Wild by Design

  • By Laura J. Martin
  • Harvard University Press
  • 336 pp.
  • Reviewed by Julie Dunlap
  • May 20, 2023

Is there still time to shape a more natural future?

Wild by Design

In a Gilded Age nation addicted to progress, naturalist Ernest Harold Baynes hitched two American bison calves to a carriage to draw attention to his cause. The species’ precolonial population of 60 million had plummeted to less than 500 in the U.S. by the 1890s, and even many who lamented the vanished herds accepted their loss as an inevitable result of marching civilization.

Baynes, however, campaigned relentlessly with his unorthodox team at county fairs, parks, and racetracks, pleading for bison revival as living symbols of the untamed West. The eventual result, says author Laura J. Martin, was the American Bison Society, “the first society in the United States dedicated specifically to species restoration.”

A wetlands ecologist turned environmental historian, Martin explores fundamental questions at the intersection of the sciences and humanities. Her students at Williams College learn that history offers hope, and “that the present was not inevitable — and, therefore, that the future is not pre-determined.” Yet a century of well-intended environmental management has been sullied by pseudoscience, racism, greed, and shocking blunders. Martin’s erudite perspective on these complexities shines throughout her incisive first book, Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration.

The author defines the field of ecological restoration as encompassing “efforts to restore biotic relationships among species,” and places it in context between two traditional modes of environmental management: utilitarian conservation and hands-off preservation. Once a fringe pursuit of bison enthusiasts and wildflower gatherers, ecological restoration has burgeoned to involve private landowners, government agencies, local, national, and international nonprofits, and multi-national corporations. The dilemma these entities seek to resolve — how to repair human-driven ecological disruption, including climate change — says Martin, “is the most pressing of our century.”

Readers will recognize in the book the outlines of many popular conservation success stories, like rescues of whooping cranes and peregrine falcons from extinction’s brink. Martin’s retellings, though, dive deeper and often feature darker twists. Who knew, for example, that prior to the 1950s, trout-stream rehabilitation began by poisoning all other organisms that might compete with the desired game fish? Or that biodiversity crusader E.O. Wilson himself fogged six Florida islands with methyl bromide, annihilating every living animal to test his ideas about ecosystem resilience?

Land for bison refuges would be wrested from Indian reservations, just one instance of environmental injustice that Martin spotlights. Some early bison restorationists were also adherents of the Progressive Era eugenics movement. Bison Society member and scientific racist Madison Grant argued that the breeding of wild bison, as of humans, should be regulated by experts. Continued laissez-faire reproduction, he feared, “would produce weak bison and weak men.”

In Martin’s wide-ranging disquisition, other stories probe practical, legal, and theoretical aspects of ecological restoration. The Atomic Energy Commission emerges as a chief funder of early restoration research as part of Cold War planning for nuclear Doomsday. And Richard Nixon is revealed as an unlikely hero who blocked restorationists focused on herbivore populations from deploying an indiscriminate toxin (sodium fluoroacetate, known as Compound 1080) to kill predators. His executive order noted that “even the animals and birds that sometimes prey on domestic animals have their own value.”

Nixon also signed into law the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which, Martin says, “solidified the role of ecological restoration in federal environmental practice.” In perhaps the strongest section of the book, the author analyzes how the act sparked an ideological transformation of the Fish and Wildlife Service from following an agricultural model for producing crops of waterfowl and other game into the lead agency relying on ecological expertise to restore red wolves, black-footed ferrets, and other species once targeted for elimination in a holistic approach to ecosystem health.

The scope and scale of restoration projects have accelerated since the 1980s and now include colossal engineering undertakings such as an $8 billion plan to improve the Everglades. Wild by Design closely examines another Sunshine State megaproject, the 1990s mitigation of Walt Disney World expansion through the creation of the Disney Wilderness Preserve. The nouveau-wetland, home for scrub jays, alligators, and cypress trees, was “designed to appear timeless and pristine” and offered reparations for draining, deforestation, erosion, and pollution 15 miles away. The preserve, writes Martin, “untethered sites of destruction from sites of care,” while professionalizing ecological restoration and enticing significant proponents within Big Business.

The legal underpinnings for offsite mitigation also paved the way for international carbon offsetting, which Martin critiques as a form of eco-colonialism, empowering the Global North to intensify development while paying the Global South to maintain remnant wildness.

Disappointingly, discussions of efforts to cope with global warming itself — such as via the bio-engineering of heat-resistant coral or the assisted migration of flora and fauna to cooler climates — are confined mostly to the book’s epilogue. Reforestation projects aimed at carbon sequestration receive more analysis, but more on human-rights grounds than on their efficacy.

“How intensively,” asks Martin in her preface, “shall we intervene to help wild species recover from human harms?” This is the “core question” facing ecological restorationists, she claims, though her book raises still more dire ones. Given our history of wrongheaded, shortsighted, and even cruel environmental interventions, successful co-design with nature is clearly not inevitable. Do ecologists, engineers, climatologists, and policy-makers in an age of rapid climate change and mass extinction even know enough to intervene successfully? And in a global society still addicted to material progress, can we muster the will to act fast enough to secure a resilient future?

Aldo Leopold, a pioneering restoration ecologist, wrote in 1938 that “the oldest task in human history [is] to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” As Laura Martin’s astute book illuminates, that task has never been more urgent. The most wrenching question laid bare in Wild by Design remains: Will we have the time to master it?

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2022.]

Julie Dunlap writes and teaches about wildlife ecology, environmental history, and climate change. Her new children’s book is I Begin with Spring: The Life and Seasons of Henry David Thoreau (Tilbury House, March 2022).

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