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Moving Towards an Inclusive Restoration Model: The Crumbling of a Paradox

By Jake Tessler

Wilderness is untouched and untamed.  Wilderness is romantic and remote.   Wilderness exists outside of our sphere of influence, and must continue to do so in order to thrive.  These sentiments are commonly held notions of nature in its purest, “wildest” form.  But how do we reconcile these conceptualizations of nature with an environment that sees an increasing need for human intervention to countermand a mounting number of detrimental anthropogenic effects?  This conflicting dichotomy forms the basis for what Throop and Purdom (2006) have termed the “participation paradox”.  One of the key distinctions they have made is that participatory restoration tends to focus on integrating people into natural surroundings, not mitigating the impacts of human development.  This, necessarily, puts participatory conservation efforts at odds with wilderness preservation.  Their examination led to the conclusion that participatory conservation efforts should be isolated and limited to human-dominated landscapes to the extent possible.

However, recent emphasis on the integration of human experiences and activities into restoration and conservation projects represent an engagement-based paradigm shift, seeking to demystify “wilderness” and expand perceptions of nature (see Marris 2011).  Specifically, aligning the process of restoration ecology with site-specific social and cultural importance can facilitate a bond between people and their natural surroundings.  This form of participation-based ‘focal restoration’ requires that inclusive restoration practices concentrate less on the “wildness” of an area and instead emphasise the inherent social, cultural and ecological values (Higgs 2003).

Public engagement in restoration efforts has been described as critical to successfully navigate the complex and often controversy-laden landscape surrounding the politics associated with ecological restorations (Gobster 2000).  Recent studies have sought to emphasize the importance and similarly controversial nature of moving public engagement out of town halls and community forums and into the field through volunteerism and citizen scientist-based project direction (Buzier et al. 2012; Theobald et al. 2015).

There are generally combinations of factors that motivate individuals towards environmental volunteering.  Some of the most powerful have been found to be a sense of general environmental stewardship and location-specific attachment (Measham & Barnett 2008), as well as “atonement” for either past or present environmental damage (Clewell & Aronson 2006).  Famed American biologist E.O. Wilson explores the evolutionary and philosophical aspects of such attachments in his 1984 book Biophilia.  In the three decades following, a variety of interpretations and emphases on this subject have been discussed (see Nisbet et al. 2009).

Regardless of the impetus that compels an individual to volunteer time and effort, the will to do so is predicated upon a bond one feels, or desires to feel, with the natural world.   However, capitalizing on the availability of volunteer labor is often met with hesitation from land managers helming restoration projects.  A 2014 survey of land manager opinions towards to use of volunteer labor in their projects over the next 12 months showed that while respondents were evenly split as to their intentions, the largest block of respondents (nearly 25%) claimed to be undecided as to their inclusion of volunteer labor (Bruce et al. 2014).  Commonly expressed reasons for this ambivalence included the lack of access to experienced and properly trained volunteers.  This carries with it increased safety concerns as well as increased financial liabilities.

The key to surmounting these difficulties may lie in comprehensive youth engagement.  Familiarizing young people with field-based, environmental restorations has the potential to not only impart valuable technical skills and help develop the natural bond required for life-long stewardship but contains intrinsic social and psychological value (Grese et al. 2000).  Unfortunately, some researchers believe that we are currently witnessing the creation of an ecological generational gap.  Defined by the lack of a personally developed, human-nature relationship fostered through a technology-based, recreationally insular worldview (Kareiva & Marvier 2012; Miller 2005; Pergams & Zaradic 2008), this gap has wide-ranging implications for active management restorations.

Student-based restoration projects, while usually not cost effective, have been shown to help create awareness and increase the appreciation of participants to their local surroundings (Evans et al. 2012).  It is imperative to foster these lifelong human-nature relationships in young people and to do so through public education campaigns and early volunteer engagement.  The continued and concerted implementation of a participatory, youth-based model should be considered paramount for the long-term success of future ecological restoration practice.  Although incursions into established wilderness areas should be done so with care, we must accept that delineations which separate humans from wilderness are inherently, and subjectively, value-based.  As such, it is imperative that these values are allowed not only to persevere, but evolve in order to retain relevancy.


Bruce MC, Newingham BA, Harris CC, Krumpe EE 2014. Opinions toward using volunteers in ecological restoration: a survey of federal land managers. Restoration Ecology 22: 5-12.

Buzier M, Kurz T, Ruthrof K 2012. Understanding restoration volunteering in a context of environmental change: in pursuit of novel ecosystems or historical analogues? Human Ecology 40: 153-160.

Clewell AF, Aronson J 2006. Motivations for the restorations of ecosystems.  Conservation Biology 20: 420-428.

Evans E, Ching CC, Ballard HL 2012. Volunteer guides in nature reserves: exploring environmental educators perceptions of teaching, learning, place and self. Environmental Education Research 18: 391-402.

Gobster PH 2000. Restoring nature: human actions, interactions, and reactions.  In: Gobster PH, Hull B eds.  Restoring nature: perspectives from the social sciences and humanities.  Washington, D.C., Island Press.

Grese RE, Kaplan R, Ryan RL, Buxton R 2000. Psychological benefits of volunteering in stewardship programs.  In: Gobster PH, Hull B eds.  Restoring nature: perspectives from the social sciences and humanities.  Washington, D.C., Island Press.

Higgs E 2003. Nature by design: people, processes, and ecological restoration. Cambridge, MIT Press.

Kareiva P, Marvier M 2012. What is Conservation Science? BioScience 62: 962-969.

Marris E 2011. Rambunctious garden: saving nature in a post-wild world. New York, Bloomsbury USA.

Measham TG, Barnett GB 2008. Environmental volunteering: motivations, modes and outcomes. Australian Geographer 39: 537-552.

Miller JR 2005. Biodiversity conservation and the extinction of experience. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 20: 430–434.

Nisbet EK, Zelenski JM, Murphy SA 2009. The Nature Relatedness Scale: Linking individuals’ connection with nature to environmental concern and behavior. Environment and Behavior 41: 715-740.

Pergams ORW, Zaradic PA 2008. Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105: 2295–2300.

Theobald EJ, Ettinger AK, Burgess HK, DeBey LB, Schmidt NR, Froelich HE, Wagner C, HilleRisLambers J, Tewksbury J, Harsch MA, Parrish JK 2015. Global change and local solutions: tapping the unrealized potential of citizen science for biodiversity research.  Biological Conservation 181: 236-244.

Throop W, Purdom R 2006. Wilderness restoration: the paradox of public participation. Restoration Ecology 14: 493-499.


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