Ecological restoration in modified landscapes


The launch of George Monbiot’s book Feral came and went at the end of May, passing me by (1). On the very day of the launch, I was in America walking the Mine Bank Creek trail as it crosses back and forth over the creek that gives name to it, and which tumbles over a series of small cascades through a rich deciduous woodland of very tall trees, until reaching the cool, rushing waters of St Mary’s River. I was in St Mary’s Wilderness, an area of 9,835 acres in the northern section of the George Washington National Forest, which clothes the Blue Ridge Mountains in central Virginia. It was an invigorating walk, clocking up a few more wildflower finds to add to a running list. This time it was wild bleeding-heart, star flower, lily of the valley, and various club mosses, whereas previous days had given me treasures in three kinds of Lady's slipper orchid, two of Clinton's lily, showy orchid, wild ginger, and masses of jack-in-the-pulpit, mayflower, large flowered trillium, Solomon’s Seal and false Solomon’s Seal. This was more than I expected since timing is all, and I thought I may have missed the spring woodland flowers. However, putting the trail miles in at different elevations in the mountains means you can cross back and forth a few weeks in the seasons.

St Marys was the 10th day of a three-week walking trip in the wilderness of Shenandoah National Park, George Washington National Forest, and Monongahela National Forest. These are not the elite of American wilderness, but wilderness in eastern America is land that has restored itself over the 20th century after farming and logging was progressively removed. Thus it seemed a good choice to be able to learn from these restoring landscapes, coming as it did on the heels of the conference on wilderness in a modified landscape, held in western Ireland in mid-May, and at which I was invited to give the opening presentation (2).

Wild Nephin – Ireland’s first wilderness

The conference was a crowning of the audacious plan to develop Nephin Forest as a prototype Irish wilderness. I walked the forest last year with Bill Murphy, Head of Recreation at Coillte (3) and the task Bill gave for my presentation was to “throw in a grenade” amongst the conference delegates, to get them thinking. Since the first reaction of most people to a conifer plantation becoming a wilderness is scepticism (including myself) I took the approach of teasing out the meanings of wild, natural and native. The writings of Richard Mabey are a useful mentor, and his excellent Beechcombings anchored a definition of naturalness for me as a process rather than a state, leading him to write “Naturalness is whatever occurs between human interventions” (4). I then led the audience through some places I have visited over the years, judging each one for those three characteristics. As you would expect, the conservation industry were responsible for all the less wild or natural among the examples (5).

I also conveyed the two factors that had been significant in overcoming my scepticism, and which I had observed during that same walking trip in Ireland last year. All of the native woodlands I walked in Ireland had a common factor of astonishing woodland interiors, showing evidence of a strong hyper-oceanic influence that results in ground layers lush with ferns, woodrush, Irish ivy etc. The trunks and branches of the trees, and every rock, had a thick clothing of mosses, liverworts and lichens, including the lungwort lichen. I had also walked Guagán Barra Forest Park, a plantation that completely fills an enclosed high sided valley bowl of old red sandstone walls, and where Coillte have let the plantation trees grow on, while there is native tree regeneration at the upper margins. The strong forest, rocks and torrents feel of it reminded me very much of State Parks in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and it overcame my resistance to introduced tree species in a wilderness-like area.

I coupled these two factors, which have a crucial significance for the success at Nephin Forest, with the fact that it is a landscape scale forest of over 40sqkm, that it encompasses bogs, lakes and rivers, and that there is evidence throughout of windthrow as well as both native and non-native tree regeneration (the latter starting out the process of naturalisation (6)) so that all the elements for a restoring wilderness exist. Once the initial restructuring phase is finished, the forest will be left to its own devices, and without any management intervention. I expect deer, otter, pine marten and other wild creatures will make good use of the opportunities opened up, its rivers already important for salmon spawning. I resisted the temptation to contrast this approach with that in England, where public forest lands have become the playground for Frans Vera-like experiments in wood pasture creation through tree felling and cattle grazing (7).

