at the level of cells, organisms, and, eventually, ecosystems, revealing previously unknown connections among species. During the early 1960s, the AEC-funded studies of the ecological consequences of a global-scale war also provided unintended benefits to the field. A handful of ecologists devised Doomsday experiments, deliberately destroying targeted ecosystems to study their response. Even E. O. Wilson, Martin reminds us, was part of a project that poisoned entire islands off the Florida coast to test the theory of species equilibrium. The Cold War research revealed the limits of nature’s ability to heal itself. As ecosystem theory began influencing public attitudes during the 1960s, the irreversibility of species loss gained traction, exemplified by the environmentalist slogan “Extinction is forever.”

In the last third of the book, Martin analyses the impact of post-1970s regulations on ecological restoration efforts. The Endangered Species Act of 1973, for example, produced a striking shift in the management policies of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). For decades, the agency had pursued an aggressive campaign of killing native predators, even species known to be endangered. With the new law in place, FWS initiated captive breeding programs for endangered wildlife (including predators), with the intent of reintroducing them to the wild. As Martin perceptively observes, “The goal of protecting endangered species did not fit easily into an agency that employed experts at endangering species. Ecologists who research how to restore wild species found themselves working for the same agency as ecologists who researched how to efficiently kill wild species” (p. 141).

Government regulation also played an unexpected role during the late twentieth century, as nonnative species came to be seen as a principal threat to wild species. Land trusts, which had found it increasingly difficult to secure federal permission to work with endangered and threatened species, learned that they were often permitted—if not encouraged—to kill nonnative species. The eradication of nonnative species thus became a common practice among the burgeoning number of land trusts managing protected areas. This change led to nongovernmental organizations becoming major players in twenty-first century ecological restoration, best exemplified by the Nature Conservancy efforts.

Despite ecological restoration’s steady professionalization and its deepening scientific underpinnings, it did not gain a broad following among environmental managers until the 1990s. With off-site mitigation added to the restoration toolkit—that is, the regulatory requirement that a project’s destruction of an ecosystem (say a wetland or forest) must be mitigated by restoring a similar ecosystem elsewhere—ecological restoration stands today as the world’s most widely practiced form of environmental management. The growing appeal of this approach, in Martin’s mind, flows from restoration’s ability to stand as an effective alternative, one that is “more active than preservation but more restrained than conservation” (p. 179).

Martin’s Wild by Design explains well how ecological restoration came to dominant management approaches. Importantly, it also emphasizes how restorationists often ignored the deeper issues of social justice, and it argues, with passion and evidence, that successful environmental management schemes must address social justice alongside ecological health. Consequently, the book stands out as a portrayal of ecological restoration as an active scientific and social pursuit that offers a meaningful and needed sense of hope.

Citation: Jeffrey K. Stine. Review of Martin, Laura J., Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. October, 2022. URL:

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