Emma Marris, the author of Rambunctious Garden (RG), loves the nature hiding in back street alleys and along the highway median strip. Marris believes it’s time to abandon (or de-emphasize) what she sees as outdated and naïve conservation strategies such as creation of national parks and wilderness reserves.  She feels the biggest obstacles to a bold new world of “designer” and “novel” ecosystems is the “wilderness cult” that naively wants to preserve “natural” landscapes—which she says do not exist anymore.

Marris espouses the anthropocentric perspective that the Earth is more or less a resource cookie jar for humans—to be used carefully to be sure—but she doesn’t really question whether ethically or ecologically this is ultimately a good idea.

Marris is a cheerleader for the dangerous concept that humans are both intelligent enough and wise enough to “manage” the Earth—the ‘smart resource management’ school of thought. She is a prime example of the kind person biologist David Ehrenfeld had in mind when he wrote his book the Arrogance of Humanism. Embrace weeds, we are told. Assemble new designer ecosystems that can flourish with human activities. Increased economic growth is not seen as a problem, rather an opportunity to work with industry for the betterment of nature.

She sees this prospect of human dominance of global ecosystems as uplifting and joyful, as explained here from her website.

“We argue that the Anthropocene–the epoch marked by widespread human influence–is not by definition a disaster, and that accepting the scope of man’s changes to the Earth can set the stage not for hopelessness, but for a more hopeful environmental movement.  I hope it gets people who have been feeling gloomy about Earth thinking, active, even optimistic again. We can make things better, not just less worse.”

Marris’s optimism can only be shared by those who are blissfully ignorant. As the ecologist Aldo Leopold noted: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.  Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen”.

Marris unabashedly declares that she is neither an ecologist nor environmental activist. And she says she seldom ventures far from a road. She proudly wears this lack of experience and knowledge as a badge of honor; and instead of displaying some humility, she believes this lack of ecological training gives her a unique perspective. However, she is more like the layman that Leopold suggests is blissfully unaware of the ecological wounds and damage all around.

Marris chooses to characterize creation of parks, wilderness areas, and other reserves based on what she calls the “Yellowstone Model” as an extension of colonialism that has displaced native people, and other local people—and thus spread human exploitation in general. This is in contrast to wildlands supporters who view such protected areas as a significant moral and ethical accomplishment. To members of what she derisively dismisses as the “wilderness cult”, parks and wildlands reserves are places where society in essence practices a kind of self-discipline and a willingness to put at least some parts of the Earth off limits to human exploitation and development.

It is surprising that she chooses to trash Yellowstone, because despite the inappropriate policies of the past such as killing off wolves (now restored), stocking of exotic fish, and so on, Yellowstone is still in better ecological condition than any other surrounding public or private lands. The only real problem with Yellowstone Park is that it needs to be enlarged. As a conservation model, it is the best we have.

Instead of supporting the ecosystems created by the interaction of natural events, evolution, and geological time, Marris supports acceptance of novel ecosystems. Novel ecosystems are entirely new arrangements of plants and animals fostered by human design or at least human intervention, which some call ‘techno-ecosystems’.

In my view as an ecologist, the techno world view is one of the major threats to natural systems. Marris argues there are few “natural” ecosystems left, so novel and designer ecosystems are not a threat, but an opportunity to create pleasing landscapes, much as a gardener might choose which plants to favor in the backyard flower patch—hence her reference to ‘rambunctious garden’ in the title of her book.

However, by moving the goalposts to vacant city lots as an acceptable desired future condition of the landscape, she implicitly, if not explicitly, provides cover for all manner of environmental degradation. I can agree with her that not all human landscapes are necessarily abhorrent. Human dominated countryside and cities can be attractive and beautiful and can even provide for a lot of ecosystem functions. But there is abundant evidence that these human landscapes tend to be less sustainable and more disruptive to biodiversity than natural ecosystems.

One of the problems with a critique of her book is that it’s full of contradictions. If one picks out something to criticize, someone else will be able to find another part of the book where she appears to support exactly the opposite perspective. She’ll bash creation of Yellowstone National Park and other preserves as old fashioned and hopelessly naïve efforts at conservation, but then later laud conservation strategies like the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative which essentially are efforts to protect as much land as wilderness or parks as possible.

