Dilsaver, Lary M., and Timothy J. Babalis. Restoring Nature: The Evolution of Channel Islands National Park. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2023.
Dilsaver and Babalis recently published a suggestive book. Restoring Nature is not only a detailed history of nearly a century of efforts to establish the Channel Islands National Park, but also of efforts by the National Park Service (NPS) and others to restore the ecology of California’s Channel Islands— with the goal of coming as close as possible to the ecological condition of the islands before their “discovery” by Europeans in 1542. Viewed through an ecosocialist lens, the book provides context for the efforts of ecosocialists to halt capitalism’s destruction of nature and restore the ecology of our devastated world before the climate and ecological crises make Earth completely unlivable for the bulk of its existing flora and fauna, including human beings.
The introduction to Restoring Nature declares that it offers “a lesson on restoration ecology and public land management” drawn from “a much larger administrative history report on Channel Islands National Park completed for the National Park Service in 2021 by the same authors.” Its purpose “is to educate students, scholars, and the public about the complexities and controversies that accompany efforts to protect natural resources and restore ecological integrity to both the land and sea.” It can do that, and it suggests more.
Restoring Nature begins by discussing the geographic features of the eight-island archipelago and the animal life that attracted rapacious European, Russian, and then American fur traders, especially in the 18th and early 19th centuries. After thousands of years of sustainable ecological management by the indigenous Chumash tribe and their forebears, (the Chumash were the largest tribe in California before the California Genocide), the islands and surrounding seas were within decades stripped of sea otters and fur seals for their pelts, grey whales and elephant seals for their oil, and sea lions for their smooth skin. Then fishing fleets began to decimate abalone, lobsters, and fish populations, and much later even the kelp forests that helped them survive.
In the early to mid 1800s Mexican land grants to a favored few began nearly a century of profit-motivated denuding of many of the islands by sheep, cattle, horses, and pigs that continued as those lands were bought cheaply or stolen by U.S. landowners after the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848. “Exotic” (nonnative) plants, rats, and birds came in on boats carrying feed for these farm animals, the numbers of which quickly outstripped the carrying capacity of the islands. Changes wrought by this mishmash of flora and fauna in the islands’ ecology resulted in further shifts that needed painstaking study before any attempts at restoration.
Gaps in the Narrative
It would have been both welcome and instructive for the task of restoring the world poisoned by profit-motivated production facing today’s workers if the authors of Restoring Nature had viewed it within their purview to contrast longstanding sustainable indigenous ecology with the administrative methods they detail so well. That contrast is still a work in progress in ecological and archeological literature. But what the book does deal with, it does in thorough materialist fashion. It points out that two processes involving administrative and legislative efforts were involved in attempting to restore the land and marine ecosystems of the islands.
The first was the “complex and often bitterly controversial campaign to actually acquire the property.” The Channel Islands National Park, finally established in 1980 after about a half century of sporadic efforts, still only includes five of the eight islands in the archipelago (Anacapa, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, and Santa Rosa). The second process involved “the extirpation of nonnative species and protection or reestablishment of native ones.” That process was also “deeply controversial.” The NPS faced “virulent criticism from animal rights groups and proponents of the 150 years of Euro-American land uses,” who sometimes manipulated the former in efforts to promote their property interests.
The detailed narrative of these two processes fully corroborate Karl Marx’s assertion that “the most violent, mean, and malignant passions of the human breast,” are “the furies of private interest.” But as Restoring Nature also shows, the experience of these processes in the Channel Islands National Park did play “a major role in the scientific advances that led the NPS to focus on the integrity of its ecosystems rather than simply protecting individual species.”
Today, thanks much to its experiences in the park, when the NPS speaks of restoring ecological integrity it “describes the quality of ecosystems that are largely self-sustaining and self-regulating.” These “may possess complete food webs, a full complement of native animal and plant species maintaining their populations, and naturally functioning ecological processes such as predation, nutrient cycling, disturbance and recovery, succession, and energy flow.”
Yet the story of restoring ecological integrity in the park is only a story of relative success in a microcosm. San Miguel is still largely a giant sand dune thanks to its denuding by sheep, despite all the efforts of the NPS. Moreover, the lessons learned in the process will be difficult to apply on a whole continent vastly polluted, eroded, and otherwise damaged by a wide variety of toxins, land use practices, and industrial processes allowed by government agencies that long permitted, and still permit, companies to introduce new chemicals and procedures based largely on self-monitoring.
Perhaps most important, thanks to the unfettered development of profit-motivated energy production and transportation systems, the atmosphere has been warmed by vast fossil fuel emissions, brewing a climate crisis that is far less localized and is already tending toward a mass extinction event that is involving more humans every year. Recent estimates of its rapidly worsening effects suggest we have precious little time to deal with the problem or with restoration in general.
Moreover, the history of industry lies and denialism shows that the present capitalist ruling class, which inclines more toward a fascist defense of its property interests than toward effectively dealing with the climate crisis or any of the other problems their crisis-ridden system has produced, has completely disqualified itself from holding the reins of power.
The ecological lessons learned by the NPS in establishing and administering the Channel Islands National Park are now reflected in analogous problems for workers: first, to organize successfully to “Expropriate the Expropriators” — to expropriate the means of life from the ruling class that now holds them — and establish democratic ownership and control, then to begin the arduous task of restoring the ecology of the world that capitalism has torn asunder. Restoring Nature’s delineation of the processes involved in ecological restoration is a welcome aid to the task ahead.
Graphic: California, Channel Islands, 3D rendering using OpenStreetMap, SRTM and NED data by RTMi1 licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 International.