Cover photo shows Hannacroix Creek where it empties into the Hudson River, July 2016
In May 2010, I bought about 20 acres (8 ha) of riparian land at the mouth of a Hudson River tributary, 132 miles (212 km) north of New York Harbor. Much of the river is a tidal estuary, making this place part of a globally rare, fresh water tidal habitat. I wanted to learn how to manage this land for its biodiversity and test ways to be rewarded for supporting, rather than undermining, a valuable ecosystem.
About two years later, I was sitting at my desk looking over a wetland of cattails and swamp forest. I was profoundly discouraged. I had been living here long enough to realize that the land I had bought was much disturbed. Valuable top soil, along with its native plants and seeds, had been dug up and sold off. Riparian trees had been cut down to create a river view, which accelerated the invasion of exotic shrubs and vines. Rather than a biologically rich corner of the Hudson River, I was looking at a scrap of land so overgrown it was impassable, smothering a variety of native plants and the life they could support.
I knew that if I wanted to restore these acres to some greater biological health, I had to remove the invasives and encourage the native plants to return. I had begun clearing and replanting the garden around the house, but the larger forest and swamp were beyond me. I lacked the strength, knowledge and tools to tackle that challenge on my own. Worse, after moving here during the Great Recession, my freelance income had crashed and not yet recovered, so I was using my savings to meet monthly bills. How could I afford to hire anyone to do the work I knew was needed? If I borrowed money to have the work done, what income would ever repay the loan?
That moment made me realize that environmental restoration is always a gift: a gift of the government, of a rich philanthropist, a charitable organization or anyone with the strength, interest and budget to take on the task. It is never a business in its own right, an intrinsic part of our economic system with a clear business logic involving suppliers, markets, agreed prices and recognized financial returns. Instead, the restoration of wild ecosystems always depends on income from another source: tourists dollars, the sale of food crops or timber, money earned off-site, or government subsidies financed by our taxes.
With a few exceptions, markets rarely compensate landowners directly for improving water quality or controlling floods, for providing habitats for animals, birds or amphibians, or for sequestering carbon. A business or landowner might be fined for harming these eco-system services, but is rarely rewarded for improving them. On the contrary: the local cement plant in my town profits from destroying the escarpment that provides its raw materials while generating harmful air emissions and waste in the process.
These are the rules of the game. We use them so implicitly that many people cannot see where they are leading. Some of us know the rules undermine the ecological resilience of the planet which then threatens the social resilience of humankind. The rules, however, are more powerful than such knowledge on its own.
So what are we learning now about changing the logic and rules of a harmful human system? Part 2 of this blog considers the alternatives.