Ecological restoration in the Alleghenies

On the first day of June, I was walking the Bear Rocks trail in the northern section of Dolly Sods Wilderness, located in the Monongahela National Forest of the Allegheny Mountains of eastern West Virginia. It is an unusual place, even for the Alleghenies, but I am sure it would be a wet dream for enthusiasts of the British Uplands, who would marvel at its apparent wildness and diversity. Designated a wilderness as recently as 2009, this section of 7,156 acres contributes about 40% of the overall area of Dolly Sods. It is a mountaintop flat at an average elevation of about 4,000ft, with a mostly open meadow-like ("sods") landscape of grass bolds, Heath barren/Huckleberry plain, and rocky bolder fields, that affords an endless variety of long vistas, something you don’t expect in wilderness at this elevation (8). The red spruce that dot the flat show Krumholz effects (branches grow mostly on the down-wind side of the tree) and snow skirts (snow cover protects lower branches from the wind). In addition, there are small areas of deciduous hardwood forest in wetter areas, sheltered by the topography. The prevailing winds were from the west and blew almost constantly. This, coupled with snowfall that may reach 150 inches a year, and rainfall of 55 inches, makes it a tough landscape (9). It thus has a tundra-like windswept appearance, where the most successful vegetation cover is the carpet of low shrubbery: blueberry, cranberry and huckleberry, as well as dotted with larger shrubs of rose azalea, rosebay rhododendron, mountain laurel, teaberry, and Fool's huckleberry (Allegheny menziesia). Some small trees have got away, such as chokeberry, mountain ash, serviceberry, and pin cherry.

It does look real in a tree-line, boreal landscape context with this dwarf shrub cover, and especially when you see the wind and snow shaping of the spruce. However, I stopped to chat to another hiker at an intersection with the Raven Ridge trail who told me “it’s a man-made landscape – give it another 100 years, and the red spruce will reclaim it all”

Extensive areas in Dolly Sods are known in the mid-eighteenth century to have been covered by dense, old-growth (ancient) red spruce and eastern hemlock forest, with some trees measured at 12 feet in diameter (9). An area of open land was, however, visible from Bear Rocks, as revealed in a diary entry from a surveying expedition in 1746, but there is anecdotal evidence that the Sods area was burned over by Native Americans (10).

The greatest disturbance to the Sods came when logging started in the 1830s, and accelerated with the penetration of railroads on to the plateau in the late 1880s (8). This was happening everywhere in the forests of the Alleghenies – it is estimated that by 1910, 90% of West Virginia’s old growth forest was gone. As was the case in all places, the 7-9 feet deep layer of humus that covered the forest floor on Dolly Sods dried out once the protective tree cover was removed, and became vulnerable to ignition by sparks from the locomotives, saw mills and the loggers warming fires (8,9). Fires ravaged the area, burning everything down to the rocks underneath, and exterminating all the burrowing animals. After the loggers had completely cut over Dolly Sods and moved on, the entire area was open range for grazing sheep and cattle, and which kept the Sods in an open condition.

Changes in the natural environment in the aftermath of this catalogue of disturbance must have been immense. The loss of tree cover from the West Virginia hillsides meant that rainwater could no longer be stopped from rushing down the mountains, and causing extensive flooding. In March 1907, a disastrous flood in the Monongahela basin caused by heavy rain and rapid snow melt led to a rise of 35 feet in water level 150 miles downstream in Pittsburgh, the loss of nine lives and great damage to property (11). It was events like that which led to the Weeks Act being signed into law in 1911 by President William Howard Taft, permitting the federal government to purchase private land in order to protect the headwaters of rivers and watersheds in the eastern United States by establishing national forests (12). In the case of Dolly Sods, it is likely that a higher water table resulted from the loss of tree cover, expanding the area of bogs and other wetlands, and bringing about an acidification in the water saturated soils due to the lack of calcium being brought up from below (13). This, plus the climatic exposure, created the conditions for the heath barrens to thrive and spread out over the landscape.