What this suggests to me is that Marris can talk the talk, but does not walk the walk in terms of her knowledge of ecology, genetics, conservation history, and even the intricacies of resource management. She knows the key phrases and can briefly describe the key ideas, but there is no real systemic analysis. She will often discuss conflicting ideas without seeming aware of the contradictions in her examples.

For instance, late in the book, she outlines the need to protect genetic diversity and does an admirable job of explaining why this is important, yet earlier, she is an advocate of “assisted migration” and “designer ecosystems” where plants and animals are mixed up and moved around based on human notions of what is a good or useful mix. As any biologist can tell you, moving species around and mixing things up is one of the best ways to destroy genetic diversity, since species or populations with unique genetic attributes can be swamped by newcomers. Think of the numerous cutthroat trout subspecies around the West that are endangered by genetic swamping from hybridization with rainbow trout-that were “assisted” in their migration into new watersheds by state wildlife agencies and fishermen’s bucket brigades.

Marris seems to have gotten most of her information from reading papers by and interviews with some researchers. Reading scientific papers is important, but it is no replacement for time spent outdoors in natural environments and years of immersion in ecological training. She was an English major in college and appears to have started to study these issues as a reporter for Nature Magazine. Consequently, despite being a good researcher, she hasn’t had the time to really delve into these issues.

As I read RG, I kept thinking about some of the smart, but inexperienced younger students I shared graduate seminars with while in school. They were good at memorizing and regurgitating factual information. Yet because they hadn’t been around the woods enough to have acquired the breadth of knowledge that comes from extensive familiarity with the academic literature and actual on the ground,  hands-on experience, these students, like Marris, were often unable to put forth a systemic analysis.

Throughout RG Marris suggests that an old paradigm of working to protect natural patterns of diversity from human activities must be replaced by a new paradigm of accepting human-dominated ecosystems.  In other words, protecting wild areas is passé, in part because, Marris would argue, there are few wild places left.

Setting up a straw man of “pristine” wilderness to knock down, Marris suggests that many conservationists believe there are vast tracts of “wilderness” where the footprint of human activity does not exist.

However, if she really had done the proper scholarship she would know that few (if any) serious observers of nature today believe there are “pristine” lands, in the sense of completely untouched by humans.  Plus if she had done enough background reading, she would know this debate was hashed out decades ago, and her observations offer no further insights.

The idea of wilderness is not black and white, but more nuanced—nuances that Marris and others of her persuasion are unwilling to acknowledge. Most wilderness advocates readily admit that human influences are widespread and pernicious—but that on some parts of the globe natural processes dominate to a greater degree than in more humanized landscapes. It is the degree of naturalness, not the complete absence of human influence, that makes some places wilder and less domesticated than others.

To use just one legal definition, the word ‘untrammeled’ as defined in the Wilderness Act does not mean untouched, or state of “purity”; rather it defines wilderness areas  as places that “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”  Downtown Los Angeles is considerably more modified to human ends than say the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Arctic Refuge, by the Wilderness Act’s definition, would qualify as “wilderness” even though the refuge is certainly not “pristine” in a literal sense.

Marris, like many of the Post Modern revisionists before her, also tends to exaggerate the impacts of aboriginal peoples. She equates the modifications, degradation, and exploitation of modern technological human societies — swollen to populations never seen before on Planet Earth — as essentially similar in effect, if not in scope, with the alterations effected by aboriginal peoples. Native people, we are told, were the first members of the smart resource management school of thought. Just because aboriginals may have hunted, gathered plants, and set fires, she jumps to the conclusion that no lands are genuinely wild in the sense of being largely “self-willed” and natural, so any new modification is just a natural extension of the aboriginal use and “management.”

There’s no doubt that aboriginal peoples had some influence on the land.  Early human hunters, it is now argued by many paleo-biologists, contributed to the extinction of some Pleistocene mammals, and many Pacific Islands bird species suffered extinction after the Polynesian people arrived.  Nevertheless, the overall influence of aboriginal peoples upon the Earth was significantly lower due to low population numbers and limited technology, compared to today’s techno society. In favorable, but localized areas Native American influences were likely significant, but the farther one ventured from villages, popular food gathering sites and favored hunting grounds, the more limited the human influence.  Nor would anyone, I think, want to argue that just because aboriginal people caused species extinction, that makes modern extinction rates acceptable.

