A political ecology of restoration

In our Introduction to Geography seminar, we just read the book "King of Fish", by the geomorphologist David Montgomery. I highly recommend it, especially to restoration ecologists. Taking a broad perspective on the history of human-salmon relationships, Montgomery addresses the collapse of salmon in both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. He provides details about the various land-use and river management practices that have affected salmon runs, including the conservation/restoration projects that continue to our day.

Montgomery's analysis takes us back thousands of years in order to understand the ecology of salmon and salmon rivers, and brings us deep into the hallways of local, state, federal and international politics that affect salmon runs and their rivers. In this perspective, the genocide of the American Indians and the need for restoration that confronts directly the interests of industry, agriculture and urbanization feature prominently - in contrast with a "wilderness-conservationist" bias of most restoration ecology. What is most important, this "deep" perspective is not a geomorphologist's curiosity, nor a "mere" context for fine-tuned restoration projects. The great importance of Montgomery's work lies in demonstrating how the pursuit of technical fixes, landscape management fine-tuning, and well-intentioned but politically-naive practices have perpetuated and exacerbated the negative feedbacks that continue to endanger salmon and the health and diversity of their ecosystems. (Hatcheries and managed introductions are prominent negative examples, in which restoration ecologists play no minor role.)

Montgomery's book is an excellent example of political ecology targeting a prominent conservation/restoration problem. Unfortunately, I am not sure how much this sort of work is gaining a foothold among the growing disciplines of restoration ecology, landscape architecture, and other land management related fields. The very format of his work as a book with minimal scientific citations and jargon seems to place it outside the scope of journal-publishing-oriented academia, even while particular scientific issues synthesized in his book abound in several scientific journals ranging from conservation biology and geomorphology to hydrological energy and engineering. Along with this brief review, therefore, I am also including a citation to one of Montgomery's articles, where he explicitly addresses restoration ecology as a discipline and makes concrete recommendations for its future development. Unfortunately, the publication date and the schedule of our own seminar might preclude this work from even being considered as part of our top-ten project.

I end this review commenting on a quote from Montgomery's "King of Fish":

"We know more about salmon than ever before. But are we using our knowledge of salmon ecology and fluvial geomorphology to figure out how hard we can press the resource before it collapses, perhaps forever? Many technical debates about the details of salmon recovery proposals seem to be animated by this kind of brinkmanship. In truth, the key to restoring salmon is not our knowledge of fish or streams but our ability to manage ourselves." (Montgomery, 2003: 242)

Natural scientists are among some of the most knowledgeable and, perhaps, even the best intentioned people working on ecological conservation and restoration. Unfortunately, most allow their focus on natural sciences to obscure their understanding of our own human existence embedded in the ecosystem. Taking Montgomery himself as an example, natural scientists can and ought to make a qualitative shift from attempting to apply science to manage "landscapes and ecosystems", to use this knowledge in the explicitly and directly political efforts to manage ourselves.

Gustavo de L. T. Oliveira

"KING OF FISH: The Thousand Year Run of Salmon", David R. Montgomery, Westview Press, 2003.

"Geomorphology and Restoration Ecology", David R. Montgomery, Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education, Volume 134, Issue 1, pages 19–22, July 2006.


  1. Thank you for this contribution! As usual, a good invitation to mindfulness in the way we do science.

    How might one integrate the knowledge of the human role in management into the way scientists conduct research in a system like salmon? I see very clearly how you have involved yourself in real, on the ground struggles, and this has inspired your research... but I'm wondering how best to bring this to something like fisheries. The quote from Montgomery regarding brinksmanship does make a good starting point - at the very least we can be setting targets for 'resource species' which should not be pushing the limits of what the ecosystem can take.

    But at what point does the larger context of capitalism make it hard to address a better management scheme? Like the limitations in Nadasdy's case study with the trophy hunters (I think that was where I saw that). I'm sure the scientists there could have done better, but even if they had, would the economics still have won out? Should the scientists also advocate more directly to the government? Should scientists strive to better inform the public which elects that government?

    I certainly don't want the results of my work to only enhance damage to ecosystems. This is good food for thought.

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  3. According to the article Montgomery's book seems to be centered towards keeping problems like the tragedy of the commons from ever happening again. It's good to see that books like this are being written to keep the public knowledgeable and aware of the environmental issues all around them. If more people understand the harmful effects of overpopulation and overuse they may feel more cautious about haphazardly using a piece of land.