Livestock grazing of Dolly Sods was finally removed in the late 1970s and while there are white tail deer today (and black bear, lynx and beaver) an ecological restoration is expected to take place over that next 100 years. Much of the heath barrens will be lost (a parallel here to the subsuming of man-made lowland heathland by birch) albeit that the climatic factors at elevation are making it tough going for that restoration of spruce and other forest. The southern section of Dolly Sods wilderness already has much greater tree cover (designated in 1975 – amongst the first of the eastern USA wilderness areas) and so there are many stages of ecological succession in the Sods that made it fascinating from a restoration perspective. I doubt, though, that my informant at the trail intersection, nor any of the many people who study the ecology of Dolly Sods – such as Virginians for Wilderness and their Forests of the Central Appalachians Project (14) – have ever heard of Frans Vera, and neither would they see much relevance for his theories (7). I wonder also what they would make of Monbiot’s thesis of forest trees adapted to elephants, but more on that later (15).

The wilderness experience and human impact

I walked a total of five designated wilderness areas in the National Forests – St Mary’s, Dolly Sods, Three Ridges, The Priest, and Otter Creek - plus another if you count the 40% of the backcountry of Shenandoah National Park that is designated wilderness (the National Park Service does not mark the boundaries of wilderness zones inside their National Parks, and so you have to guess from a map as to whether you have walked into the wilderness) (16). Contrary to a prevalent belief in Europe, I can tell you that a wilderness experience is not just predicated on the absence of built, physical structures. This is a common misconception, and it makes me angry that some people are so careless in their evaluation. Any evidence of visible human interaction is a detractor. It is the surest way to make you feel that you aren't alone! Perhaps the existence of hiking trails destroys all pretence anyway of being wilderness, a heavily used trail particularly so. Trail marking with blaises on trees (a small, vertical oblong paint mark) can be very obtrusive. However, as someone who often follows animal trails (especially deer) then I can rationalise the presence of hiking trails, even though I rarely stick to them!

Wilderness/backcountry rules prohibit fire rings made from stones, collection of fuel wood and fires - what are called “depreciative behaviours” by the National Park Service (17) - but inevitably, you do see them out on the trails (18, 19). Even pulling out non-natives plants alongside the trail, like hedge garlic (which Americans call garlic mustard) is an obtrusive act, albeit that it is a sympathetic attempt to maintain the "native quality" and naturalness of the wilderness. Any visible sign of disturbance that is not easily assimilated as being non-human casts doubt in the mind as to what may be coming around the next corner. It is the restrictions that are placed on human behaviour that moderate that behaviour and which give some measure of guarantee that human disturbance does not escalate and become generally observable. This cannot be said of places where the people have little or no restrictions placed on them where ever they go.

I had an important lesson about human impact reinforced by reading about the history of Shenandoah National Park while there, how the Park was pieced together in the 1930s from a 1,000 individual tracts of land in the Blue Ridge Mountains, purchased or condemned by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the resultant 176,000 acres presented to the Federal Government in 1935 (20). Many mountain people, at least 500 families, had to be relocated out of the Park during its formation, to new homesteads in the Virginia piedmont. It’s an irony that a criticism against the early National Parks in the west was that they displaced Native Americans, but for Shenandoah, it was European settlers that were displaced. They came there first as hunters and trappers, but soon after 1750 settlers moved into the lower mountain hollows near springs and streams, and then ever moving upward they searched for land for farming, grazing, and orchards. Later would come mining for copper, as well as taking out lumber, and bark for tanning of leather.