Human presence has never been evenly distributed upon the face of the Earth. It is simply hyperbole on Marris’ part to make sweeping statements like “we humans have changed every centimeter of the globe.” Even with all our technology, much greater human population, and so forth, there are vast areas of the North American continent, the boreal forest, especially, where human presence is low and human influence is small compared to, say, the agricultural wastelands that dominate the former prairielands of America’s heartland or the cityscapes scattered across the country. Similar degrees of human influence exist on all continents. .

Too many environmental disasters have been justified by exactly this kind of logic—humans are going to make things better. The bucket brigades of fishermen who dump fish willy-nilly across watersheds hoping to “improve” the fishing, as well as the state wildlife agencies that have planted non-native fish around the West, now pose a threat to the majority of native species.  Likewise, the introduction of exotic grasses like buffel grass for “improved” livestock forage is now overwhelming the Sonoran Desert biota.  Even the inadvertent release of diseases from transplanting non-native nursery stock  has led to the spread of  Dutch elm disease,white pine blister rust, and other forest pathogens. These and many other examples of unintended consequences of human manipulation should be enough of a precautionary warning to anyone who has really studied the scientific literature.

To the uninformed, the loss of a particular species may appear to have no serious consequences.  For instance, proponents of ecosystem manipulation like Marris will often argue that substitution of an exotic species for a native one is more or less neutral and may even improve ecosystems. She seems to have adopted the idea that species are mere cogs in a wheel, and interchangeable with few long-term harms to ecosystems.


Marris mocks ecologists who worry about invasives when she writes “the biggest obstacle [to moving species around] is the terror that many ecologists feel when they imagine introducing a species that might become—dum, dum,dum!—invasive.”  Again this demonstrates a real ignorance of the many species that may be co-dependent upon a native species.

A dramatic comparison is between our native oak trees which support 532 Lepidoptera species (butterflies and moths), while the alien invasive Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) supports only two. In addition, at least a thousand other native insect species find homes and food in oak trees, in turn providing food for birds and other creatures. So the loss of an oak tree may not mean the loss of forest cover, but it can definitely have a major impact on biodiversity that is not obvious to the casual and poorly informed observer like Marris.

While she dismisses traditional conservation approaches such as creation of national parks as naïve and ineffective, she provides no systemic analysis of the factors that are accelerating species extinction and biodiversity loss. If one were to believe Marris, the problem is not human population expropriating too much of the Earth’s resources, land and water, but rather a “wilderness cult” that seeks to protect nature from human exploitation.

I do not think Marris intends any malice, but her ideas implicitly provide cover to the industries and people whose activities are the source for environmental degradation around the world.  Developers, logging companies, agricultural interests, ranchers, mining companies, energy companies are effectively given carte blanche to continue what they are doing because in the end everything that is a result of human activities is OK. I won’t suggest that is Marris’s intention, but that is the natural consequence of this perspective.

She argues that we should celebrate weeds for they are survivors, as I imagine one can admire cockroaches, pigeons, and other species that have managed to flourish in the close proximity of humans. But there is a good reason why conservationists don’t celebrate weeds. Not only do such plants and animals often overwhelm native species, frequently leading to a loss or degradation in ecosystem function and biodiversity, but they are, as she notes, remarkably well adapted to human modifications.

She also writes glowingly about how human land modification can “benefit” wildlife. She tells of visiting Nebraska’s Platte River during the sandhill crane migration where she admires the concentrations of the birds. “But the Platte is heavily used by agriculture and industry and the reduction in water has changed the river. Without fast moving icy spring flows to scythe the vegetation off islands, heavy machinery must clear room for the cranes, which are now squeezed into a much smaller stretch of the river. The abundant food in the post-harvest cornfields all around makes it possible for so many to gather together. “

The cranes’ situation illustrates what is wrong with the human dominance and expropriation of the Earth’s resources. One imagines that Marris would see the elk feed-grounds in Wyoming  and salmon hatcheries on the West Coast also in a positive light since both facilitate concentrations of wildlife and use machines, energy and other measures to sustain wildlife at higher populations than the otherwise degraded wildlife habitat would permit. Yet while such concentrations are often to the delight of wildlife observers, hunters, and anglers, they are in fact examples of how badly degraded natural systems are that they must be sustained by artificial and energy intensive means.

