The Case For Passive Restoration

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Nature must  make the decisions for her own welfare.


In the course of doing research for my blog posts and book writing, I recently I came across a term that deeply resonated with me. “Passive Restoration”. It resonated so deeply that I wanted to share it with my readers and followers.

I often get frustrated with those who oversee our public lands. They DynamicTension-7are always trying to “manage” something in the ecosystems that they oversee. We read about things like controlling invasive species and establishing hunting quotas as if these people had done some precise calculation in order to take a certain action or to establish the limits they impose on the public.

It is all poppycock !!! These guys have no way of effectively determining limits because science has taught us that we cannot predict what Nature will do. Our public servants are living in a world of fantasy.

Connections-002It is more accurate, perhaps, to describe the role of regulators in the US Park Service, the Forestry Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management as responding to those who scream the loudest. Usually, those big noisemakers are the farmers and ranchers who are skilled at packing public hearings and raising all sorts of flack to distract our stewards of Nature from their purpose of protecting the ecosystems that they hold in public trust. Lets face it, farmers and ranchers want to use our public lands for grazing and many don’t want to lift a finger to provide non-lethal predator control to protect their livestock. 

Passive restoration is an idea that would certainly trigger a huge Connections-009outcry from our farmers and ranchers. But, it is a great idea for preserving our ecosystems where Nature is allowed to make the decisions for her own welfare. Our public servants won’t have to guess about the right decisions anymore.

In basic terms, passive restoration means “Let Nature take her own course“. A more formal description is: “Passive restoration means simply allowing natural succession to occur in an ecosystem.” The recovery of the deciduous forests in the eastern United States after the abandonment of agriculture is a classic example of passive restoration.  So is the wolf story at Yellowstone National Park.

eBook-1-8Recently, I wrote a blog post entitled “Wolves, Cougars, and Rivers which featured a great video entitled “Lords of Nature. The blog post and the video emphasize the great predators and how things changed after the Gray Wolf was reintroduced and allowed to multiply and roam on its own, without human interference, in Yellowstone National Park.

High Country News has offered an article that interviewed Oregon State University ecologist Bill Ripple who collected data on the wolf reintroduction project. It was this interview where I resonated with the idea of passive restoration.

As wolves reduced the size of the elk herd in the Yellowstone ecosystem, chokecherry, serviceberry and huckleberry flora began to rebound and flourish in a long-term phase of “passive restoration,” Ripple said. In time, and as other food sources declined, berry production might become more and more important as a source of nutrition in the grizzly bears’ diet. It’s humbling, Ripple added, to realize that the cascading effects of wildlife management, or mismanagement, roll in both directions. If too many wolves are killed, the consequences could affect many other species.”

But if we let passive restoration run its course, we might just see some remarkable things happen,” said Ripple. The riparian environment could once again become vibrant nurseries for birds, beaver, and a number of smaller critters.  If you kill too many wolves in Yellowstone, however, their population could drop below the threshold essential to maintaining a vigorous and resilient ecosystem. If that happens, we might as well paint over the petroglyphs, cage the animals, pave the parks, dam the last free-flowing rivers, turn the last old-growth forests into toothpicks and stop pretending that we cherish the wild.

There is a lot to be said for we humans just backing off and letting Nature do her thing. Instead of trying to control Nature, we need to focus on controlling ourselves. What do you think?


Why Do I Write These Essays?

Nothing in Nature exists in isolation. The movement of life’s energy, which originates in the sun, takes place because everything is interconnected and interdependent. Your consciousness of interdependence in Nature means that, every time you engage Nature, you ask yourself how a creature, a plant, yourself, or a natural object is connected to another and to Nature’s greater scheme of things. With this awareness you are prepared to protect Nature’s environment that sustains you. And, you create your legacy by encouraging others to do likewise.


If, after reading my essays, you find yourself embracing these ideas, I am thrilled in knowing that I’ve played some small part in setting this world view in motion in your mind.


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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

15 thoughts on “The Case For Passive Restoration”

  1. It really is time we let Mother Nature take care of herself. We, as humans, always feel the need to control everything around us. It’s just not so. We need to “be” but so does Nature. I hope we have enough of a shift in thinking but our stewards of nature to let the planet live. I’ve seen so many times when Mother Nature heals her wounds after a fire and the live comes back and is the better for it. Why, indeed, do we have to always control?

    In Bill’s last, fabulous blog he wrote about the controling of the wolf and cougar. Their presence is necessary and by man being selfish and greedy upset the balence. We do this often and need to stop. Thank you, Bill for this wonderful blog and a way for others to see some of the real issues that Nature faces. You are doing a great service, in my opinion and I love your blogs. Keep it up!