There should not be some mystique about mountain folk, that they sought refuge to live in sympathy with the land. Many settlers were tenants of a few large landowners, but they and homesteaders all embarked on a common pursuit of exploiting the land, by ringing trees with their axes – a process called “deadening” - to clear fields for pastures and orchards; killing all the large carnivores so they weren’t a threat to their cows; and hunting out the white-tail deer, so that they had to be restored to the park when it was set up. Even so, a forester hired in 1934 to survey and assess the condition of the proposed Park area found that while much of it had been logged over in the past, only 14.5% of the park acreage was open at the time of formation, either as cultivated or pasture land (it is now only 5% open) (21). This was massively different to the completely cutover and burnt state of the Alleghenies (see above) and was evidence of the greater difficulty in access for large-scale logging in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The forester in fact identified eleven watersheds, or parts of watersheds, that retained significant forest communities with no evidence of previous logging activity. However, many did show the effects of the wildfires that swept across the mountain between 1930 and 1932. Possibly aggravated by the worst drought in Virginia history, the fires burned in 60 to 80% of the pine communities (which represented 18% of the forest cover) and 27% of the total park acreage. So while there was little virgin old-growth forest at the time of park establishment, wild nature was able to so quickly reclaim the land because there was a sufficient remnant tree source material out from which restoration could proceed once exploitation was lessened and removed. These factors made this area a good choice to be the second new National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains, after the Great Smoky Mountains National Park further south had been opened the year before.

That these mountain folk were more of a danger to wild nature than the Native Americans that they displaced is self-evident, the latter anyway only visited the mountains in seasonal movements to hunt, to gather nuts and berries, and to find sources for and to make their stone tools, rather than settle there. A truly autochthonous people doesn't regard natural resources in a wilderness as a commodity that can be sold for money or even traded in like value for other goods (20). Personal relationships were the key to trade in autochthonous societies, not the price of what was traded. They take only what they have needs for. Thus natural resources were valued for what they could provide in food, clothing and shelter, not as abstract products with values dictated by distant markets. If you have to buy a horse or a gun, or even the toy raygun, dinner service, and 78 rpm record fragments, artefacts excavated from homesteads on the mountain (and which were probably bought out of the Sears and Roebuck catalogue (22)) then you need money. That turns the land and its wildlife into a commodity, an economic opportunity, and puts pressures on the wildness of the land.

I had to leave Shenandoah a couple of days early because the mountains were socked in by rain clouds, and subtropical storm Andrea was on its way. I had already survived a climactic thunderstorm during the first week there, before moving out to the National Forests. As it was, when I had come back to Shenandoah in the third week, it had definitely moved on while I was away, but there were compensations with later flowering plants starting up, like goats beard and Bowman’s root. While I saw astonishing wildflowers, and beautiful trees like the yellow poplar or tulip tree, white oak, sassafras, hickory, and striped maple, sadly I didn’t see any black bears. I used to check the log of sightings in the Park Rangers office, and they were about in the park, but I just missed out. However, the bird life was stunning - the birds are much more colourful than ours - including wild turkey, and a massive owl that made me duck. There were lots of chipmunks and squirrels in the woodlands, two kinds of snake, a lizard, the Shenadoah Salamander, and white-tailed deer that I never went a day without seeing. Also, to stand on a rock ledge and just see miles and miles of forest clothe the ups and downs of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is to see an ecosystem that is both inspiring and humbling.

Oh well, back home now, to the sloppy peat of my local sheep infested moorlands!

Searching for enchantment – and new freedoms

George Monbiot has a lot to say about sheep in his book, and their negative effect on the uplands, delivering in the process a devastating critique of not only farming, but also of the conservation industry. I have to say that I saw a draft of his book in August last year when, along with others, I was asked by George for comments. We had corresponded while he was writing the book, but I got no feel of what it would be. I suppose I had the idea that he would write a long polemic, and so it was interesting to see that the first half of the draft book was a review of events in his life that had led him to this point - a revisiting of past experiences and a contemporary journey of discovery, the mounting self awareness of his place as a human species, a connectedness to a latent primal instinct, an ability to observe nature, develop an understanding, make deductions and act on them, a growing realisation of what his existence is and could be - which brought him on to the freedoms of wild land. I haven’t read the published version yet, just sneaked a few looks in bookshops to check up on the changes that I know he has made, at least one of them in response to my concerns.