Instead of recognizing the mono-culture of GMO cornfields sustained by pesticides and fertilizers — which are used to produce ethanol or feed livestock so people can have steaks and burgers — as wasteful and ecologically damaging, she paints a rosy and reassuring picture of how such human activities actually “benefit” wildlife. Such concentrations of wildlife make them far more vulnerable to disease transmission, to localized catastrophic stochastic events and so on.

Yet Marris asks, “Was this fantastic display [of cranes] somehow counterfeit because the cranes’ numbers ware ‘artificially’ concentrated?” And she answers in a resounding “Nope. Not in my opinion.”

And that is the problem throughout the book. Because she fails to understand and articulate the underlying issues facing wild nature, and instead dismisses efforts to protect landscapes in as natural conditions as possible, she indirectly if not implicitly supports even more manipulation of the planet.  It is the same perverse logic that promotes geo-engineering of the atmosphere as the antidote to global warming, instead of fighting to reduce CO2 emissions.

I don’t have any argument with her admonishment that we should appreciate the bits of nature that survive in our humanized world. I love the birds singing in my suburban yard, the frogs that have found a place to breed someplace under the shrubs and the occasional deer that may wander through my city lot. But I am not fooled. My city lot is not nearly as functional as a large wild reserve, nor is the collective effect of thousands of similar city lots any substitute for one big natural area.

Although Marris belittles wilderness advocates as “romantics” and essentially know-nothings, it is her own ignorance of history and ecology that is demonstrated throughout the book.  Sadly, due to her own lack of scholarship, the author is unaware of how little she really understands about nature.


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About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

26 Responses to Book Review of “Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World” by Emma Marris

  1. Alan Gregory says:

    I liked this book a lot. And I’m someone who already had knowledge of many of the concepts and practices the author includes in the book. And I was flabbergasted to find the book on the shelf at my local Barnes & Noble, rather than having to order a copy by Internet.

  2. Ralph Maughan says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I know from reading many argumentative pieces about nature that the concept of what is natural, what nature is, etc., is a slippery concept. By “slippery,” I mean good for manipulation of emotions and thought — sophistry.

    The word “nature” has powerful emotional impact for many people, but “nature” has no generally agreed upon meaning. As a result, two people can argue about what is natural and not realize they are using different definitions.

    To me, the opposite of natural is artificial. To others, the opposite of natural is unnatural, a word that has no referents in the world. There are no things that are unnatural.

    When we talk about natural environments, I would say they vary from not affected by humans at all (there are no such instances, it is true) to totally artificial environments. Once this is accepted as the meaning of nature, books like this one can be seen as mostly bad argument because no one argues that everything artificial is harmless or beneficial. It always depends on what it is and how it is used.

    • Larry Keeney says:

      From her book, the concept I think we must gain is not to lessen the value and pursuit of establishing the large wilderness preserves but the gaining of a small concept. That is- every time I see a dandelion struggling to grow between the cracks of asphalt I think, Nature; how resilient! (Maybe as I walk by I even take in a molecule of O2 from this plant) Point is weeds ARE beautiful but pristine areas are MORE beautiful and provide a nearly complete environmental benefit. But respect the weeds around warehouses etc. I even think of the value to surreptitiously carrying a bag of grass seed around to let it dribble out on the sidewalks and later see the product of grass trying to eek out a living in the cracks for our behalf. Point is she has a point, but not when it comes to lessening the value of preserves – we need more and bigger and connected.

  3. Jon Way says:

    Interestingly on a somewhat related note many people think that suburban or urban areas are not wildlife habitats for coyotes, deer, even bears in some places. I always argue that those areas are perfectly fine wildlife habitats if we accept them there. Therefore, I would agree that even developed areas are a form of nature but to argue against large protected areas like Yellowstone, etc, is ludicrous in my opinion. These large natural, largely undisturbed by man, are what gives us our baseline for what natural (or mostly so) is…. And then we compare other systems (like suburban areas) to these more or less natural areas like Yellowstone.

