Chronicling the heroes who are restoring the US environment

In John Berger's view, conservation of natural resources is not enough. What's needed, he says, is restoration of the ``millions of acres of damaged land and thousands of miles of polluted rivers'' that blight the American landscape. That's a massive undertaking. But as Mr. Berger's new book, ``Restoring the Earth: How Americans are Working to Renew Our Damaged Environment,'' illustrates, it's one that highly motivated individuals can tackle.

The book documents the men and women Berger calls ``restoration heroes.'' People like Marion Stoddart, whose passion for ``greenways'' and clear water led to the cleanup of the horribly polluted Nashua River in west-central Massachusetts; Tony Look, whose boyhood love for redwoods grew into a triumphant campaign to save the huge trees in California's Big Basin; and Fred Ulishney, a rough-hewn Pennsylvania miner whose greatest love is restoring land to beauty once a coal seam has been exhausted.

These individuals, and dozens of others whose stories are told in Berger's volume, exhibit extraordinary energy and commitment. Not everyone could make the sacrifices of time and income they have made. But Berger believes their work is paving the way for a widespread movement that could ``rekindle grass-roots enthusiasm.''

These ``pioneers'' have developed restoration techniques -- from preventing excessive algae growth in lakes to replanting prairies and salt marshes -- that are ``not beyond the reach of average individuals,'' Berger said during a recent interview in the Monitor's offices. He hopes that his book will spark interest in environmental restoration throughout the country. Down the line, he speculates, grass-roots involvement will lead to governmental commitment. ``I think we should have an American restoration corps devoted to restoring our forests and streams,'' he says.

Berger draws a sharp distinction between ``restoration'' and ``reclamation.'' The latter term, he says, often means altering land or water resources for human use. Traditionally, it has been the designation for government action, as in the Federal Bureau of Reclamation, with its huge irrigation systems.

``What I have in mind by `restoration' is something completely different -- repair of the ecosystem to re-create the native community,'' explains the author, a longtime writer on environmental subjects who is pursuing a doctorate in environmental studies at the University of California at Davis. ``Native community'' refers to the original assemblage of wildlife and plants that inhabited an area, even down to the insects crucial to a food chain (which were, in fact, an element in the restoration of the Quashnet River on Cape Cod, one of the book's chapters).

Again, he emphasizes that all this is far from easy, and that it often entails taking one step backward for every two steps forward. ``Each restoration needs to be evaluated individually,'' he says. In some instances, native species may not exist any longer -- seeds of indigenous plants may be impossible to obtain, for example. In that case, he says, it becomes a matter of making do with the resources available.

Relatively little is being done in the academic realm with regard to environmental restoration, he says. The University of Wisconsin, though, recently decided to establish a center devoted to the subject. Berger says that may help bring needed coordination to restoration efforts.

Berger is now traveling the country to drum up support for a TV series based on his book. ``Thus far,'' he says, ``the response is very encouraging. They [public television officials] think it has good TV potential. . . . But so far, nobody has stepped forward with the $2 million or $3 million necessary.''

Berger is confident, however, that the funding will materialize. And he is equally confident that the accounts in his book will ignite enthusiasm for environmental restoration. With almost evangelical earnestness, he describes the characteristics shared by the ``pioneers'' whom he sought out over seven years of research.

They're ``gritty idealists,'' he says, ``pragmatic and visionary at the same time.'' They're ``willing to pay the price of leadership,'' putting in ``hours, years, of volunteer effort.''

``Usually,'' Berger expands, warming to a subject close to his heart, ``people start by themselves -- bootstrapping a project -- to achieve some small symbolic success in order to rally the support of others, and of some funders.'' Take, for example, Brian and Cheryl Walton, who have devoted their lives to saving birds of prey, particularly the critically endangered peregrine falcon. The couple's living space and much of their savings were absorbed by the falcon hatchery they set up. Brian Walton worked on the project without pay for at least a year.

Such people have the satisfaction of knowing they've helped restore a priceless link in nature's handiwork, he says. And for most, he asserts, that knowledge more than repays their efforts.

Berger contends that his idealism need not conflict with economic imperatives. ``Often, biological productivity [the goal of restoration] and economic productivity go hand in hand,'' he observes. He quotes a former mayor of Fitchburg, Mass., saying that the cleanup of the Nashua River -- including construction of two water treatment plants -- helped save industry that might otherwise have shut down because of environmental infractions. The cleanup also greatly boosted land values.

As important, Berger adds, is the ``social justice'' issue involved in restoration efforts -- justice for future generations. ``We don't want to deprive them of the right to experience clean air, clean water, and wilderness.''

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