George had, like many others, appeared to have swallowed the rhetoric of the spectacularly misnamed Rewilding Europe and its fantastical plans to restore “ecological processes” across Europe, when in reality they are a gung-ho grazing organisation (they were originally called the Wild Europe Field Program). Their belief, modelled on the theories of Frans Vera, is that Europe's landscapes are naturally "open and half open" and thus are maintained by farming (23) although even when challenged they consistently duck providing any substantive evidence for this. Unbeknownst to public knowledge, I was also able to tell George about the events after WWF Netherlands withdrew its funding from PAN Parks, the only wilderness organisation in Europe, plunging it into financial crisis, while at the same time it bankrolled the formation of Rewilding Europe. Like the bullies that they are, Rewilding Europe then aggressively sought to enforce the dissolution of PAN Parks, the dismantling of its wilderness network of member parks, and the taking over its network of tourist operators. This prejudiced the chances of replacement funding for PAN Parks that had been offered to them, in a fear that it would end up with Rewilding Europe. Thwarted in that attempt to shut PAN Parks down, WWF Netherlands then commissioned a consultancy "to explore a joint business perspective for Rewilding Europe and the PAN Parks Foundation" without even seeking the assent of PAN Parks or its members. Perhaps WWF Netherlands and Rewilding Europe were fearful that the wilderness advocacy of PAN Parks in Europe will expose the threadbare ideology that they pursue? George, in his published version of the book, is now openly critical of the approach of Rewilding Europe:
“There is a danger that its projects replace overgrazing by livestock with overgrazing by artificially high numbers of wild animals; the group appears to wish to manage rewilding, which I see as a contradiction”

I challenged George on whether relaxing the requirements to manage scrub under the compliance measures of agricultural subsidy - Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition – was a big enough idea for the rewilding he sought, because on an optional basis by individual farmers, it would lack any spatial coherency. In addition, it did not address the key issue of public ownership as being at the heart of the most successful wildland systems – such as in America, as well as in much of continental Europe - because public ownership allows the expression of a public will, obviating the need for it to be a compulsion on private land owners, nor having to seek their voluntary participation. I said that his book didn’t necessarily have to provide finished solutions, but it would be useful to put down markers. However, I was unprepared for one of those markers being that we have an elephant-adapted eco-system, and which I had picked up from George before I knew he had included it in the published book.

At that time, I asked him what he would expect would be the legacy for woodland of the impact of the straight-tusked elephant, coming into a post-glacial era in its absence? This elephant has been extinct for 40,000 years, but is considered to have been able to heavily modify and open up woodland (24). He said it was hard to think of a deciduous tree in Europe that doesn’t show signs of elephant-proofing, and he gave me the examples that are also now in the book:
“Once trees have grown past the point at which elephants can topple them or reach their branches, they are safe. This, I believe, explains why holly, box, yew etc are so much stronger than canopy trees, even though they carry less weight”

George attributed the extinction of the straight-tusked elephant to human overkill when the first modern humans entered Europe. This is a dangerous assertion in the absence of solid proof, since it encourages a view that an ecological restitution of natural processes is impossible in the absence of globally extinct animals (usually herbivores, as no one makes much of a fuss about extinct carnivores) or that it would rely on their substitution with modern-day analogues (does an analogue exist for the straight-tusked elephant?) or through back-breeding programs like that which vainly attempts to recreate the aurochs (25). As it is, the reference cited by George in his published book for a human cause in the extinction of the straight-tusked elephant is about radiocarbon dates of fossil remains of the elephant from The Netherlands (26). It does not address the causes of extinction. Even so, I chided George that this invocation of a major woodland-abusing herbivore would be a Rewilding Europe wet dream, and that I would never forgive him if it became their next re-incarnation obsession after the aurochs. George responded:
“Of course, Rewilding Europe will believe anything they want to, and there’s nothing that can’t be recruited to the cause of junk science. Their knowledge of ecology, as I found when I spoke to them, is almost non-existent, so they can spin any story they wish, blithely unaware of the scientific principles they’re trampling”