    • Nancy says:

      “Interestingly on a somewhat related note many people think that suburban or urban areas are not wildlife habitats for coyotes, deer, even bears in some places. I always argue that those areas are perfectly fine wildlife habitats if we accept them there”

      🙂 Jon Way, excellent point and an arguement that always plays out in my mind, especially out here in Montana where wildlife habitat still has some resemblance to wildlife habitat. Even with decades of sanitizing the landscape of anything that might iterfere with “ag life”

      (n.) The art or science of cultivating the ground, including the harvesting of crops, and the rearing and management of live stock; tillage; husbandry; farming.

    • Ralph Maughan says:

      As I wrote above, things on our planet vary along a continuum from almost pristine to totally artificial, with many degrees of human disturbance between the two poles.

      I don’t how it is an argument against keeping large substantially undisturbed areas intact as much as possible because they are not, and never really were, absolutely undisturbed by humans.

      • Jon Way says:


      • JB says:

        This discussion reminds me of a paper that is required reading for my graduate course (see citation below). Denevan (1992) discusses the extent to which the North American landscape was modified by the first wave of immigrants to the Americas (Native Americans/First Peoples). Native cultures built cities, used rotational grazing, burned grasslands, harvested trees, etc., and these modifications occurred nearly everywhere in NA. However, the introduction of diseases by white Europeans devastated native populations–with some estimates that more than 90% died. Thus, Denevan argues, by the time European explores began to make it to the western states (Lewis and Clark’s expedition was more than 300 years after first contact), native populations were a tiny fraction of what they once were and many (most?) of the land modifications the Native Americans made were no longer visible–the land had healed from the first wave of intensive human use. Thus, Denevan contends, the vast forest resources of the Midwest were there, in part, because the introduction of disease wiped out the people who were using these resources 200 years prior to our arrival.

        I was reminded of this paper recently when watching a documentary about what has happened in the area around Chernobyl following the nuclear accident–i.e., Radioactive Wolves. I suspect a few others here saw it?

        Denevan, W.M., 1992. The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492. Annals of the Assoication of American Geographers 82, 369-385.

        • louise kane says:

          I watched the radio active wolves. I thought it a sad commentary that the only place the wolves found refuge was in a radioactive wasteland. At least they have somewhere. Do your students read Changes in the Land by William Cronon ( i think that was his name). I read it 20 years ago, it was very compelling.

          • JB says:


            I’ve never read “Changes in the Land”. I’ll have to add it to the ‘to read’ pile this summer (thanks for the recommendation).

            As an aside, wolves are doing quite well in eastern Europe, and not just in the radioactive wasteland. Think “half full”!!

        • Tom Page says:

          This concept is popularly explained in Charles Mann’s book, 1491. Mann focuses mostly on the eastern half of the US. For the western US (primarily the southwest since that’s where most of the evidence is) the best document I’ve found is Colin Calloway’s One Vast Winter Count. Calloway’s book is somewhat drier to read than Mann’s work, in my opinion, and I was disappointed to see how limited the discussion was on the Northwestern portion of the continent.

          For those interested in the paleo-Indian and paleoecological history of the US and greater North America, these two books are a good place to begin.

  4. mikarooni says:

    “she dismisses… creation of national parks as naïve and ineffective, …provides no systemic analysis of the factors that are accelerating species extinction and biodiversity loss. If one were to believe Marris, the problem is not human population expropriating too much of the Earth’s resources… but rather a ‘wilderness cult’ that seeks to protect nature from human exploitation.”

    So, this book is just another “wise use” manifesto. I can remember Alan Savory, Courtney White, Alston Chase, and even Helen Chenoweth say pretty much the same thing. Did any of you fall for it then? If not, why start dithering over this version?

  5. Leslie says:

    This woman sounds incredibly ignorant about natural processes. Unbelievable she is published. For one, there are so many examples of disturbed landscapes that have done much damage. One tiny example: When I lived in Marin county, CA large tracts of oak/bay woodlands are covered with invasive scotch broom as their understory with no room for any natives. This was a landscape plant that was brought in at one time and there is no way to get rid of it except hand pull. It would take every man, woman and child in the county weeks and weeks to make a big dent.

    Take pollinators: we are losing our native pollinators to pesticides, honeybees, fragmentation, urbanization.