    1. Thanks Debbi:

      My view is that letting Nature take care of herself means stopping those humans who interfere with Nature’s processes. As George points out above, competent government stewards of Nature working to let Nature be herself despite humanity. I would add that enforcement though education should have a stronger emphasis both with the adults and our youth.

  2. Excellent article William. Can you please express your thoughts on saving habitats for Tigers? I would also like to know your thoughts on this: Letting nature do its job is fine, but considering us humans different from nature, how is this justified? Recently, the behaviour of corals has resonated deeply with me, just as passive restoration has with you. Certain corals are dying because of rising ocean temperatures (I won’t go into whether or not it is anthropogenic)while some corals like the Gorgonian corals are flourishing. I also recently read an article where corals make an important sulphur-based molecule with properties to assist it in many ways, ranging from cellular protection in times of heat stress to local climate cooling by encouraging clouds to form. (Read more at:

    I blog on Green Chemistry and Engineering, environmental issues and sustainability. Please find my blog here:


    1. Hi Anuja: I am flattered that you look to me for thoughts on tigers and coral reefs. Sadly, I have no experience in there areas. But, my general caveats would certainly apply — identifying the crucial interconnections in an ecosystem and working hard to protect those connections because they are the conduits of energy that vitalize and feed the system.

  3. I wrote Bill privately and he asked me to post a portion of my email:

    “I agree and disagree with your recent blog post. Antidotally, while working for BLM the Range staff was wanting to dispose of an isolated 80 acre parcel; mostly never visited by staff. I had looked it over pretty good and was defending keeping it saying, “It is the best managed piece of land in the Resource Are”. A Range Conservationist responded, “We don’t ‘manage’ that piece”. I couldn’t pass up replying, “Exactly”.”

    I said that I also disagreed with Bill; in two areas. First, much of America’s “managed” private and public lands have been severely degraded, all too often to the point that left on their own, the will not recover for hundreds of years. Where this condition occurs it is said that the ecosystem has exceeded the “threshold” for recovery. Skilled ecosystem specialists have a pretty good handle on how to accelerate recovery; albeit expensively. Limited funds may be better spent managing use activities to prevent threshold conditions from being exceeded elsewhere. Alternatively, allowing Passive Recovery would free up funds for restoration intervention where they are most needed.

    The other exception I have is the generalization of “Government” being the bad guy, or even “Ranchers”. In the government land/resource agencies there are many dedicated and passionate specialists who advise and strive to properly functioning ecosystems. Political pressure from Washington DC or Regional offices result in many area managers making decisions contrary to staff recommendation. These staff need to be recognized and supported. Also, not all ranchers hate coyotes. Many recognize the benefit they provide in the bigger picture of their overall ranching operation.

    1. Thank you George for posting your comment. I am thrilled that someone with experience in government service is offering his perspective. I have learned a lot from you in our dialog and I totally agree with everything you’ve said in your comments. I hope a lot of people will read what you’ve written.

  4. Hi Bill, Great post. I think you may be interested in the work EcoLogic does with natural regeneration and agroforestry, all with the ultimate aim of empowering rural communities to be the long-term stewards of nature. This often means just leaving nature alone to restore itself. Sometimes it needs a little help. Agroforestry often uses what are called “acahuales” in Mexico, or fallow plots that reforest more or less on their own, and food is grown with the trees that spring up. One of our Board members, Dr. Robin Chazdon, has done some great research on secondary forest growth – The country of Guatemala also has some neat policies aimed at assisted forest regeneration, where sustainable use in community protected areas and buffer zones of other protected areas helps limit impacts on biodiversity in core zones and elsewhere. EcoLogic’s also involved with the Landscapes for People, Food, and Nature Initiative, which has produced some good research about efforts in Latin America and reports such as this about Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration in Africa

    1. Hi Dave: Thank you so much for the informative comment. I am becoming deeply interested in passive restoration as a workable solution for all of our US stewards of Nature. With it would come a new mindset for many people. I will check out your resources. I want to stay in touch.

      I’m writing a new book on the application of complexity science (ecosystems are complex systems) as a new paradigm for stewards of Nature. See the book description under my ebooks tab (Tangled Web).

      This book will show that the bottom line is that we cannot control nature because we cannot predict the emergent behavior of ecosystems. Therefore, the only viable approach to caring for Nature is passive restoration.

      I’m hoping you can tell us all where you know of such programs that are taking place in the US. I’m beginning to see some – the wolf restoration work at Yellowstone for example is strong proof of the value of passive restoration.

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