I will review George’s book later in the year. It will be interesting to see what lasting impact it may have: will it lever open the deadening grip that farming and the conservation industry has? Will those new freedoms be offered up that George describes in his book, of allowing nature more freedom than before, and from the reintroduction of extirpated species (those that still exist elsewhere):
“My reasons [for wanting to see missing animals reintroduced] arise from my delight in the marvels of nature, its richness and its limitless capacity to surprise; from the sense of freedom, of the thrill that comes from roaming in a landscape or seascape without knowing what I might see next, what might loom from the woods or water, what might be watching me without my knowledge”

Mark Fisher 22 June 2013

(1) Monbiot, G. (2013) Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. Allen Lane,,9781846147487,00.html

(2) Conference on Wilderness in a modified European landscape. Coillte, National Parks and Wildlife Service and Mayo Council, 15th & 16th May 2013, Westport, Co Mayo, Ireland

(3) Fisher, M. (2012) Wild Nephin – future natural wilderness in Ireland. Self-willed land 22 August 2012

(4) Mabey, R (2007) Beechcombings: The Narratives of Trees. Random House

(5) Fisher, M. (2013) WILD or NATURAL -the challenges Europe faces in setting aside wilderness

(6) Carle, J. & Holmgren, P. (2003) Definitions Related to Planted Forests. Working Paper 79. Forestry Department, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

(7) Fisher, M (2012) A review of naturalistic grazing versus natural processes. 11th Europe's Wilderness Days, 26- 28 September 2012, Archipelago National Park, Nagu/Nauvo, Finland

(8) Rentch, J. Dolly Sods—A Brief Introduction. West Virginia University Division of Forestry and Natural Resources

(9) Burk, C. Dolly Sods Wilderness: A wilderness that resembles Canada more than the lower 48. Outdoor Travels

(10) Lesser, W. (2010) Some natural history of Dolly Sods, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy 5 February 2010

(11) Glenn, L.C. (1911) Denudation and erosion in the southern Appalachian region and the Monongahela Basin. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper: 72

(12) Passing the Weeks Act, U.S. Forest Service History, The Forest History Society

(13) Mueller, R.F. Forest Succession and Secular Change, The Forest— An Overview. Forests of the Central Appalachians Project

(14) Forests of the Central Appalachians Project: Inventories to Protect. Virginians For Wilderness

(15) Monbiot, G. (2013) My manifesto for rewilding the world. Guardian 27 May 2013

(16) Wilderness, Shenandoah National Park

(17) Depreciative Visitor Use, Shenandoah National Park

(18) Backcountry Camping – Regulations, Shenandoah National Park

(19) Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, US National Forest Servce

(20) Whisnant, A. M., Whisnant, D.E. & Silver, T (2011) Shenandoah National Park Official Handbook, Shenandoah National Park Association, Donning Company Publishers

(21) Engle, R. Shenandoah: An Abused Landscape?

(22) Horning, A.J. Survey of Rural Mountain Settlement. Archeological Investigations in Nicholson, Corbin, and Weakley Hollows, Central District, Shenandoah National Park. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

(23) Rewilding Europe (2011) Main Guiding Principles

(24) Behaviour, Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) antiquus. Natural History Museum

(25) The Tauros programme, The search for a new icon for European wilderness

(26) Mola, D., de Vosb, J. & van der Plicht, J. (2007) The presence and extinction of Elephas antiquus Falconer and Cautley, 1847, in Europe. Quaternary International 169–170 (2007) 149–153