    Her assessment of Yellowstone and colonization is overblown. It is true that Yellowstone is a model that is outdated and Uluru has become more of the model for national parks, where the native population isn’t expelled, but included in protection and determination of the Park procedure. At Uluru the aborigines also close the park for spiritual ceremony. Which of course this Marris woman has absolutely no sensitivity to: the spiritual value of wildlands. There is no comparison to spending time in a landscape free of human scars (including power lines, roads, cell towers, logging roads etc.) compared to hanging out in the local park.

    Emma Marris needs to go on a wilderness retreat for a few months, or much more. I agree with George, the fact that she stays by the road (maybe in her ATV) probably says it all!

  6. Tom Page says:

    Overall, I thought this book was very much worth reading, even if I strongly disagreed with sections of it. George’s main points of contention (novel ecosystems, the idea that pristinity is still a primary goal, invasives) were the same things I did not like.

    What I believe is Marris’ most important point however, is the idea that conservationists are increasingly working in areas that are significantly altered by human activities. Much of this involves restoring systems and processes (think migration corridors or tributary reconnects for two examples) that have been interrupted or degraded.

    While George believed that Marris throws out the idea of further pursuit of large protected core areas (often with few permanent human residents) as outdated , my take on it was that she is simply expanding the idea of what constitutes valuable work to include areas that have critical conservation values embedded in what are now often called “working landscapes”.

    I disagree with George’s conclusion that engaging in such work gives political cover to those who created and are continuing to create the problem. But maybe that’s because I’m doing it…who knows.

    • mikarooni says:

      “…Marris’ most important point however, is… that conservationists are increasingly working in areas… altered by human activities. …restoring systems and processes… that have been interrupted or degraded.”

      Marris is simply latching onto an idea that has long been out there and is in active use already (Dave Foreman, Rewilding Institute, etc.). She’s just using it as cover. A German politician once wrote an instruction manual for his followers in which he told them to build their big lies on small truths. He warned them that small lies are too easily traced; but, a big lie that, when confronted, can be shown to contain both bits of truth and familiar accepted concepts is the strongest weapon a propagandist can wield. Yes, some nature can persevere in “working landscapes” and nurturing it can be a good thing, especially when a “working landscape” is all you have to work with at the time; but, that’s just one of the small truths around which Marris constructs her big lie. The truth is that “nature hiding in alleys” will never include bison, elk, moose, white rhinos, lynx, or anything else larger than a feral house cat. You need those “wilderness” cultists naively preserving “natural” landscapes if you want to continue having species like that.

      Emma Marris and people like her are just out looking for a way to work from home and still get their fifteen minutes of fame …after all she is so cute and photogenic; doesn’t she deserve to be a celebrity?

      As for “George’s conclusion that engaging in such work gives political cover to those who created and are continuing to create the problem,” I always assumed that his aversion was more accurately aimed at the proliferation of “collaborators” that we see today; but, he’ll need to clarify that assumption himself.

      • Tom Page says:

        Yes, it is out there already, and it is in Foreman’s Rewilding book (an excellent read in itself, and maybe the best semi-technical manual on large landscape conservation I’ve come across). I think she makes a better populist case for it than Foreman does however.

        I would not say that the idea has “long been out there”. Serious restoration work began to be more widespread in the late 90’s, at the earliest.

        And lots of working landscapes have many of the large animals you cite…to say that such work precludes that level of wildness is not necessarily true. I see more large mammals and many many bird species every day I go to “work” in Custer County.

        I will proudly wear my collaborator hat…we’ll see in 25 years about the legacy of litigation and exclusion vs the legacy of collaboration and popular support.

      • Leslie says:


        I am unclear how you are equating Marris with the rewilding concept. I am familiar with rewildling though not Foreman’s book which I will order, after looking at his webpage. Seems like his conservation ethics, that include the 3 C’s (cores, corridors, and canines) and large tracts of lands are in direct opposition to what Ms. Marris champions as designer ecosystems. I haven’t read Marris’ book either, but after reading George’s review I listened to her speak in some interviews.

        Two other things Marris mentioned in the interview were the concept of more genetic interventions and how Landscape Architects could help save environments. I’m a landscape architect and I’ll tell you that they won’t be saving environments by planting median strips with butterfly plants, but they could contribute to our bulging future population by designing cities that are livable and self-sustaining, thereby freeing up larger tracts of land for wildlife instead of mini-Macmansions and tax-write-off-style ranching.

        • mikarooni says:

          Leslie, you read me wrong. I was quoting from Tom Page’s comment immediately above mine in which Tom stated his belief that “Marris’ most important point however, is the idea that conservationists are increasingly working in areas that are significantly altered by human activities. Much of this involves restoring systems and processes (think migration corridors or tributary reconnects for two examples) that have been interrupted or degraded.” By raising this assertion, Tom seemed to be implying that Marris is somehow part of the rewilding movement. I find associating Marris with the rewilding concept to be insulting to the rewilding movement and responded to Tom that “She’s just using it (the restoration/rewilding concept) as cover.”

          I am, in fact, certainly not “equating Marris with the rewilding concept” but actually stating my belief that she is a cynical charlatan waving towards the rewilding concept only as a ruse to lend superficial credence to her own version of “wise use” exploitation theology.

          You are correct that any serious rewilding approach would be “in direct opposition to what Ms. Marris champions as designer ecosystems.”

          I’m glad to hear you’re an LA; I still do lots of work with LAs. My original training and degree was architecture and structures, although I strayed into other areas, primarily tech program management, many decades ago. However, I still do battle with the ASLA at every GreenBuild that I can attend. I agree with you that LAs “won’t be saving environments by planting median strips” primarily because the ASLA is not strict enough in making clear the poor ethics of using so many non-native plants and cultivars. Most of the American West is under siege by ornamentals and other “improved” non-natives. My daughter, a young and promising research biologist, makes her living looking for ways to eliminate what is often what the LA down the road deliberately introduced a couple of seasons ago.

          • WM says:


            Does your daughter have any suggestions on irradication of Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius)? This stuff, which some inorant city folks like because of its prolific bright yellow bloom, long sweeping colonies and deep green foliage, along roadsides, is taking over much of the Northwest, very quickly. It is the invasive, ecologically damaging, recent curse of the north (like kudzoo to the south), and is responsible for displacing large acreages of conifer trees.

            Nothing eats it and it is poisonous to animals and humans. It spreads quickly, and it is tough to eradicate. Discovery Park north and west of downtown Seattle has resorted to using a type of bumper jack with a couple of chain/strap wraps around the plant to uproot it (somewhat successful for small patches). It is a tedious process. Others have taken to using environmentally destructive chemicals that kill it and everything around it, which isn’t good by any measue.

  7. SEAK Mossback says:

    I should not comment directly on the book since I have not read it. However, I do believe that the only way for humans to achieve better outcomes in the future is through acquiring a much larger dose of humility and caution and an adherence to science. That of course, runs directly against the human impulse to favor optimism, a can-do attitude, an uncomplicated narrative, and (for some) a religious view of ourselves as having been handed the reins of “dominion” over the earth and expected to actively use them (along the well-honed spurs we’ve added). This last perspective, oddly, actually has something in common with the other extreme view of humans as dangerous exotic aliens: i.e. humans as distinct and different from the earth ecosystem.

    I believe we are a normal part of the ecosystem, but agree that we have become dangerous, like a bull in a china shop — we need to somehow avoid breaking all the china. Jared Diamond’s book (Collapse) clearly shows that the issue is not arrogant, ignorant Europeans versus wise, virtuous aborigines. Much of it is about understanding and adapting to the system before pushing it to the point of being both uneconomic and unsustainable. Most native groups had less technology and more time to figure things out, and for the environment to adjust to them. Clearly, given our technology and record, a spirit of humility (and a nod to history) requires us to set aside some “wild” areas where we actively limit our ability to break china.

    I suspect that whoever made the tragic decision to introduce lake trout into Yellowstone Lake did so thinking they were effecting improvement. I doubt it would have happened if they’d had any idea of the ecological ruin that they were visiting, the destruction of the incredible cutthroat fishery and the added expense to our over-committed government to try to mitigate those effects, potentially until the end of time. I believe it because I feel a twinge of guilt every time I remember a kid who loved to fish on the lake who thought “Man, a big lake like this ought to have lake trout”. The action was clearly against the law, but it could just as easily have happened legally at the hands of the government many decades before when exotic trout were being introduced all over the park to “improve” the fishery. I might never have known the experience of catching over 100 cutthroats on a fly rod in the South Arm in 3 days, of seeing all the ospreys and islands covered with pelicans, and standing beside Grouse and Chipmunk creeks lined with grizzly tracks and stacked with spawners like a coastal salmon stream.

    In this area, the premier example of techno-arrogance was establishment of two pulp mills in the late-1950s with guaranteed 50-year contracts and about $40 million in annual subsidies — to road and clear-cut of vast sections of old-growth forest, most with high fish and wildlife values. Science finally caught up and began demonstrating the here-to-fore non-quantified costs in a big way in the late-1970s, but by then there was tremendous economic and political momentum invested in an asparagus-farming management model, with many jobs at stake. Our congressional delegation defended the annual cut and the subsidy tooth and nail, just like those in western states continue to do with agricultural subsidies and below-market grazing fees. Much of the “damage inflicted” (to paraphrase George’s Leopold quote) will last up to 3 centuries and may be “quite invisible to (uninformed) laymen” but it sure doesn’t take long to help them see the difference while walking them through a 90-year old clear cut and into a multi-aged stand. The financial cost of trying to restore the damage is extremely high, and basically impossible without letting centuries exert their full effect as trees grow, die, fall and leave holes for smaller ones to grow and for light to again penetrate and produce an understory. While our own delegation may be much in favor of throwing unlimited US taxpayer funds at forest restoration, how to you think the Tea Party influenced Congress might view that? (probably sell the forest to the highest bidder). So, today the timber industry has been moving slowly above ground zero, while selective logging options (helicopter/balloon) more in keeping with natural processes (localized disturbance) and with more appropriate uses (not pulp) for our tight-grained, very high quality wood are being explored to a limited extent. A few small operators create excellent value (appropriate to the quality of the wood, while consuming relatively little of it), and are thriving. Unfortunately, much potential for sustainable wildlife and timber use was lost while managing the Tongass like a Georgia pine plantation.

    George mentioned salmon hatcheries. Again, an entire aquaculture industry has developed with attending political, economic and social influence — all centered on the idea that the North Pacific is limitless in its ability to pasture salmon, i.e. that every salmon (and pound of salmon) that can be attributed to hatcheries (demonstrated through marking) is entirely additive in number and weight to what would have been there without it. That notion is quickly crumbling in the scientific arena, but it hasn’t slowed down proposals to release more hatchery salmon — most recently in a call by a group of Alaska fish processors to release another 1 billion pink salmon fry, to compete with the Russians (at least with something we can eat this time, not ICBMs again). Large recent runs of pink salmon, a species that exhibits a degree of trophic dominance on the high seas over other salmon species, already appear to be having a substantial impact on growth, maturity and productivity of rearing species (like sockeye, coho, chinook), most likely through their impact on populations of squid in the Gulf of Alaska. Although nutrient subsidies from pink salmon carcasses and eggs are highly beneficial to stream ecosystems and to the same highly desirable salmon species (and steelhead), those benefits are largely lost when pinks return to hatcheries instead of streams. There’s been substantial scientific debate over whether the Prince William Sound pink salmon hatchery program has mostly replaced wild runs in the sound (approaching a fool’s bargain) or mostly added to them, suggesting that (at best) simple addition-based benefit:cost accounting is unrealistic. Beyond the financial cost of directly assuming the role of a stream in producing fish, the complexity and cost of managing fisheries is substantially greater when hatchery fish are infused into the elegantly simple, effective and cost-effective management system for wild pink salmon.

    Whether through innocence or hubris, the zeal to combine technology with an overly simple narrative has at times reduced sustainability and been economically self-defeating, i.e. dependent upon an endless infusion of money and resources, disproportionate to incremental benefits. One of the great benefits of history is the opportunity to distill from our collective experience the understanding that we are not yet as smart as we think we are — and to act accordingly.

    • Ralph Maughan says:


      The irony of making a real good comment is that usually no one follows it up. 🙁

      • JB says:

        Ditto Ralph’s comments. Ralph, you should really try and talk SEAK into becoming a Wildlife News author-contributor.

      • DB says:

        Well I will in a way: Thanks Seak!

    • DLB says:


      Now, could you translate this into an uncomplicated narrative for consumption by the masses? 😉

      I too appreciate your contributions to this blog.


June 2012


‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey